Storytelling for the Future: Permaculture, Star Wars and Mythology
If you have never seen any of the ‘Star Wars’ films, you may be forgiven for thinking that Thursday, the fourth of May, is not any particularly special date. But then again, you probably have seen at least one of them, since they are part of one of the most popular movie franchises in the world (1), and even if you haven’t, you have probably heard the phrase “May the Force be with you”. Perhaps you also know, then, that this phrase has been moulded into the specific date of May the Fourth, now known as International Star Wars Day (2). But how is Star Wars connected to permaculture? Can we take inspiration in our designs and actions from the characters of the films? And how, as part of the wider range of our cultural stories, do the ‘Star Wars’ films represent an impetus for us to explore our own heroic potential?
We have been telling stories probably since we first developed language. It is only in the last sixty years of so, however, that a man named Joseph Campbell, building on the work of Adolf Bastian, Carl. G. Jung and many others, began demonstrating that throughout history and in all cultures, the stories we tell can be seen to follow the same elementary patterns of our so-called “collective unconscious”: “Religions, philosophies, arts…prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, [all] boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.” (3)
But why, if all of the stories we tell throughout history follow the same themes and characters, do we need new stories? For Campbell, this is one of the key questions of our times. He explored how “myths”, or stories we tell as a culture, are a necessary part of human existence. They help us to make sense of our world, learn and personify agreed societal values, and transcend our own personal and cultural problems to connect better with the world and ourselves (see for example 3).
Going beyond the pale
Many myths can be seen to be so similar that Campbell created a formula to show the basic story structure, which he calls ‘The Hero’s Journey’ (3).
The hero starts out in their own ordinary world, but something causes them to leave – possibly a problem or a desire to find something better. This is the ‘Call to Adventure’ (3). The hero receives help, usually from someone older or wiser than them, and then leaves their home or old world, entering an unknown realm. Here he or she faces many trials, culminating in the ultimate trial, where they face their darkest fear. This “ordeal” results in some kind of “death”, though, as Campbell often repeated, the death, like all aspects of the story, is a metaphor.
Following this the hero goes through some kind of fundamental change or transcendence and is “reborn” with some kind of “boon” or gift. Then follows the most difficult part of the journey; the return. The hero has succeeded in finding the resolution to their problem but now they have to bring the gifts to their old society, who, since they did not go through the same ordeal, do not understand what they are bringing to them. The hero returns home but they are not the same person; they have to learn how to integrate their learnings into their new life, and to translate what they have to offer into a language which those around them can understand.
Lucas and permaculture
What does all of this comparative mythology have to do with ‘Star Wars’? Well…Quite a lot, actually. George Lucas was a fan of Joseph Campbell and the first ‘Star Wars’ films are his own interpretation of the hero’s journey (4). Luke Skywalker has to leave his home after the stormtroopers destroy it along with his only known living relatives- the ‘call to adventure’. He receives help from an elder person – Obi Wan-Kenobi, and together they leave everything Luke has ever been familiar with and enter the realm of the unknown (5). There he faces some trials and…well, you know the story. Or, if you don’t, you can find out for yourself.
The hero’s journey can also be seen as very closely related to permaculture. Most of the people who use permaculture in our lives were not taught it as part of our cultural norm. We had to go outside of all of the things we were told were possible in order to discover it and find ways of using permaculture to create solutions. Then we have brought these ways to our friends, families, communities, and societies, often facing great resistance, scepticism or even condemnation. The fact the permaculture community continues to grow and flourish is testimony to the perseverance of all the permaculture heroes out there.
Stories for inspiration
One key way in which we can continue to encourage a culture which is based on principles of mutual benefit, abundance and consideration is – yes, you guessed it – through telling stories. To have an effect our stories have to reflect the changing world we live in. Chris Taylor, author of ‘How Star Wars conquered the Universe’ (6), calls ‘Star Wars’ “the first myth we embraced as a global culture” (7), so as a story it must have some kind of deep human resonance at this time.
One appealing things about it is the sheer number of characters, for whom you are free to imagine whatever back story you like. A particularly inspiring example for us could be Luke’s aunt and uncle, who live on a desert planet and yet are farming successfully. The film does not really go into their methods in detail – Luke’s uncle Owen simply describes the farm as having “vaporators” (5). The portrayal of a desert world in which every drop of water is precious can be seen as an effective way to get us to consider our own water use and how we can be more considerate and energy efficient with this most precious resource. Indeed, this is the theme of another sci-fi classic, ‘Dune’.
The 1984 Oscar-nominated film of ‘Dune’ (8) goes a little into how the ‘Fremen’ native inhabitants of a precipitation-free desert planet work with water (8). The book which it is based on, written by Frank Herbert in 1965 (9), unsurprisingly goes into a little more detail, exploring how rainwater harvesting could work in such an arid climate (9).
