environment film human rights

Avatar: a modern parable

Lou and I went to see Avatar in 3D at the weekend, and as well as being a feast for the eyes and an opportunity to wear Clark Kent style glasses, it’s also a film with environmental and social justice themes and well worth a mention here.

If you haven’t come across it yet, Avatar is the much hyped new film from James Cameron, the director of Titanic. (Since he hasn’t made a movie for 12 years and the last one was the highest grossing film of all time, the hype is perhaps understandable.) It is set in the future, on a planet called Pandora. Earth is a desert wasteland, we learn, and the key to its energy needs is a rare element which is found in large quantities under Pandora’s lush rainforests. Unfortunately, the forest is home to a tall blue humanoid race called the Na’vi, who are in no hurry to give it up.

To communicate with them, the humans have developed an avatar programme, a Matrix-like operation that allows trained operatives to enter Na’vi bodies and walk amongst them. Tensions begin to rise between the scientists who are using the avatars to study the Na’vi and negotiate with them, and those who prefer the rockets and bulldozers approach to moving them on, and just want military intelligence.

I’ll say no more about the story, as it doesn’t take much to give it away. Suffice to say the humans don’t come out of the film very well. Like Wall-E, we’ve used up our own resources and need a new planet. Like the more recent District 9, the aliens are “fly-bitten savages” who are in our way. Both of those films made points about our attitudes to the environment and each other, and so does Avatar. The Na’vi understand their connections to every other living thing. They have a real reverence for nature and live in harmony with their surroundings, an alien rainforest that twinkles with mystical energy and is quite unlike anything you’ve seen at the cinema before. The humans, by contrast, are driven by technology and avarice. The mining operations must proceed, and the devastation of indigenous cultures and ecosystems is regrettable but unavoidable.

It reminded me very directly of the situation in Peru at the moment, where the Amazonian people have resorted to rioting and guerrilla warfare to protect their lands after a new law opened up vast swathes of rainforest for oil and gas exploration. I thought of the residents of the Isle of Harris and their fight to stop Mount Roineabhal being turned into Europe’s largest quarry, a story I read recently in Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul. Monbiot saw the conquest of the Americas. You could just as easily see the actions of Shell in the Niger Delta, Rio Tinto in Papua New Guinea, Texaco in Ecuador, and perhaps most obviously the invasion of Iraq. The military in Avatar refer to using “shock and awe” tactics, and there are plenty of reviewers dismissing the film as anti-American leftist propaganda. (Here’s an article in the Telegraph describing it ascynical and deeply unpatriotic.”)

Avatar is imaginative, visually stunning, and very entertaining, but I hope its legacy is more than that. Its point may be somewhat unsubtle and the storyline a little predictable, but it is still a story that desperately needs to be told. It needs to be felt, and those real-world parallels must be seen. The questions it raises deserve answers – what do we value most? How much are we prepared to sacrifice to continue our unjust and unsustainable way of life?

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  1. Spot on. One could easily predict who wasn’t going to like it. The ones that only slightly surprised me where the technophiles who didn’t like see high tech beaten by low tech, with some throwing in laments over white guilt films. My post that pointed out the same thing was still happening today in the Amazon wasn’t worthy of being accepted.

    The story is unsubtle, but unfortunately some humans continue to be this crude.

    1. Yes, some fairly predicable critical voices, but it doesn’t seem to be slowing the film’s popularity in any way. I noticed it’s the fastest film to ever make a billion dollars, which makes it a little ironic to be recommending it on a site called make wealth history…

  2. I just wonder how will people who aren’t anti or pro eco, take the message? Esp given we just had Copenhagen.

    The other point I’d like to raise is the racist white guilt film by those critical of the film saying it is just another Dances with Wolves. But to my mind the guilt is well deserved.

    Jeremy, given that a good % of the wealth in the UK was gained through the exploitation of other peoples and lands what responsibility do current UK citizens have to descendants of those lands or to the poor in general?

    Throw in some ethics of finite resources and responsibility for Climate Change and ethical citizens of wealthy nations have some hard choices to make.

  3. As the executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, one of the oldest and largest shareholder activist organizations whose members have worked on Corporate Social Responsibility as far back as 1971 and the struggle to end Apartheid, I have to say that parables are usually simple, stunning stories designed to change human behavior. This is no doubt why they have been part of prophecy since “faith” was invented! Avatar tells an old story, with new resonance in a visully stunning way. Thanks for this reflection.

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