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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.

Author

  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.

43 Comments

  1. Muna Lakhani Muna Lakhani 26 January 2010

    How refreshing to see someone in South Africa pick up on these issues, reflected in Avatar – the “disconnectedness” to which you speak is equally reflected in the broader “environmental / ecological / conservation” movement in our country – unfortunately, all three terms are used interchangeably, especially by the media. Even if we excuse the reality today as an Apartheid hangover, people from the conservationist lobby still speak to “green” and “brown” issues – plants and animals the former, and waste,pollution, radiation, etc the latter!

    If one reads the nationa environmental act, it is one of the better definitions of environment – but truth is, the rich and powerful tend to be conservationists (many people-hating – witness a representative of a mainstream conservation body saying “I would rather cull people than animals”) and us poor and Black more concerne with environmental and social justice – so plastics, yes, but also chemicals (especially in our homes and food), nuclear power, crappy air pollution controls (less than “world class”) and no movement from the “hump and dump” mentality of government and business on waste – with 98% of waste dumpe / ‘landfills’ in or near Black areas, why change to the approach required by policy, that of stopping the manufacture of kak?

    Well, mostly because the dumping of waste subsidises big companies, all along the value chain, so powerful vested interests are at work here – so more people manifesting (Avatar’s) as activists, please!
    Muna Lakhani
    Institute for Zero Waste in Africa
    http://www.izwa.org.za

  2. Rene Rene 26 January 2010

    The vast majority of people on this planet could not care one hoot about the wellbeing of other creatures. They only care about their stomachs, their clothes and their purses or bank accounts. Oh, and their entertainment. Sad but true. They will probably be awakened rudely one day.

  3. Ladyfingers Ladyfingers 27 January 2010

    I thought it was nothing but yet another rehash of Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai et al, replete with Noble Savage leftie handwringing (suits bad, loincloths good) and the egregiously mistaken belief that there’s some mystical harmony between more “tribal” people and nature.

    There isn’t: there are simply less of them to inflict damage, because it’s hard breeding and surviving when you live outside of civilisation. The idea that Nature is nice comes from people who only take holidays in it. I recall documentary footage of anthropologists making first contact with a tribe from Papua New Guinea, and their first request was something along the lines of “please help us, it sucks here in the jungle, we keep getting sick and dying.”

  4. Dave Harris Dave Harris 27 January 2010

    Bert, I’m surprised you totally ignored the DIRECT parallels between Avatar and colonialism and imperialism that occured right here in SA, the lingering effects of which, we are still suffering from. Not a SINGLE mention of the obvious South African connection! Amazing!

  5. Mark Mark 27 January 2010

    As an Anthropologist I too found the movie filled with a range of important and interconnecting narratives. I know that the Anthropology Department where I did my post-grad are considering using it in one or two of their courses which deal with issues such as colonisation, cpatalisim, eco-femenisim and to critically reflect on the Anthropologists role (Sigourney Weaver’s character) in the socio-political landscape both past and present.

    This movie is definately more powerful than even its CG let on.

  6. Peter Peter 27 January 2010

    A well written article Bert, but hell, let me enjoy the superd production of Avatar – its story,special effects, sound and colour. In a world that is raped by deseases, famine, conflict and disaters, we need grasp at anything of beauty. This film gives us a opportunity to ‘disconnect’ from a very sick world for approx.3 hours.

  7. X Cepting X Cepting 27 January 2010

    I agree with your thoughts on this production. It is indeed a worthy tool in the war against mindless corporate greed. Having only seen the movie last night I am still a bit smitten by the incredible richness of it. Whilst watching, three other movies jumped to mind who all seemed, in their own way, to try and convey aspects of Avatar’s message but with less visual impact and success: “Apocalypto”; “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”. Raising awareness is half the battle won.

    Perhaps aspirant planet savers should put: Only have two children max- first on their list of actions?

    @Muna Lakhani – Thank you for that link, after even a brief look I have added it to my list of Favorites for further study.

    There is no doubt that we have a fine set of environmental laws in South Africa. Even the finest laws are useless when not enforced.