Water in Dune can be seen as a metaphorical symbol from which we can take important messages. However, Herbert was also a real-life ecologist and rainwater harvester, and dedicated the books to “the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’—to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work” (10)
From Tattoine and Arrakis to…Earth?
As mentioned, one of the most important things about storytelling is to be able to recognise what is a metaphor which is useful as a symbol in our lives but not to be taken literally, and what we can potentially use as inspiration in a real-life example. For example, rainwater-harvesting devices and water vapour condensers have existed for many decades, but last year, ‘Star Wars’ fan and mechanical engineer Kyu Chul-Park developed a type of membranous coating which could be used to condense water vapour from the air at a rate “ten times faster than any other known material” (10).
Would he have developed the material if he hadn’t felt his throat drying up as he watched Luke walking through the desert of Tattoine? Maybe so. But maybe the fact that the stories exist meant that the real technology could be developed faster.
If you think about it, many technological devices which we use on a daily basis today were imagined by sci-fi writers in the not-so-far-distant past. ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series (11, 12) features an electronic book connected to a galaxy-wide database (11), which we would of course recognise now as a search engine and e-reader, though Douglas Adams first created the radio series back in 1978 (11). The same series also features the Babel fish, a tiny fish that feeds on brain-wave patterns, which, when inserted into the ear, helps you to understand instantly any language which is spoken to you (11, 12). Now we have Google Translate, which maybe still has some way to go, although last year Waverly Labs (13) brought out a ‘Pilot Translating Earpiece’ (14), which seems to be designed to do something very similar to the Babel fish, though without the potential inconvenience of fish excretions in your inner ear.
Making our own myths
Such examples show the sheer power storytelling can have. With stories we can inspire others to help make a better world and so literally create our futures. From this point of view, if we really want to use permaculture to help as many people as possible, perhaps we need to be creating more stories about its benefits. That is, not course materials or Design Certificates (although these are of course important too), but actual stories, ones with heroes and adventures, trials and perils, and, eventually, resolution and integration. We can also relate the benefits of permaculture to stories; as well as the ecological aspects of ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Dune’, there already exist some examples of stories from popular culture which encourage ecological thinking and mutual respect, some of the most famous perhaps being those of Japanese writer and director Hayao Mayazaki, in particular ‘Princess Mononoke’ (15) and ‘Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds’ (16).
These make it easier to talk about concepts such as permaculture and to encourage ecologically regenerative actions because people respond to stories in a very fundamental way. Permaculture concepts on their own may be difficult to grasp, but if you relate it to water-harvesting on Tattooine imagine how many more people you could potentially inspire. Problems of deforestation and increased soil toxicity may seem depressing but if we can imagine them being solved by the trees petrifying and repurifying the soil like in ‘Nausicaa’ it can give us ideas for solutions.
As Joseph Campbell put it,
“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known…” (3)
Whatever kind of stories you end up telling, as well as the heroes of all time being with you, may the force be too.
1.Wood, J, 2015. ‘The Highest-Grossing Movie Franchises of all Time’. Mental Floss,8/11/15. http://mentalfloss.com/article/70920/10-highest-grossing-movie-franchises-all-time
2. Star Wars, 2017. ‘May the Fourth be with You’. http://www.starwars.com/may-the-4th
3. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon: New York City
4. Moyers, B, 1988. ‘Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth’. PBC, 1988.
5. Lucasfilm Ltd, 1977. Star Wars.
6. Taylor, C, 2014. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multi-billion Dollar Franchise. Brilliance Audio: Grand Haven, Michigan, USA.
7. Taylor, C; Hidalgo, P; Sansweet, S, 2016. ‘Studying Skywalkers: May the Fourth and the Cultural Significance of Star Wars’. Star Wars, 4/5/16.
8. Dino de Laurentis Corporation, 1984. Dune.
9. Herbert, F, 1965. Dune. Chilton Books: Philadelphia, USA.
10. Herkewitz, W, 2016. ‘Wonder Material Mimics Desert Beetles and Cacti to Suck Water out of Thin Air’. Popular Mechanics, 24/2/16. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/a19598/beetle-inspired-water-collecting-supermaterial/
11. Adams, D, 1978. ‘The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. BBC Radio 4: London, UK.
12. Adams, D, 1979.The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Pan Books: London, UK.
13. Waverly Labs, 2017. ‘Company’. http://www.waverlylabs.com/company/
14. Waverley Labs, 2017. ‘The Pilot Translating Earpiece’. http://www.waverlylabs.com/pilot-translation-kit/
15. Studio Ghibli, Tokuma Shoten, Nippon Television, Dentsu (Japan), Miramax (USA), 1997. Princess Mononoke.
16. Topcraft, 1984. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds.