Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The ecopolitics of Avatar

James Cameron’s latest film, Avatar, is, as far as I can judge, a highly significant film, at least as important as the first two Terminator films (and in a related sense, Titanic) directed by him. It has been criticised in various quarters as just another maudlin love story (it recalls the story of Pocahontas, among others), and — by the neoconservative press — as dangerously vindicating insurgents’ actions, presumably in Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam (among other, at one time or another “occupied” countries). But although the conservative take on it is symptomatic of a nerve being struck by the film, I believe that its most powerful impact lies in its ecological — specifically ecopolitical — implications.

To be sure, one should not underestimate the importance of the film’s undisguised criticism of historical colonial excesses — who can fail to recognise the theme of violently occupying the land of “savages” (“blue monkeys”), with a view to extracting valuable, naturally occurring materials for purposes of profit, as having several historical referents? And whether it was in the Americas or in Africa, such rapacious appropriation of highly prized metals like gold, for instance, usually went hand in hand with the decimation, if not virtual extermination of the local populations. Small wonder that neoconservatives see Avatar’s turning of the tables on the human occupiers by planet Pandora’s native Na’vi as a traitorous act on the part of Cameron. The guys with the guns should win, after all, no matter how many of the indigenous people may bite the dust in the process, let alone the supposedly expendable flora and fauna.

The fact that the film narrative is set towards the end of the 22nd century on the planet Pandora, no doubt suggests the myriad of evils (mythologically associated with that name) that the humans believe they have to face there. Contrast this with the Na’vi perspective, that everything on the planet is somehow connected, and moreover, that all her life forms are sacred in a manner the technocratic humans cannot grasp (with the exception of only a few, such as the biologist, Grace), and the stage is set for a showdown between the forces that represent life and those which stand for the exploitation of what is “useful” (read: “profitable”) to humans, with scant regard for living things.

But Cameron, we have known for a long time, is fascinated by the ambivalence of science and technology — their capacity to open up new worlds, as it were, and simultaneously to destroy the world. This science-fiction theme runs through his two Terminator films as well as through Titanic, where the eponymous ship graphically represents another, related theme, namely that of human hubris or arrogance in the face of the limitations that nature (or, if you like, the gods) impose on people.

From this perspective Avatar would appear to be science fiction — science and technology is impressively pervasive in its plot — but it is also more than that. What Martin Heidegger saw in technology, on the one hand, and in art, on the other, come together in this film. Not only is this impressive film art (ostensibly only of the popular variety, until one starts unpacking what Cameron has done here), but without the most advanced cinematographic technology (which includes everything that cinema can draw on today, most notably CG technology) this film art would not be possible. At a second level, too, technology and art merge — in Heidegger’s sense of techné and poiesis, words from which the English words “technical” and “technology”, on the one hand, and “poetry”, on the other hand, derive.

Both these ancient Greek words denote a kind of knowing, in so far as poiesis is, for Heidegger, a “bringing forth” or setting into the light of something that was concealed before, and techné (which pertained to what artists and craftspeople did among the ancient Greeks) was linked to this, so that it was inseparable from the pursuit of truth, or what the Greeks called aletheia (“unconcealedness”).

To this one should add that Heidegger regarded modern technology, which is clearly related (as the word shows) to techné, as something which has “forgotten” its role as a way — just ONE way among many — of knowing things. Instead, as technology is practised today, it has elevated itself to the position of being the ONLY legitimate way of approaching reality, including nature and humans, in the process reducing them to mere resources. (If anyone doubts this, consider that what used to be called the “personnel department” of companies and universities has for some time now been called the “human resources department” instead. Language is indeed revealing here.)

