I blog about environmental and social justice issues because I am very concerned about the health of the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

Melting Arctic ice.......beautiful and frightening!

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Two Things: Avatar and a Book (and a Spoiler Alert)

Please don't read this post if you don't want to hear about the plot of Avatar.

I had just read The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World (Wade Davis, 2009) when I went to see Avatar.  The movie is sensational entertainment: it is also a vehicle for James Cameron's environmental message.  The book is heavier going - it  discusses human cultures and the ethnosphere -  it reminds us  that " the path that we (the developed world) have taken is not the only one available .... by their very existence, the diverse cultures of the world bear witness " to different ways of living.

Avatar describes humans mining the planet Pandora for "unobtainium," a commercially valuable mineral.  (The name of the mineral is a Buddhist remark on the impossibility of ever satisfying our unending desires.) The only thing that hinders the humans (and the corporation they work for)  are the stubborn  inhabitants of Pandora  refusing to accept their eviction : the "aliens'"  "Home Tree" grows on a monstrous deposit of unobtainium. Moreover,  Pandora's atmosphere  is toxic to humans.  Therefore, in order to move about Pandora uninhibited by breathing masks, human scientists have genetically engineered human - alien  bodies called Avatars, which are controlled by genetically matched human operators.   The ostensible purpose for the Avatars was to enable human anthropologists to gather information about Pandora's cultures - but the head of security for the mining corporation subverts an Avatar operator - and persuades the operator to give him military information on the Pandoran's home site.  The head of security, Quaritch,  is quite sure that force will be required to get the aliens to leave their home: in fact, he is very anxious to fight.   Pandora is green, vibrant, beautiful, (and deadly.) The indigenous peoples live in harmony with their world as they understand it is a sentient being derserving of respect.  The mining company and its representatives, on the other hand,  are depicted as understanding nothing but profit - they are busy turning paradise into a toxic slag heap over the bodies of the locals.

In fact, James Cameron's movie is a comment on Western culture.  Quaritch's remarks about the indigenous inhabitants of Pandora are lifted directly from European colonizers' statements about the indigenous populations they were destroying. Teddy Roosevelt, speaking of official US government policy to extirpate buffalo to eliminate the First Nations cultures of the Great Plains that " The settler and pioneer have justice on their side , this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages."  The director of the mining operation referred to Pandorans as "savages."

But Avatar is not merely a comment on history: it is an stinging visual idictment of economic growth without consideration of environmental limits. In The Wayfinders, Wade Davis states that
We too are culturally myopic and often forget ....that modernity - whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade is but an expression of cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture.  And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history....
to define economic growth on a finite planet as the sole measure of economic growth is to engage in a form of slow collective suicide.
The characters in the movie fighting to save Pandora from destruction for a profit, both Pandoran and human,  could easily have made the same remarks.  James Cameron is seeking to shift our worldview: he is trying to wake the world up to the dangers of climate change caused by unlimited economic growth without consideration of ecological limits.   So go to  the movie. Use the movie to trigger dicussions and a greater understanding of our culture's "slow collective suicide."  Read the book to gain an understanding of different possibilites for our culture.

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