Avatar Firmly Keeps the Con in Conservation

by | 24th September 2010

Clip from Avatar the movie, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

I read with interest Jeremy Hance’s article about “The Real Avatar Story“. It reminded me how I had initially watched that movie on a transatlantic flight. Despite the pokey screen and poor sound—not quite the 3 or 4D experience it was designed for—I enjoyed it. But the story somehow left a bitter after taste.

I guess most conservation-minded people are familiar with the story line. But just to reiterate, humans have ruined earth and travel to the far‐off planet Pandora to continue their pillage. There they encounter the Na’vi, tall, long‐tailed, pointy‐eared, flat‐nosed humanoids with a smurf‐like skin tone. Na’vi live ‘in harmony with Nature’, kill and harvest only what they need, ask for forgiveness for that, and apparently do not affect the world around them. Humans want to destroy Pandora’s environment for mining, but brave American soldier helps the Na’vi to beat humans and sends them back to Planet Earth.

There is an obvious environmental moral in the film. In the words of James Cameron, the film’s director: “the Na’vi represent something that is our higher selves, or our aspirational selves, what we would like to think we are”. There are good humans in the film, but the humans “represent what we know to be the parts of ourselves that are trashing our world and maybe condemning ourselves to a grim future”.

This is an unhelpful picture. I don’t like the polarization between beautiful, untouched nature, inhabited by creatures that choose not to impact their environment, versus evil capitalist, industrialist, greedy people who only know how to destroy it.

All people, urban, rural, and forest dwelling impact their environment—just ask the extinct megafaunas of Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In fact, all creatures impact their environment and will do their utter best to enlarge their ecological niche, and exploit it as much as they can. That is how nature (and we) function.

Conservation is about finding a balance. We should acknowledge that all humans affect their environment. The choice we have is to limit the impact.

Clip from Avatar the movie, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Conservation originally started by locking away natural areas, and removing humans and their activities from them. With 6 billion people on the planet and counting that is now rarely possible. If we accept that people are part of conservation, we also need to accept those people’s aspirations. And most people want better lives, including those that live in far away forests. They want to live to over 50 years, have children that survive beyond the age of 2, go to school, do not have constant diarrhea, own a television, and are not hungry.

Unfortunately, there are no Na’vi. It’s only us, an intelligent, technically skilled species, very adapt at using and abusing the resources of this planet. And there are all the other species.

The most relevant conservation question is whether we are smart and care enough individually to live our lives so that it leaves behind a pleasant place for our descendants. A secondary issue is what that means for the other species around us.

The biggest conservation mistake is to assume that our conservation problems will somehow be solved by Na’vi‐like people who care more about their environment than about themselves.

Nature does not do creatures like that.

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