Hence it appears that Cameron’s film is predicated on several Heideggerian insights — those pertaining to the way that art and technology, at their inception among the ancient Greeks, were essentially conjoined, as well as on an understanding of contemporary technology as something that reduces people and nature to a kind of “standing reserve” or resources which may be used for human consumption without any consideration of their own distinctive being or mode of existence. Small wonder that Heidegger depicts modern technology as an “assault” on nature (and, one may add, on people). In fact, Heidegger points out that the “essence” of technology is what he calls “gestell” (enframing, framework, mainframe), which functions as a kind of collective mindset on the part of humans, although it is more than that.

Everyone who has seen Avatar will know what I am talking about here, even if he or she is so much part of the technological mindset (“enframing”) that they see nothing wrong with it. They would also know where Cameron’s sympathy lies as far as the narrative outcome of the film goes. But, given the “action” character of the film, one could easily overlook what I have referred to as its ecopolitical dimension.

Why “eco-political” and not merely “ecological”? It is the latter, too, of course, in so far as it depicts ensembles of living things — from humans to Na’vi, to plants and animals, to the planet Pandora (as well as earth, which is alluded to in the film as a “dying” planet) as a whole — as interconnected totalities of entities, where the latter are interdependent to the degree that no single entity can survive on its own. This aspect of an ecology is often overlooked, which is why it is commonly and erroneously, identified with “the environment”.

As Joel Kovel has argued convincingly in The Enemy of Nature, however, the “environment” denotes the non-human environment, whereas the earth’s ecology, at its most encompassing level, includes humanity in its entirety. Within the planetary ecology there are millions of ecological sub-systems, of course, all of them marked by the interconnectedness among a number of constituent members of the system, from the pupils and teacher in a kindergarten class to a colony of birds on an island, and eventually all the living things on the planet, together with the sum-total of inorganic materials that they depend on, such as minerals and phosphates.

Avatar is not only an ecological film in the sense of thematising the importance of acknowledging and respecting such interconnectedness of things. Think of Grace (Sigourney Weaver) trying to persuade the insensitive corporate representative and the monodimensionally military “colonel” that the true “wealth” of Pandora is the interconnectedness among all the Na’vi and the other living beings on Pandora — which, just at the level of the trees, amounts to the interconnectivity of a gigantic brain, with more “neuronal” connections than that of a human brain — and not the subterranean (sub-Pandorean) metal deposits that they are mining. Needless to say, the incomprehension on the part of these technocrats mirrors that on the part of real-world technocrats on planet earth.
This is why Avatar is an eco-political film: both its narrative and its powerful (and beautifully rendered) image sequences of (up to a certain point) “unspoilt” nature in all its splendour and variety, exhort one, through the act of spectators identifying with the threatened characters and other living beings (including animals and trees — the ecological function of the latter symbolically subsumed under gigantic “home tree”) to step beyond mere spectatorship and — like the character of Jake (Sam Worthington) in the film — stop being paralysed in the face of the destruction of nature on planet earth by uncomprehending and uncaring people intent only on profit at all costs.

One does not have to be an action hero to do this. It can start with something as simple as refusing, wherever possible, to use plastics in any form, and encouraging shops to provide paper or cloth bags for groceries, for example. Once proclaimed the miracle of polymer science, plastics have turned out to be one of the most destructive materials ever produced by humans. When dead albatross chicks’ stomachs are cut open, they are often filled with plastic bags and the like, which these birds unwittingly ingest, at their peril.

If it is indeed true that Cameron is profiting from a deal with McDonald’s to sell millions of plastic figurines of Avatar characters, he would have to face the contradiction between the meaning of his powerful film and this action, which is incompatible with it. After all, as the following words on Cameron’s part clearly indicate, he understands what message he is sending with Avatar:

Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the earth. And if you have to go four-and-a-half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema right there; that’s the magic.”

From this perspective, Avatar is not merely cinema magic. It can be read as a call to action which, like that of the fictional Na’vi under Jake’s leadership, must be intent on saving the planet. Time is running out for many species on this planet, perhaps for all of them, including us. And our (potential) descendants won’t thank us for our lack of action.