“Avatar” and Eco Fantasy

On it’s face, the blockbuster movie “Avatar” would seem to be good for the renewable energy/sustainability camp. For the few remaining earthlings who haven’t yet seen “Avatar,” here’s a quick recap …

The story takes place in a future where, it’s implied, Earth has been leached of it’s last remaining resources, forcing humans to mine other planets for precious materials. One such planet, Pandora, is rich in a substance jokingly called “unobtanium,” which is supposedly valuable as a fuel source, or something. The only problem is that Pandora’s most advanced native species–lithe, blue-skinned humanoids known as the Navi–happen to live right on top of the planet’s largest deposit of the valuable material. In stark, simplistic contrast to the greedy, individualistic, profit-driven humans, the Navi are peaceful and live in harmony with nature. They’re even able to communicate with animals and plants via writhing tendrils streaming from their long, dark hair braids.

To convince the Navi to relocate and lay their land open to bulldozers and drills, a human-run mining company deploys avatars–synthetic Navi-like creates controlled, or ‘driven” by humans lying in coffin-like devices at the company’s home base. When Jake, an ex-marine without use of his legs, is sent out as an avatar, he predictably falls in love with the native’s way of life and ends up leading them in an all-out battle against the humans. In the end, the vanquished humans slink back to Earth while the triumphant Navi sway in unison, celebrating their symbiotic relationship with the planet.

As you’ve probably heard or seen for yourself, “Avatar” is amazing to look at. The animation and special effects are truly spectacular. And while the story is hardly Shakesperean, it’s certainly on the progressive side of the energy/sustainability discussion. Humanity’s unquenchable thirst for fossil fuels at any cost is demonized, while the Navi’s simple, sustainable way of life is celebrated as a superior alternative. 

I’d argue, though, that “Avatar” does the renewable energy/sustainability position a disservice. Because the story it tells, however sincere, is pure eco-fantasy, an overly simplistic, black and white take on a complex issue. ::continue::

I’m aware, of course, that Hollywood blockbusters are not known for their subtle, nuanced examinations of worldly topics. The whole point of a blockbuster is to keep things simple, blow stuff up, and sell popcorn. And that’s OK. But because so many millions of people around the world see these movies, they have the power to sway public opinion in ways that matter. And I think “Avatar” has the potential to influence public perception of renewable energy, conservation, and sustainability in ways that are not helpful.

Global warming skeptics and “drill baby drill” cheerleaders–comprising a significant swath of the American public–already tend to stereotype renewable energy advocates as pie-in-the-sky, anti-American, anti-capitalist, sandal-wearing liberals who’d rather save the whales and build wind farms than grow the American economy and strengthen national security. And “Avatar,” however unwittingly, strengthens that caricature. 

People who frequent this website and blog already understand the complexities of energy and know that every energy source–coal as well as wind–comes with a cost. The costs aren’t equal across the board–coal is de facto dirtier than wind, and burning oil pollutes the atmosphere in ways that harvesting solar energy does not. But wind and solar farms have an environmental impact, too. In short, there’s no such thing as a perfect solution. Modern humans have never really lived in perfect harmony with nature. Even our most ancient ancestors cleared forests and hunted creatures to extinction. And the quest for fuel has long been a struggle against nature. Before the advent of coal, for example, when most people still relied exclusively on wood and other biomass, deforestation was rampant throughout Europe.

We’re all aware that the unchecked burning of fossil fuels has harmed the planet in myriad ways, from air and water pollution to changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. And it’s a given that fossil fuels will eventually run out, forcing us (or our descendants) to switch to other, hopefully less environmentally corrosive sources of energy. But there’s no quick and easy solution, no magical scenario where people and nature live in perfect, harmonious balance, as imagined in “Avatar.” 

So for me, as a parable of environmental responsibility and forward thinking, “Avatar” rings false. It’s a fairy tale in 3-D that, like many ambitious sci-fi epics, has pretensions to teach us something important about our world.

The push for sustainable, renewable energy is in part a PR battle aimed at convincing the public that renewables are not only necessary to protect the environment but also economically viable. And because “Avatar” has such a simple, black and white message, I think it sends the wrong message. Like most big issues, energy is more complex than it appears. And people need to understand and appreciate that complexity.

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I'm a writer based in Bloomington, IN. I'm currently writing a book about renewable energy, titled "Renewable: A Reporter's Quest to Make Sense of the Coming Revolution in Alternative Energy," for St. Martin's Press.

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