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What Star Wars can teach us about the ecology of a Type I civilization

On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


It is a trope long held that there are some *problems* with the ecosystems of the Star Wars universe. The worlds of Star Wars are monobiomes. We have the desert planets of Jakku and Tatooine; the ice planet of Hoth; the forest moon of Endor; the jungles of Yavin IV; the lava world of whatever that mess was in Revenge of the Sith. This is, of course, not limited to Star Wars, science fiction is resplendent with monobiomes. But natural worlds are not uniform. Diversity builds over distance. Isolation shapes and reshapes population. Ecosystems do not generally strive to approach a global equilibrium state.

Even though all known viable planets have ecosystem diversity, this trope continues to dominate popular science fiction. We love monobiomes.

But what if the trope is right?

Almost 100 years ago, Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev proposed an eponymous scale to classify civilizations. Roughly, a Type I Civilization can capture or produce the same amount of energy equivalent to the solar insolation on Earth. A Type II civilization can produce the equivalent energy of its solar system (i.e. harness the full power of the sun). A Type III Civilization can do the same for all sun in its galaxy. We hover somewhere just south of Type I, but the Galactic Republic of Star Wars lies somewhere between a Type II and a Type III.

From the planetary perspective, any occupied world in the Star Wars universe has access to functionally limitless energy. When was the last time someone in Star Wars had to swap out batteries or stop for fuel? The Millennium Falcon sat for decades in the desert and then popped out into the galaxy without any trouble, despite being just another hunk of junk. With the exception of the very largest star-sucking super weapons, energy simply isn’t a major limitation in a Type II+ Civilization.

Here’s the problem: in a Type II+ Civilization, transportation is trivial. It’s cheap and easy. The technology is so good that it’s nearly impossible to restrict or regulate. You can drop down anywhere on a planet and when you’re ready to leave, you can go literally anywhere. It must be a huge headache for hyperspace regulators.

Transportation is not just trivial in space, though, it is also functionally limitless on-planet, too. Landspeeders, transports, sand crawlers, and speeder bikes cruise across the planet. Hopping between your moisture farm, the Cantina, and Toshe station is a trivial task, measured in minutes.

Each vehicle is a vector.

One of the touchstone phenomena when exploring the diversity and distribution of life on Earth (or any other planet) is something called isolation by distance. Generally speaking, distance acts as a barrier to dispersal. The further two populations, species, or ecosystems are from each other, in term of physical distance, the less often those groups interact and the more dissimilar they are. Isolation is a driver of diversity.

So what happens when those barriers break down? What happens when distance becomes such a trivial issue that the phenomenon of isolation by distance ceases to function? At a small scale, what happens is we get invasive species. Invasive species occur when a species from one part of the world is introduced to another part of the world where it previously didn’t exist. That species then, lacking natural predators, overwhelms native species, extirpates them, and takes over the ecosystem.

Habitat destruction and extinction follow.

But species invasions have been, until recently, a fairly localized problem. introductions happened as small, discrete events rather than as continuous invasions. That’s why we can look at the DNA of a population and tell the difference between invasion, range expansion, and re-introduction.

But that’s just one invasion. What happens when species invasion is a continuous process, driven by unlimited travel across the globe?

Global Norming.

Absent the barrier of isolation-by-distance, and with enhanced transport via technanthropic vectors, global ecosystems will gradually move towards homogeneity. Dominant species for specific regions and ecosystems become the dominant species for all habitats that support them, around the world. Unique biodiversity vanishes, out-competed by the most adaptive and the most fecund species.

We are seeing this already on our own planet. Lionfish dominate the Atlantic seaboard, snakeheads shape the freshwater estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay. Zebra mussels command our inland seas. Everywhere where humans have major shipping operations, we see fewer endemic species and more cosmopolitan species. Today, the Arctic and Antarctic look eerily similar, as do the rainforests of South America and Papua New Guinea.

We are barely a Type I Civilization, if that. As we rise towards technological dominance over first our planet, then our solar system, we can expect to see significant changes not just in the number of species, but in the diversity and distribution of those species. We began this century by declaring that we were in the midst of the 6th Mass Extinction. We have also begun the inexorable slide towards Global Homogenization.

That brings us back to the worlds of Star Wars. These are ecologically homogenous planets, not because of the laziness of science fiction writers, but because, thanks to thousands of years of galactic civilization and near-limitless transportation, these planets have homogenized. The ecosystem of Endor is an expression of the flora and fauna that dominate a world where isolation-by-distance no longer functions to retain biodiversity. Tatooine may have once held a vibrant circumpolar jungle, were it not for the grazing of Equatorial dewbacks and the import of dessert megafauna by the Hutts.

How, and indeed whether or not we can, deal with this crisis will be one of the defining struggles for mid-century conservation.

May the force be with us.


On January 1, 2016, the Southern Fried Science central server began uploading blog posts apparently circa 2041. Due to a related corruption of the contemporary database, we are, at this time, unable to remove these Field Notes from the Future or prevent the uploading of additional posts. Please enjoy this glimpse into the ocean future while we attempt to rectify the situation.


Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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