  8. Fred Fred 27 January 2010

    @ Dave Harris

    The whole of paragraph 2 deals with colonialism. Try again, mate.

  9. Mbusiswa Mbusiswa 27 January 2010

    Money!

  10. Lesego Lesego 27 January 2010

    I guess they keep getting sick and dying due to chemical/biological warfare. Ever heard of Ethnic Cleansing” before?

  11. Lesego Lesego 27 January 2010

    @Ladyfingers

  12. SKR SKR 27 January 2010

    I was desperately disappointed by Avatar and am confounded by the overblown plaudits it is receiving. I found the story boring, the characters 1-dimensional (clearly, all the ‘dimension’ went into the pictures, not the character development) and I am continually amazed that people are making such a fuss about the trite and simplistic ‘message’.
    It is a transparent portrayal of the ‘evils of colonialism and resource-rape, yes, yes, but why could the natives only be rescued by the white ‘outsider’? Why were the Pandorans depicted as incapable of standing up for themselves, needing to be saved by someone else who knows better than them? This, more than the trite environmental message being decried by neo-conservatives, should be reviled.
    As for the sci-fi aspect of the movie, Cameron doesn’t have an original idea in his head!
    It’s a technologically important movie, but that’s about it. District 9 beats it hands down!!

  13. Bert Bert 27 January 2010

    Ladyfingers – Nowhere in the film is it suggested that the Na’vi are exempt from illness and from attacks by wild animals in their forests – the existence of a ‘medicine woman’ (if I recall correctly) among them indicates otherwise. And the idea of a ‘mystical harmony’ (which is to overstate things) between them and nature may not be that far-fetched, if one considers James Lovelock’s notion of the earth as Gaia, a macro-organism of which we are a part. Moreover, you may also recall that, when the white settlers arrived in what is America today, they encountered healthy, well-nourished indigenous people, at a time when Europe was ravaged by disease. And yet, although they lived symbiotically with their environment (far better than western people have been able to), westerners persist in thinking of them as ‘savages’. You have a very narrow idea of civilization, and a misunderstanding of it into the bargain – in modern and postmodern ‘civilization’ there is more ‘barbarism’ of a well-disguised kind than you seem to realize. Read Hardt and Negri’s ‘Empire’ if you want to enlighten yourself about this.
    SKR – There is a good reason why Jake, the earthling, has to lead the Na’vi against the other humans. It concerns the fact that Jake represents the human race, which, in terms of the logic of the film, has to rediscover their bond with nature, as Jake does. Through identifying with him, spectators are invited to share in his transformation.

  14. X Cepting X Cepting 28 January 2010

    @Ladyfingers, I have had debates with friends on the subject of real jungle versus concrete jungle and have come to the conclusion that some people feel happier with the drone of traffic, I prefer the drone of insects. As far as predators go, give me lion, leopard or bear anyday, you will probably disagree and prefer rapists, muggers, murderers and rabit feral dogs.

    It is a matter of perspective. Continuously fight against your environment or learn to work with it, which choice promises more progress? Evolve by learning only from other human beings or by learning from the other species as well?

  15. Ladyfingers Ladyfingers 28 January 2010

    Bert, you’re inferring far too much about my views of civilisaton/savagery from my critique of Avatar.

    Here are some lovely examples of tribes in harmony with nature. The Maori wiped out 70% of species in New Zealand. The Anasazi singlehandedly turned their stretch of America into desert. The species of animals became extinct during its “untouched” Aboriginal phase. The deforestation of Easter Island…

    As for health, let’s compare lifespans between tribal people and the “sickly” civilised, not counting systematic infanticide.

    The noble savage myth is a pernicious, patronising set of lies that allows misanthropes to feel better by taking sides against their own culture. There is no higher, purer state from which we have fallen. To believe that is pessimism in the face of advances in every sphere of human existence.

    People are people.

  16. T.Katz T.Katz 28 January 2010

    Ladyfingers,
    you have a real narrow perspective here. Yes, there were other folks devastating nature before we came – and they paid the price as we will do soon.
    But there were (and in small numbers still are) people who knew that eternal growth is impossible and acted accordingly.
    We will see that too – but too late, thanks to persons like you.

