On the first day of Chanukah, my family and I went to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The influence of Christian and Buddhist traditions on George Lucas and the Star Wars franchise is well-documented by scholars, as is the mythographical work of the late Joseph Campbell (particularly his book The Hero with One Thousand Faces). Have no fear…despite my headline I don’t have any intention of fabricating a lineage of Jewish thinking to Star Wars; but I was delighted to see the movie during Chanukah, and found the timing fortuitous in this troubling era.
It would also be easy to talk politics. Legions of scholars, journalists, and film critics have noted how the Star Wars franchise rejects totalitarian politics, using Nazi-era style and rhetoric to reveal the moral bankruptcy of fascism. Of course this remains relevant in today’s world, where we once again struggle against populist demagogues around the world and once again see the forced confinement and abuse of outsiders (two examples: migrant families in the U.S., Muslims in both India and China).
But I’m thinking climate change. Science tells us that people don’t accept the science of climate change but they do accept the reality of climate change and want to act on that reality if we talk about it (the irony of science both winning and losing here is not lost on me). I think Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker helps us talk about it. But first, why Chanukah?
Chanukah is not really about a magic lamp or magic oil. Sure, the story tells us that there wasn’t enough oil to keep the lamp burning and reconsecrate the despoiled Temple in Jerusalem: miracle of the light and all that. But Chanukah is really a celebration of an impossible military victory by the people against an oppressive government that denied them the right to be Jews (literally: Judaism was outlawed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes who then profaned the Temple by sacrificing a pig in it). Well, the Maccabees led a revolt (beginning in 167 BCE), and after some years they sent the Seleucid rulers packing and celebrated a victory of the people against supposedly overwhelming odds (you can hear the Maccabeats’ wonderfully catchy song about it here).
Right now, the impossible odds of beating our self-imposed environmental disasters loom large in our world. Not all the problems are due to carbon consumption: for example, insects are in rapid decline all over the globe, and their deaths mean the potential collapse of ecosystems all over the world. But the potential for massive and irreversible climate catastrophe (caused primarily by burning fossil fuels) means that the world my children will inherit seems grim beyond measure. This is largely due to decisions made in large industries…did you know the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions? How are we to overcome the political obstacles and human greed that drive climate change? How can we defeat corporate lobbyists, ruling oligarchs, and the sycophantic politicians who cannot resist them?
Whether it’s about politics or climate change, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker speaks to the power of people in our shared hopes, dreams, and future. In the end, it is not a solitary Skywalker who can defeat evil, but the assembly of people from all across the galaxy. Responding to our climate crisis requires that we talk about it. Responding requires science, art, literature, and politics. It requires hope. It requires that we respond to a call for justice. Star Wars tells us that rebellions are built on hope. We can rebel against the economic and political models which will otherwise bring us to ruin. Together, let’s fight for a beautiful world.
p.s. Thanks to Disney for the pilfered image