One response to the 2009 James Cameron film Avatar stands out to me: depression—the unanticipated response of a sizeable segment of Avatar viewers who longed to live in a world like Pandora. Among others noting this response, CNN reported on the depressive effect the film had on thousands of viewers, drawn to blogging threads, such as, “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible.” CNN tracked some of the dialogue, bringing psychologists on the network to offer their interpretations. The psychologists concluded that Avatar-induced depression is a notable public phenomenon, caused by the inability of viewers to accept their own drab lives and the “reality” that the beauty of the Pandoran world is entirely fantasy.
James Cameron’s Avatar was partly inspired by The Wizard of Oz, in which Kansas was filmed in black and white, and the land of Oz was in color. In Avatar, Cameron mirrors colorless kansas with the steely gray corporate domain and scientific field station on Pandora. The bright beautiful “other” world of Pandora, echoing Oz, is only seen outside the human compound. As with The Wizard of Oz, are we meant to understand “reality” in Avatar as the bleak human outpost? At the end of Oz, Dorothy wakes up to the dreary reality of kansas, but at the end of Avatar, Jake wakes up within the beautiful na’vi world. Because of this, Avatar critic, Daniel Mendelsohn, (“The Wizard,” New York Review of Books, March 25, 2010, available at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23726), notes that Cameron’s departure from reality reaches an unacceptable level; Jake does not follow Dorothy’s path to wake up in the “real world.”
As soon as we start talking about the “real world,” I look to draw on the insights of multiple disciplines: ecology, philosophy, and history among them. What is “real” in Avatar anyway? Clearly, a superficial look at the particulars of the flora and fauna or the human-developed technology featured on Pandora places the movie in the fantasy category. However, if you look at some of the basic principles of Pandoran ecology and the philosophies/worldviews presented, there is quite a bit of reality worth noting.
Avatar scientist, Grace Augustine, reveals the wonder of “Pandoran ecology” to the viewer: a vast interconnected energy network spanning the living surface of the planet; a biosphere of astonishing diversity; interconnected trees storing memories of times long past; synergies among plants and animals; abundant bioluminescence. Represented artistically in Avatar, these are features of our own extraordinary earth.
There are of course a number of very important differences between Pandora and earth. For example, earth’s evolution has favored two-legged and four-legged animals (as opposed to six); two-winged creatures (as opposed to four); bioluminescence on earth is largely a feature of the deep oceans, where 90 percent of creatures possess this quality (some carrying the “Pandoran” effect of lighting up when touched). However, our terrestrial ecosystems have bioluminescent creatures too. Fireflies, glow worms, certain arthropods, flies, centipedes, and millipedes, as well as a number of fungi, light up our world outside the seas.
As for interconnections—plant to plant, animal to animal, plant to animal—they are the rule on earth, not the exception. One well-known example includes a forest of Quaking Aspen in utah which is in fact a single interconnected male individual (who also happens to be over 80,000 years old). The rings of wood that are added to trees each year store a vast amount of historical information sharing the journey of that particular tree and its ecosystem. My own ecological research has shown that even leaves, often made to last for only one summer season, can tell a story that spans the centuries (if only we would listen). Plants under attack can send signals through the air to nearby plants as they are being eaten, warning them of impending assault and allowing them to prepare their defenses. Below ground, tree to tree, roots are interconnected, exchanging information and nutrients. A felled tree (which does have a specific moment of death, just as a human does) can remain a “living stump” through these below ground connections to other individuals. These are all characteristics well known to Avatar’s Eywa.
In Avatar, the humanoid na’vi have a distinctive organ (a long braid) that allows them to directly connect with the living world around them. Though we humans do not possess this particular organ, our connection to the living earth is just as intimate. To paraphrase my colleague Wes Jackson (www.landinstitute.org), of course humans are intimately connected to the earth—just try living somewhere else! Humans cannot exist apart from the interconnected energy network spanning the living surface of the biosphere. Sojourns to outer space are done only with a long umbilical cord that stretches back to earth.
Many aspects of Avatar’s philosophical message—about the destructive greed and insatiability of humans—remind me of William Ophuls’s important but not widely known book, Requiem for Modern Politics: The Tragedy of the Enlightenment and the Challenge of the New Millennium. (Requiem is reviewed in the current issue of Minding Nature by Peter Brown.) As noted by Ophuls: “Modern psychological research has confirmed the Buddha’s fundamental insight: craving is intrinsic to the human mind, no sooner is one want satisfied than it is replaced by a new one.” This craving is transparently symbolized in Avatar by the humans’ insatiable drive to obtain “unobtainium.” While these cravings may be as old as our species, today we have important (and abundant) knowledge linking human greed to the destruction of the beautiful, diverse, interconnected life system upon which we and all creatures depend, as so clearly portrayed in Avatar. And, moreover, we spend most of our waking hours doing just that in order to maintain the Western lifestyle—which we are too harried to enjoy anyway.
Research shows that hunter-gatherer cultures (such as portrayed by the na’vi) not only have a lighter ecological footprint, but also they are among the most leisured, relaxed, and economically secure people in the world. Again from Ophuls, “after a careful comparison of ‘stone-age’ and ‘civilized’ economies, the traditional understanding that leisure is the product of civilization needs to be stood on its head, for in developed economies, the amount of work per capita increases and the amount of leisure decreases . . . we have only to read the complaints of old-time missionaries about the incurable ‘idleness’ of the natives . . . who do not ‘work,’ they live.” Thus, we know that grasping for “unobtainium” is not the only choice, nor is it the only reality. (For examples of alternative personal economic pathways, see the forthcoming book by Juliet Schor, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.)
In Hinduism, Avatar or Avatara refers to a descent from heaven to earth, a descent into earthly reality to bring the social and cosmic order back into alignment. Is the dream of Pandora truly intangible? Like Jake, let us all “wake up” to the living world around us to which we are all intimately connected. It is very real.