    Bert Olivier,
    a very well-written, thoughful article. Thanks!

  17. Bert Bert 29 January 2010

    Ladyfingers – Sure, people are people, and I am no romantic defender of the ‘noble savage’ idea – Levi-Strauss’s work in structuralist anthropology/ethnology already disabused us of that. And I have also read Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ regarding the Anasazi, Easter Island, etc. What you fail to mention, is Diamond’s conclusions about the likelihood that what happened with those peoples in a smallish cultural context as a result of their eco-destructive ways of living, may be happening on a global scale today – and it could go either way. Considering his study of contemporary Montana as a kind of microcosm, the chances seem pretty slim that people will timeously learn the lessons there are to be learned from these older, ‘failed’ cultures, to be able to prevent a global ‘collapse’. And these are the people you defend.

  18. Dave Harris Dave Harris 30 January 2010

    @ladyfingers
    “The noble savage myth is a pernicious, patronising set of lies that allows misanthropes to feel better by taking sides against their own culture.”
    Well put, I agree absolutely!
    The problem with pseudo-intellectuals is their sheer inability to appreciate diversity, richness, wisdom and beauty of ancient cultures. Referring to them “noble savages” and their civilizations as “failed” cultures shows one-dimensional thinking. These cultures survived peacefully for thousands of years while treading carefully on our great green earth. They possessed a deep wisdom that understood the interconnectedness of all existence and the importance of living in harmony with nature.

    Its shameful when opportunistic environmentalists take a beautiful multi-themed story like Avatar and simplistically dumb it down to one of ecopolitics. What a tragedy!

  19. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 30 January 2010

    Without being cynical, isn’t the film a sort of Dances with Wolves meets Jurassic Park meets Die Hard 6 (or is it 7 by now? Remind me)?

    No harm in that. Obviously it gets a message through to very great numbers of people and has value for them. But as violence is apparently disowned by Cameron, he still does not hesitate to serve up an intolerably dull and enormous portion of it for the young market (who must have it at all times, even to the extent of bringing it into the forthcoming Alice in Wonderland, to judge by the trailer for that).

    The failure of imagination comes in seeing no alternative to destructive ‘science’ than sentimentalised primitivism.

    Can that be true? Would we all be ok again if we could only go back to just before 1600?

    If not, would we be safer in the 14th Century?

    Earlier than that – the year dot, say? Was everyone and everything ok then?

    The ideal past is always there. But if the human race is to survive, it starts with solving the problems that events and change have brought us to right here and now, not with hankering after a society that never existed anywhere but in the dreams of Rousseau and his followers.

    And director James Cameron should know Titanic wasn’t a symbol of an age or the gods’ vengeance on man’s hubris either.

    It was a hole in the faulty boat and a reckless captain.

  20. Darren Darren 30 January 2010

    But the ridiculous idea that Cameron is “doing good” by presenting us with a well-timed piece of zeitgeist is exposed by the several thousand tonnes of plastic toys he sold through McDonalds franchising. The plastic toys sold through the Avatar Toys website. The plastic packaged DVD and BlueRay discs, the promo material and various other means of making more money.
    While this film is beautiful, it is so simplistic as to be insulting. Almost any reasonably educated person is abundantly aware of the ecological issues we face. How does Avatar present a solution, make the world cleaner or even motivate anyone to actually change? Awareness is abundant, action is missing and Cameron is a fraud, but a very gifted and cunning one.
    The original author of this story (a Russian writer) deserves the real praise, particularly because he is demanding NOTHING from our capitalist director of the day.
    Avatar was filled with stunning visual experiences, a lot of pathos and some pretty silly Lovelock-inspired zeitgeist.
    Any person who produces such a stunning film deserves recognition for their artistic ability, directorial prowess, business savvy and great timing. But there is really no valour here. Cameron just capitalised on Global warming – well done James, even your arch-enemies are taken in, the academics have been tamed by the pretty pictures.

  21. Carl Carl 31 January 2010

    @ Ladyfinger:

    It’s people like you who are the problem with the planet these days. You would rather see things continue on in their present course because you feel hopeless to, or couldn’t give a damn about, changing anything. You’re so caught up in your wonderful illusion you call “modern society” that you can’t see what’s happening or just don’t want to see.

    If this culture of “progress at all costs” and “righteous exploitation” over ourselves and our planet continues on it’s present course, then we can only but blame ourselves for what will occur. No one is going to come and “save” us and if we were to face possible extinction then the fault will rightly be put upon people such as yourself and the organisations they supported in this act…the governments and megacorporations.

    The warning signs are all around you, yet you just stood there and let it happen. You gazed at your navel when you should’ve been looking at the world around you. Too busy being selfish and heedless to what was going on to even care all that much. Too busy name calling to see what your real name is…foolish. I only hope you can live with yourself, considering your inaction is tantamount to knowing you have a pernicious cancer but just couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it.

    When it becomes terminal, it doesn’t leave you with much choice.

  22. Darren Darren 1 February 2010

    While Cameron’s film is first and foremost a commercial venture, with the explicit aim of capitalising on global warming, there are some good examples of ecopolitical visual communication out there that are less celebrated. His power is in using mass entertainment to inform and raise awareness, but his downfall is the weakness of the message when seen in the context of business.

    Here is a link well worth exploring for those who want to visually experience the impact of man on Earth:

    http://www.chrisjordan.com/

    Look for Running the Numbers 2

  23. Bert Bert 1 February 2010

    Paul – I don’t think that ‘sentimentalized primitivism’ versus ‘destructive science’ (technology) is the right description. You reveal the same cultural bias as other commentators when you refer to the way the Na’vi are depicted as ‘primitive’. Is it primitive, or ‘advanced’ to live in such a relation with nature that, while you recognize that it could lead to your destruction (the predators would kill the Na’vi), you know that you need to attune yourself to it in order to survive as a species in the long run? From this point of view (post-)modern humans, with their nature-destructive technology, are ‘primitive’ in so far as they don’t understand the vital interconnectedness of ecosystems. And I don’t like the violence either, but it does strike me as being consonant, in the film, with the humans’ destructive intent towards the Na’vi.
    Darren – I would not call Lovelock’s work ‘silly’, if I were you – he is one of the most respected scientists of the time, and his Gaia-hypothesis is anything but far-fetched. To think of planet earth as a macro-organism, simply means that everything we do is unavoidably connected to other creatures in its impact. Joel Kovel has suggested – and this is compatible with Lovelock – that the appearance of ‘incurable’ diseases caused by the HI virus, the Marburg virus, etc., may be seen as the earth trying to resist the unbearable pressure humans are putting on the biosphere – Gaia’s immune system responding.

  24. Bert Bert 1 February 2010

    Darren, again – As I have said, I also regret and repudiate Cameron’s involvement with plastic products’ distribution – he should combine his fim-making with a serious attempt to do something about the deteriorating state of ecosystems. BUT – and here we evidently disagree – Avatar is still to be welcomed, because with its powerful, right-brain perceived images it has already done more than a thousand academic articles or books on ecological destruction could do. It is in the process of conscientizing people worldwide. Did you read the reports about audiences feeling very uneasy after viewing the film? About time. As John Lennon once said about rock music: ‘It’s supposed to make you feel worse, before you can feel better!’ I have not been ‘taken in’ by Cameron, or by Avatar – I am interpreting it at the level of the impact of images. You should read Shlain’s ‘The Alphabet versus the Goddess’ to understand the effect that images, as opposed to written words, have on people.

  25. Lesego Lesego 2 February 2010

    So Bert, are you trying to say that the earth is trying to resist the unbearable pressure black people and gays are putting on the biosphere? That is if aids was really existing…

  26. Darren Darren 2 February 2010

    Thanks for the response Bert. I have indeed read Shlain, and found some to be fascinating, and (to my mind) excellent. Some was … just fascinating. Right Brain is good, but without the other side it descends to the level of visual noise, now if he backed it up, lived up to his own implicit challenge…
    As a designer I spend my time communicating visually, and often with some real success, but this guy has approached a serious and important topic in a glib way. Neither the script, in its simplistic nature, nor his salesman-like behaviour lend any credibility or hope to the message.
    Left Brain alone = partly effective, to those who operate at that level.
    Right Brain alone = more effective, to more people.
    Combine the two and you have a cracker – he could have done this with websites, recycling of his promo material, donations, not selling plastic toys… oh, the list goes on. Heaven help him if he doesn’t at least include some form of documentary on the DVDs.
    Yes, I gladly concede that the visual, aural and emotional aspects will have some impact, but will that serve to merely depress people, or motivate them positively. The latter I hope, but that for me is where the film failed. He told people only what they already knew.
    Oh well, its better than most of the Hollywood stuff at least, and still a beautiful piece to watch.

  27. Bert Bert 3 February 2010

    Lesego – You don’t get it (unless you are just being plain mischievous). Kovel is referring to the total human population, which is far larger than the planet could be expected to sustain, together with the ecodestructive policies and practices on the part of humans. According to him, the spate of ‘incurable’ diseases (caused by a variety of viruses) may be understood as an attempt, on the part of the planet, to rid itself of at least some of this bothersome pest, humanity.

  28. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 3 February 2010

    It always baffles me when the charge of ‘cultural bias’ is brought up.

    It is easy enough to see that different cultures exist and that it can equally well be called ‘bias’ whichever ‘side’ one appears to take in passing comment on those differences. Terms like ‘advanced’ or ‘primitive’ can be loaded, of course. I used ‘primitivism’ because it is a familiar description of the view that sees the past as utopia compared to the degenerate present.

    Is that view true? – that is my question. And my argument with the movie is that it takes it for granted that it is ‘true’ because it is fashionable to do so – just as it is fashionable, or box office, to throw in globs of violence that contradict the film’s core message. The bad guys were destroyed by the good. But only by the good using the bad guys’ methods. If the humans were not so ‘advanced’ as they liked to think, the other side soon, and very readily, regressed to join them.

    The 19th Century, I am sure we will agree, would have had no difficulty in seeing any culture that was not ‘western’ as ‘primitive’.

    Don’t you think it is at least ironic when the 21st Century adopts a similar ‘bias’ towards the west, in seeing no good in it or in any of its works?

  29. Lesego Lesego 3 February 2010

    I’m not sure if you know that the viruses and the ethnic cleansing are Western inventions to get rid of the Orks. Diseases are man made through Vaccines. Diseases in Africa, which were nonexistant prior, are due to Westerners who came to contaminate our invironment with these substance. Any epidemic you can think of, Aids or what ever – if you are really informed – are all man made. Femine included are all caused by Westerners. Although Aids is but a psycological warfare agent, bottomline is they are all not due to mother earths plan. Maybe otherwise, mother earth is acting via the West to resist the burden of the Orks. Maybe Africans are meant to not last.

  30. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 4 February 2010

    Bert – My last piece was addressed to you and I forgot to put your name at the top. Apologies.

  31. Bert Bert 5 February 2010

    Paul – It would certainly be wrong to see nothing good in Western culture’s philosophical, scientific and artistic legacy. As I have pointed out before, humankind (and that goes for any premodern, or ‘primitive’ culture, too) is what Plato called a ‘pharmakon’, which means a poison and a cure at the same time. We are capable of creating the most beautiful things, and at the same time, of engendering the greatest disasters. History is witness to both. I don’t see Avatar as one-sidedly valorizing the Na’vi (or ‘primitives’) at the cost of the destructive humans – there are enough signs in the film that the Na’vi, too, knows hierarchical power-struggles, and that they are capable of destruction, BUT – and this is important – they are depicted as living with due consideration of other life-forms, which is a worthy position to strive for (don’t you think)? And if you think that the interconnectedness of nature is nonsense, consider Kovel’s words (in “The enemy of nature”):
    “…we think of nature as the integral of all ecosystems, extending in every direction and beyond the limits of the planet. Talking of integrals means talking in terms of organisms, and of Wholes – in other words, the systematic introduction of an ecological vision commits us to positing reality as an interconnected web whose numberless nodes are integrated into holistic beings of ever-exfoliating wonder…”
    This is no pure speculation – his sources are up-to-date.

  32. Gareth Nolan Gareth Nolan 22 February 2010

    The question of art or science / technology or myth is answered perfectly in the film of Avatar. The film addresses the issue of our future ecological well being on our planet and highlights the role which we have to determine our outcome. It does this as an eco-political film; making a statement that is represented through a world of fantasy.
    The term eco-political is better suited to represent the intended message of the film, as we relate to the term as a being, ‘a person who we can blame’ for the destruction of our earth. Politics involves great debate, and its debate that is needed among our society to evoke change for the greater good. Thus it’s an eco-political film that carry’s its message through the means of technology, creating the art that we relate to, the imagery that strikes our senses and demands our reaction. The film shows how both art and technology are needed in our present day society to convey a message that has an intended purpose to evoke a change in thinking. My upbringing on a farm taught me to respect nature, to learn the ability to be moved by a tiny flower budding in the veld that survives from the water that has been caught by the leaves of the aloe that stood beside it.

  33. Gareth Nolan Gareth Nolan 22 February 2010

    This is the inter-connected nature that is portrayed on the mythical planet – Pandora, yet it surrounds us all, it’s the very few who perceive this beauty. When one realizes that most of the earth’s current global population lives in an urban environment, one realizes that most people do not have the opportunity to learn the life lessons I have been so fortunate to learn. Thus this message is carried through the means of the technology of film, this responding to the way in which the majority of people will understand the intended message. The success of the reaction to the intended message of the film depends on the visual, emotional and relevant quality of the film. In Avatar’s case it used war to catch our attention, love and drama to capture our emotions and finally the issue of greed to provoke the effect of mental change in our society. This was all achieved through the unison of arts and technology, creating a visual arts message that moves you emotionally.

  34. Roger Kerr Roger Kerr 2 March 2010

    Avatar 3D was phenomenal! Simple truths drew out much emotion from people who watched it and the imagery was groundbreaking. I loved the parallel between the Zulu greeting ‘Sawubona’ and the Na’vi, ‘I see you’ which got me thinking about the early Zulu Nation, the ‘People of heaven’. They were powerful and in touch with the earth yet they destroyed and absorbed surrounding tribes. When King shaka came into power, his military genius generated unprecedented reforms and innovations, yet his reign was brutal, causing tragedy to strike South Africa. As I recall, the British didn’t teach him that. This is just one example in world history of tribal people destroying themselves without the help of more ‘civilised’ outsiders. The event that was caused within the nation was was named the Mfecane “the crushing” by the Nguni and Difaqane “the scattering of tribes” by the Sotho-Tswana. Europeans even called the catastrophe the “Wars of Calamity”. It caused about two and half million starving, homeless people to wander about southern Africa looking for respite and even resorting to cannibalism. Perhaps the Na’vi are really people of heaven. In today’s age, our version of ‘mate for life’, to sexually unite and be faithful to one person is sneered at.The Naivi have been portrayed in an idealistic and utopian manner that we all yearn for and have some sense of, yet society increasingly distances itself from this. Ours is a broken world in more ways than just the ecological.

  35. Kago Molapisi Kago Molapisi 2 March 2010

    Thanks Bert for this moving piece, on Avatar, even without this article I must say the movie had a very powerful message, somehow as sad as it is, the reality of the mentality of people in this world, mainly concerning themselves about further enriching their lives with money and not with the power of understanding where the earth is going. This movie like many others in so far have a message that unfortunately only have our attention for merely 3hours and the week to come, but slowly fades away, just as Xenophobia, Haiti Catastrophe etc, it’s all here now, and all people do is have sympathy and soon live on with their lives. Just as Avatar, the great message that has been preached by ecologists all the time, of global warming, fossil fuels, chemicals that are dumped into the sea, but to the economically enriched, somehow always manages to get away with it, It is a reality that mother nature is going to turn on us in the most brutal of all senses, if we do not instill in our minds the damage that we are causing, instill in our lifestyles, because people manage the convenient route of things rather than the safe way. But I also believe individuals should instill in their mind a way of change, making a difference, at the end of the day economical power is built by individuals who drive major pollutants.

