Had we looked inwards rather than so aggressively outwards, we might live in a Pandora, not the last stages of the Anthropocene.
Jonathan Cook is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism.
Cross-posted from Jonathan’s Newsletter
Watching Avatar 2: The Way of Water, I was reminded that there is nothing new under the sun, ours or Pandora’s. James Cameron’s three hour-plus epic tells us little more than The Tables Turned, a short poem written more than 200 years earlier by William Wordsworth. One verse observes:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:-
We murder to dissect.
Another points out:
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
But while Cameron and Wordsworth share a pressing concern that we are losing our connection to – murdering – Nature, including our own natures, their visions differ on what it is to actually be a modern human.
With two centuries of additional historical experience to draw on, Cameron’s view is much bleaker than Wordsworth’s.
On Pandora, humans don’t just murder through their compulsion to understand and master their surroundings (Wordsworth’s “dissection”). They murder to make money, they murder in the pursuit of vanity, they murder simply because they can. Power has no higher purpose than its own self-promotion.
Wordsworth’s Romanticism did not halt, or even temper, the Industrial Revolution’s appetite for material dissection: the relentless ransacking of the planet’s resources, the prioritisation of endless economic growth over everything else, the promotion of a hollow rationalism that stripped out the wonder, the spiritualism that had been at the core of human existence even before mankind emerged from the cave.
There is no evidence that Cameron’s Avatars, 1 or 2, will have any greater effect on rethinking our relationship with Nature two centuries on, or end our slash-and-burn approach to our planet. We have gained no greater insight, even as the harm we have inflicted on the environment, and science’s ability to measure that harm, have grown exponentially.
In Avatar, the diseased intellects that have turned Earth into a dying shell send their forward-party spaceships to Pandora with exactly the same diseased agenda of domination and pillage. It is clear that no lessons have been learnt, and that, with humans in charge, Pandora’s fate will be identical to Earth’s.
It is not just the military – represented by the crew-cut, machine-like Col Miles Quaritch – that kills eveything it touches on Pandora. It is business leaders, bureaucrats and scientists.
Cameron’s metaphors are not subtle. The peaceable whale-creatures that inhabit Pandora’s oceans are more intelligent and creative than the “Sky People”, the human invaders. But lacking the humans’ offensive technical capabilities, they are freely hunted for a highly profitable brain extract that can end the natural ageing process. Once looted of this elixir, the whales’ giant carcasses are left to rot on the high seas.
Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi understand what has been lost. They can couple with the whales, not sexually, but through fibres in their hair that bond both parties into a spiritual communion in which they share language, songs, emotion, a sense of unity and family.
The Na’vi can conjoin with all the animals and plants around them. These connections give them a direct pathway to a planetary conciousness, a oneness, that reminds them of their dependency on the integrity of the whole.
Cameron is not, of course, inventing the wheel. He draws on the ancient wisdom of the remnants of indigenous peoples – the survivors of the White Man’s conquests – on our own dying planet, a wisdom we now either mock or exoticise.
Had this sense of oneness remained intact, had we still an awe for Nature, Cameron implies, humans might have evolved to be more like the Na’vi – as they might have too had they listened to Wordsworth all those many years ago. If we had stopped murdering and dissecting, if we had looked inwards rather than so resolutely, so aggressively outwards, we might live in a Pandora rather than in the last stages of the Anthropocene.
The huge popularity of both Wordsworth and the Avatar franchise – and their impact in their respective eras on the popular imagination – indicate something significant. That inside us, in the places where we so rarely look, we understand intuitively that Nature needs, demands our reverence. The message resonates with us because, without such reverence, we are empty vessels, living in a godless, competitive, materialist world created in the image of our own belligerent rationalism.
But here is the point. If we recognise the truth of Wordsworth’s injunction to value a direct connection with Nature more than its depiction and representation in books, or Cameron’s admonition to stop plundering and exploiting Nature as though it is something divorced from us rather than integral to our survival as a species, why do we carry on as before? Why are we so averse to change?
Let us put aside the problems with Avatar for the moment. The fact that the film preaches a oneness with Nature even as it bolsters the very same corporate structures that are killing the planet. The fact that it fetishises military solutions for the Na’vi – even a peaceable whale gets recruited as a battering ram – as it claims to be denouncing Col Quaritch’s militarism.
In our culture, even a film warning that Nature should not be instrumentalised is required to instrumentalise Nature, to earn the big bucks needed to keep its director and producers in the business of making more Hollywood films.
But still, why are we so impervious to the central message: of the need for humility, for respect towards that which transcends us, that which completes us?
Here lies the conundrum. As we watch Avatar, we identify not as human but as Na’vi. We know the indigenous people are right about the threat humans pose, and the necessity of fighting these interlopers to the death or face Pandora’s destruction. We know these humans only too well because they are us.
By extension, we should understand that humans – we – pose the same threat to our own planet, Earth. Through the eyes of the Na’vi, we should be able to see ourselves for what we have become: a virus contaminating and killing everything of value in our path.
And yet clearly we cannot do so. The awareness dies as soon as we emerge from the cinema into the light. Our Na’vi eyes close, and our murderous human eyes are restored.
Out of the cinema, we return to our “normal” lives, to being a small, unthinking cog in the giant machine of human civilisation that pillages the planet, pollutes its air and water, decimates its forests, kills its insects, meddles with its climate.
We go back to poisoning our home world just like the humans in Avatar did, before they were forced to send spaceships to colonise a second planet. Except that last bit is just a sci-fi story. There is no second planet, no second chance.
The paradox is that we identify with the Na’vi because they have what we have lost: they have community and tradition, they share, they believe, they belong.
But we cannot really become Na’vi, outside of our immersion in a cinematic event, because we have been persuaded generation by generation that we are nothing more than individuals. There is no society, Nature is there to be tamed and exploited, there is no higher purpose than profit, there is no meaning beyond our selfish whims, our own self-aggrandisement.
Knowing something to be true with our minds is not the same as understanding its truth, feeling its truth. Which is why in our supremely interconnected digital worlds, with platforms providing infinite possibilities for virtual exchange, we have become so alone, so lost.
Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.
Our new ethereal, soundbite “books” of instant information, easy opinion and even easier outrage are a haven for misinformation and manipulation – chiefly from our own governments but also from the terminal cynics sure everything is a plot and a deception, from disease to environmental collapse.
Without community, without common purpose, without a connection to the fixed wisdom of Nature, we are adrift. We are buffeted by the lies power wields to keep us compliant, and the kneejerk reactions of those who sense the lies but have no yardstick of truth to gauge the reality that has been obscured.
If we can learn anything from Avatar, it is this: We long to be Na’vi but are doomed to be Col Quaritch. Cameron’s film, as Wordsworth warned two centuries ago, is just another dull, strife-filled book – a representation of Nature, not Nature itself. Avatar points us towards the path of redemption, only to slam shut the door that could lead us there.