Sunday, 24 January 2010

“Avatar” Conservation Ethics?

“Avatar,” the billion dollar blockbuster by billion dollar blockbuster guru James Cameron, has stirred
up more social criticism and has been dissected more thoroughly than any other major film in the last few years. For a full rundown of all of the people this movie has upset (mostly social conservatives in the United States, but the Vatican had a few words to say as well), this New York Times article covers most of the controversies. Having been released just over a month ago now, it may seem a bit late for yet an additional commentary on the film, but I believe wrapped up in the 3-D imagery are some relevant issues for 21st Century conservation.

To begin, the obvious must be stated: “Avatar” presents a world of such all-encompassing beauty it is impossible not to be swept up in the biology of Pandora (especially if you caught it in 3-D). As Carol Kaesuk Yoon described in her article, if you’re a biologist, ecologist, conservationist, or someone who just loves studying the living world, Avatar may well leave you with the same sense of awe at the natural world we more often reserve for the actual world.

Of course, the world of “Avatar” is spectacularly unique. Nevertheless, many of the things which make Pandora so astounding, like bioluminescent plants, can be found here on Earth in some form or another, as this Mongabay article describes. But Avatar is about more than just glowing plants—we humans certainly can’t connect to our ancestors through hair braids attached to the Mother-Tree. So enthralled were some audience-members with the world of Pandora, and so sad to leave it, that cases of post-“Avatar” depression have made headlines.

It’s difficult not to leave “Avatar” also wishing for a neural connection to trees, or at the very least feeling mighty sorry for what those ex-U.S. Marines did to the Na’vi and their forest. And here is the crux of the issue. Although Avatar was in so many ways yet another retelling of the ecologically noble Indian (see: Avatar/Pocahontas mash-up) [1], reminding us “modernists” of our collective disconnection to nature and the price we shall pay for the rape of the planet, the effectiveness of this narrative cannot be discounted. While anthropologists and conservationists continue debating whether indigenous peoples are “conservationists,” “environmentalists,” or any more careful in using the Earth’s resources than anyone else, the fact of the matter is we “non-indigenous” peoples are emotionally connected to the idea of the existence of a separate kind of human, one in-tune with nature, perhaps as a consequence of feeling so apart from it.

“Avatar” manages to tap into such a deeply entrenched collective depression over our disconnection from nature it almost seems wrong to disparage something which may actually move a wider audience towards caring more about protecting the environment. But as someone invested in finding ways to protect the biodiversity and ecosystems of the planet, it is impossible not to question a narrative which leaves people feeling so distant from the ecological interactions and biota of Earth. Is it possible this alienating process may shift attitudes away from protecting our own planet and merely promote interest in finding new, untainted distant planets where humans can start anew?

At first glance, the roots of an “Avatar” conservation ethic (if we can say such a thing) appear uncomfortably situated somewhere between the E.O. Wilson’s notion of biophilia and the high romanticism (and more critically, racism) of the ecologically noble savage. Like Philosopher David Abram’s book, “The Spell of the Sensuous,” “Avatar” reminds us, the movie-going society, that our apart-ness from nature is what keeps us from being able to “see the forest through their eyes,” and connect with the living world like the Na’vi. But, if we discount the idea that Avatar will only increase interest in extraterrestrial life (I’m betting this isn’t really the case), perhaps what “Avatar,” and its millions of fans are really calling for is less a repetition of worn-out romantic ideas of wildness and nativeness, but a sensual conservation, one which recognizes the visceral, emotional desire so many of us have to protect that which inspires us in the natural world. Despite the obvious irony in basing a conservation ethic on a virtual world, Yoon may be right when she said, “Maybe ‘Avatar’ is what we need to bring our inner taxonomist back to life, to get us to really see.”