  36. Leigh Mclaren Leigh Mclaren 9 March 2010

    I found the movie Avatar to be extremly relevent to the ecological issues we face today. The most moving part of the film for me was when the humans are in the process of destroying the sacred tree (Aywa) and the female pilot realises that she does not want to be part of it anymore and turns around. At what point do we realise just exactly what we are doing to the planet and when do we decide to make a turning point, or do we have to wait untill it is being destroyed infront of our very eyes before we decide to stop.
    Another sad realty that the movie portrays very well is the fact that only 4 or 5 humans in the entire mining colony realised that what they were doing was wrong and took action against it – much like our society today. The humans in the film were portrayed as aliens to the planet Pandora, much like we are aliens on our own planet Earth.

  37. Taboka Mokobi Taboka Mokobi 9 March 2010

    Avatar is one of the important recent movies ever made. It defines concepts that we must embrace as a society in order to survive on a planet we are slowly destroying. It carries a message that is very much relevant to the times we live in. Its greatest strength lies within the moral integrity it embodies. It reminds us of how western civilization has blinded us spiritually and inspires one to understand what this world needs the most. The movie suggests that we should start seeing nature as a constituent of mankind which will help us establish an ethical relationship (with nature) that we desperately need in order to create a healthy sustainable environment for us and future generations. It challenges us to look deeply into our lives and the values that we take for granted, and to compare this cash rich but morally broken existence with that of a nation that is not so rich(material wise) but deeply connected and committed to its natural environment. The message is clear, the question is: do we turn a blind eye or recognize that the keys to our happiness lie not in accumulating wealth, but in nurturing our relationships with people, animals and our planet.

  38. Elzabé Elzabé 28 May 2010

    What a fascinating film this was to watch. My PC decided to freeze very close to the end of the film (in my defence; it was a legal DVD rented copy). So there I was; sitting and gaping, totally captured into the abundant life on planet Pandora staring onto a screen frozen on Jake’s Avatar face stretching as they are, seemingly, losing the battle. This was a familiar picture to our planet’s ecological state today.

    I found the two clashing perspectives of the marines/miners and scientists interesting and very much reflective of our society. More interesting to see was how Jake’s character changed from being a marine wanting to kill the dog-like animals in defence, towards living in harmony with Pandora and it’s wildlife. What changed him? The understanding and deeper insight into this world showed him a higher and more abundant life-giving way of living. He overcame the fear of a new perspective.

    Change will take time; and transformation of the mind is where it must begin, as our minds are the heads of our bodies. In Paul and Timothy’s words: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” and “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”.

    Bert I can conclude in saying: “I see you” something must be done, let;s start with transformation of the mind.

  39. sheelah goldsmith sheelah goldsmith 2 July 2010

    As a film that appeals to young people for its action and beauty and escapism, this is a brilliant way of raising awareness about the exploitive nature of mankind as seen in colonial conquest worldwide. From identifying with the mining company/military at the start, the viewers are neatly manipulated into rooting for the indigenous people, their habitat and their spiritual ways.

    In a time when our own planet is being raped and pillaged and polluted by industry/military and plain greedy, myopic and self-indulgent civilians, the film calls us back to revering Gaia and remembering our own spiritual potential and powers.

    We are a story species and we have always improved ourselves through story telling, poetry, drama, music, art and spirituality[Amazing Grace]. This is media used as it should be: to make us reflect on our stupidities, recognize our potential for good and wise behaviour and yearn for a better way of behaving than the Pandora Mining company exemplifies.

    “The proper study of Mankind is Man” and “Avatar” seems to be a breath-takingly beautiful, beguiling, compelling and a universally available way of encouraging us to look at ourselves, warts, wings and wondrous dimensions and all.

    This new century must be the time of our awakening into our spiritual abilities, psychic powers through the rising of our souls and consciences and fulfilling of our destinies to be compassionate, connected and commensurate with all we see as divine. “We are the dreamers of dreams.” Cameron dreamed it for us.

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