Right now, there are two forces at play in our world. One of them is swirling into a mess of ecological collapse, rising neo-fascist ideologies and economic instability. The other is the amazing fact that we have new “Star Wars” movies.
Maybe these forces don’t seem remotely similar, but — as an organizer who can trace his own history of resistance to an early affinity for the Rebel Alliance — I think there’s an important lesson we need to learn from Han, Luke and Leia in a moment like this: Rebellions win, even against impossible odds, when they fight in unexpected ways. Conversely, they lose when they fight on their opponent’s terms.
The greatest Rebel victories in the original “Star Wars” trilogy were the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Endor (or to those not versed in the military history of a fictional universe, the times they blew up the first Death Star and the time they blew up the second Death Star). The Rebellion’s greatest defeat, on the other hand, was the Battle of Hoth, where the Empire discovered the hidden Rebel base on an ice planet and proceeded to wipe it out in a ground assault.
In the first two examples, the Rebellion used clever tactics, exploiting a fundamental weakness in the Imperial design. The first Death Star was taken out when Luke Skywalker made a “one-in-a-million” shot, using his space wizard powers, to send a torpedo down a narrow exhaust port that was, apparently, the size of a “womp rat.” The second Death Star was defeated when the Rebels managed to take out its shields, overcoming the trap set by the big bad Emperor — but only after they allied with the Ewoks, a local population oppressed and denigrated by the Imperial occupation on the forest moon of Endor.
Alternately, the Battle of Hoth is one of the few times in the movies that the Rebellion gets thoroughly trounced by the Empire. It also happens to the be only on-screen example of the Rebels and the Empire engaged in conventional warfare — in a battlefield severely weighted in favor of the Imperial juggernaut. In fact, you could argue that the Battle of Hoth’s would have been worse had the space wizardry of young Skywalker not taken out a series of Imperial Walkers single-handedly.
Social movements, like the Rebellion, are different than the forces they go up against. They never have the resources or the dominance of force held by their opponents and oppressors. Knowing this, it seems ridiculous to engage in a conventional confrontation with said opponent because, much like the Rebellion on Hoth, the Imperial forces are just stronger in that kind of fight. Yet, many activists, whether intentionally or not, seem hell-bent on a ground war with their opponent. The rise of a “blockadia” strategy in the climate movement is a case in point.
Popularized in Naomi Klein’s book “This Changes Everything,” the term blockadia was a clever descriptor for the localized resistance to fossil fuel extraction that had blossomed around the globe. The term originally seemed to describe a plethora of campaigns against fossil fuel projects, be they a coal mine in Germany, a pipeline in Canada or any number of fossil fuel export projects in the northwestern United States. Although they were focused on infrastructure, these campaigns were largely using on-the-ground conflict to spark moral outrage that would motivate political or social action to stop the project. They weren’t, by and large, attempting to actually blockade the project out of existence.
While such action has been romanticized by some on the left, it’s not a very strategic idea. The fossil fuel industry has more money than most people can even imagine, myself included — and my imagination led me to write “Star Wars” fan fiction. They have direct access to decision makers at nearly every level and, with that, often direct influence over law enforcement and other manifestations of state power. The few times they don’t have the ability to deploy police or military to enforce injunctions or impede efforts to stop their operations, they have the ability to hire out private security and intelligence contractors. They are, in short, a sort of Empire. Seriously, remember when David Koch dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween not just once, but two years running?
Up against this reality, the idea that a small band of dedicated rebels can confront the fossil fuel industry head-on — and somehow chip away at it’s billions-deep coffers thousands, or even millions, of dollars at a time — and send the oil barons running to the hills just doesn’t add up. In fact, it puts our movements into a Battle of Hoth-type situation rather than the kind of scenario where the Rebellion won.
We need to find the veritable “exhaust ports” in the plans for building new fossil fuel projects. We need to identify weaknesses, like a project’s social license, or reputation within a community — something that has mired tar sands pipelines in Canada in years of delays. We need more restrictive measures, like local permitting, which have denied oil train projects in California and effectively blocked a pipeline in Portland, Maine. There are creative examples to draw from, like the artist in Alberta who stymied a pipeline company by copyrighting the top six inches of his property as artwork.
Even the Keystone XL campaign — Trump’s plans to reverse the victory notwithstanding — was a kind of exhaust port strategy. Rather than try to just physically stop the project, the campaign focused in on a singular decision by a president who was vulnerable on climate. And, rather than trying to just financially outlast the project’s wealthy proponents, organizers united an unprecedented alliance in Nebraska, which will continue to be a thorn in the side of pipeline company TransCanada, should the project be resurrected.
On top of all this, there is the ever powerful force of indigenous rights struggles that continue to stop and stall projects — like Standing Rock or the indigenous-led legal fight that overturned the approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline in Canada earlier this year. In fact, a study looking at oil, gas and mining sites operated by 52 U.S.-based companies found that a staggering 92 percent of these operations were exposed to “medium to high [shareholder] risk” because of indigenous rights and empowerment struggles.
The fossil fuel empire doesn’t know how to fight on these fronts. Much like the Rebel victories that were able to draw more star systems into their cause, every permit that gets revoked, every community that rejects the industry’s presence, and every other small win will serve as inspiration to others.
The key, however, is that we avoid fighting the fossil fuel empire on its terms. We have to find its weak points, strategize and take advantage of those moments where we have a clear shot. It won’t always be clear, and sometimes we’re going to miss, but like Jynn Erso says in the trailer for the upcoming “Rogue One” movie, “Rebellions are built on hope.”
As the left increasingly focuses on electoral politics, a new framework is emerging for how candidates who win should partner with social movements.
As autocrats become savvier in using technology to repress dissent, activists are striving to preserve the benefits of digital activism and mitigate the risks.
Environmental activist Evgeniya Chirikova once helped save a forest in Moscow. Now she’s trying to give voice to Russian activists and journalists resisting Putin’s regime.