The easy road in critiquing “Avatar” in regards to conservation ethics would be to neglect it as pop-culture fluff, another manifestation of “Western” conservation values, and/or as moderately offensive towards indigenous people’s and their very real and important role in managing Earth’s ecosystems. Safe to say, this is all true. I think, however, the more difficult choice is to realize there are other, useful lessons to take away from “Avatar.” Namely, how do we learn to incorporate persistent European-North American conservation myths and values productively, tapping into the sentiment so many people seem to have regarding their disconnection from nature? Rather than only explaining away these values in lengthy environmental history critiques, we need to engage with these sentiments as real, dynamic opportunities for mobilizing efforts to both protect and wisely manage Earth’s resources and ecosystems. This doesn’t have to mean casting the “native” as helpless and in need of a white-skinned savior to protect the rainforest (CI campaigns ring a bell?). Instead, recognizing the importance of these values may bring novel opportunities for engaging with the public about 21st Century conservation issues, such as conservation outside of protected areas, conservation in the face of climate change, or agriculture land-sparing/land-sharing debates. If people want to feel more connected to nature, than conservationists need to engage with this opportunity and provide productive mechanisms for doing so in meaningful, helpful ways.

-J. Margulies

[1] For a review of debates on the subject of the ecologically noble Indian/savage, see: Hames, 2007; Nadasdy, 2005; Krech, 2000; Redford, 1991.

Avatar photo courtesy of


  1. Nice post Jared,

    I was intrigued by how up-front the idea of an inter-connected nature was in the film and wonder whether there was a Gaia-inspired philosphy at play. Pandora was presented as a complex ecological system (albiet one where the humanoids could physicall conect and have control over other creatures). When the sacred tree (symbolising Gaia?) was threatened and the Na'vi failed to reply human greed and technological might the system (creatures)rose up to restablisie the system. No doubt I'm reading far too much into this - but heck thats the fun of film! - but I'm curious to know whether the film prompts a greater sence of interconnectedness among viewers or whether they simply 'box' this as a feature of an ailen nature. Paul

  2. To follow up from Paul... I would say that not just the tree but the whole planet is a reference to Gaia. "Pandora" in Greek mythology is intimately associated with the Great Goddess, with Pandora translated as "all-giving". To quote J. E. Harrison "Pandora rises from the earth; she is the Earth, giver of all gifts". This is probably an astute move on Cameron's behalf as the term Gaia has become so value laden in recent years that in using it (or a similarly commonly appropriated term) he may have risked alienating part of his audience, or at least risked seeming too obvious and unoriginal (is that even possible for this flick?!). Pandora in current cultural memory on the other hand is often only thought of in terms of "Pandora's Box" - the Greek version of an Eve-type first woman whose curiousity has disastrous effects for humanity. How many people would know her original associations? Cameron may as well have called the planet Gaia, or maybe he was trying to say more by calling it Pandora - maybe he also liked the associations of the evils of humanity that come with the term.
    -- Julie-Beth

    (As an interesting final aside, this shift in the appropriation of Pandora has been argued as evidence of a shift in Greek culture from a matriarchical to patriarchical society - something that is arguably seen across many anicent human cultures).


    "Vedanta plans to construct an open-cast mine on Niyamgiri mountain in Orissa state which activists believe will destroy the area's ecosystem and threaten the future of the 8,000-strong Dongria Kondh tribe, who depend on the hills for their crops and water and who believe the mountain and surrounding forest to be a sacred place.

    Stephen Corry, director of the charity Survival, which campaigns on behalf of indigenous people, said: "Just as the Na'vi describe the forest of Pandora as 'their everything', for the Dongria Kondh, life and land have always been deeply connected. The fundamental story of Avatar – if you take away the multi-coloured lemurs, the long-trunked horses and warring androids – is being played out today in the hills of Niyamgiri"

  4. Has Vedanta's open-cast mining helped Dongria Kondh tribe to realise the "ultimate nature of reality"?

    8th Century AD

    Vedanta is an ancient Indian philosophical tradition concerned with the self-realisation where one understands the "ultimate nature of reality".

    2010 AD

    Vedanta is India’s largest non-ferrous metals and mining company, which considers "sustainable development" as its key strategy and overall ethos (

  5. In the depression article you cited, the Avatar fan community came up with ways to cope with the depression over how Earth seems so ruined compared to Pandora:

    -Chat with other depressed fans;
    -Listen to Avatar soundtrack;
    -Play Avatar-inspired video games;
    -Re-connect with other people outside of the virtual realm...

    Apparently the thought never came across them to DO SOMETHING to stop ruining Earth?! Get out of the room and try to make this real world a little bit better--that'll fix their post-Avatar depression.

    There sure is a huge gap between "concern" and "action."