Avatar Firmly Keeps the Con in Conservation

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.

Author: Erik Meijaard

Erik Meijaard is one of Mongabay’s bloggers who joined in September 2010. Erik is a passionate conservation scientist with a critical eye for the both sense and nonsense in conservation management and science. Based on nearly 20 years of in-country experience in Indonesia he has written extensively in both the scientific literature and in popular media on what he thinks is right and wrong about the way we go about conservation. This included a popular blog which he wrote for The Nature Conservancy. His experience in developing countries has shaped his thinking about the need to reconcile conservation with the development aspirations that many developing countries have. Ignoring those aspirations is not only arrogant or even verging on the neo-colonial, but it will ultimately work against us in achieving conservation objectives. From his home office in Jakarta, Erik runs the forest branch of PNC International, a small independent conservation consultancy. Erik has an academic background in tropical ecology and a PhD in biological anthropology. He has worked for several international NGOs and research organizations, including WWF-Netherlands and the Center for International Forestry Research. From 2004 to 2009, he worked for the Nature Conservancy Indonesia's forest program as its senior scientist and program manager. At the same time he was also closely involved with developing and implementing a USAID-funded orangutan conservation programs, first as chief of party, later as Kalimantan coordinator and conservation strategy planner. Erik has a wealth of experience working with the private sector, including timber and mining concessions, as well as plantations. His editorial experience with two newsletters, frequent publications in public and scientific fora, and media experience indicate Erik's strength as an effective communicator on forest conservation and management issues. Erik’s family accuse him of being obsessed with his laptop – they are right. Ultimately Erik will get out of this though, cut himself off from the internet, lean back in his rocking chair, and sip cold beer, preferably while looking over a nice sea or landscape. But that point hasn’t come yet, so keep an eye out for his blogs, which vary from the plain rambling to the highly insightful, but always aim to be constructive in the conservation debate – and hopefully bring a smile to people’s faces. After all, unless we can enjoy this world we live in, why bother conserving it? [Editor's note: Erik was interviewed at Indonesian people-not international donors or orangutan conservationists-will determine the ultimate fate of Indonesia's forests in 2010]

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