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Avatar’s Central Fallacy


I saw it a couple days ago. Way too long. Had to step outside for an intermission and a tip from the hip flask just to get through. This and the 3-D effects were sufficient in their coalescence to bring about a vague nausea.

Then there was the movie’s message, which was, frankly, stupid — and not ameliorative of the nausea. The movie might as well have been Pocahontas, for its rendering of “the natives,” who dress and speak like extras from Pocahontas, giving reference to the Earth Mother, etc. (though of course the Iroquois were not tall and blue, did not ride dragons, and had only to contend with the modestly equipped John Smith & company, not a full-fledged battalion of space-bound “jarheads”).

Anyways, Avatar’s main theme is really just a juxtaposition: the awful Homo sapiens, who have despoiled their earth, and these lovely indigenous people who are uniquely wedded to the forest (through nodes in their long, braided, characteristically Native American hair).

There is, in fact, something to the argument that indigenous peoples better understand their natural environment in terms of its taxonomy and usefulness. Yet the assumption that native peoples somehow exist in harmony with “nature” is simply wrong. Probably the best work on this is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land, which portrayed coastal Indians as avid arsonists who burned down large swathes of forest and killed animals for reasons other than food. (A similar thesis, re: East Africa’s indigenous peoples, is laid out in Helge Kjekshus’s Ecology Control and Economic Development in East Africa; Kjekshus points out that there are likely many more elephants in Tanzania today, for instance, than there were in times when indigenous people were allowed to control them.) In either case, America or Africa, it was Europeans who laid out romantic notions of preserving wilderness — a concept that simply did not exist in pre-colonial times.

The point is, for most indigenous peoples around the globe, “stewardship” means something like “slash-and-burn.” This does not mean that the indigenous do not care about the land — again, they understand it better than anyone — it’s just that they don’t exist in a cult-like, James Cameron thrall to the ascetic majesties of nature. They make aggressive use of the land, and not always in a manner we would call “renewable.”

I had these thoughts, and then I read Ross Douthat’s column on Avatar. Ross and I are members of the small and eccentric group of editors emeriti of the Harvard Salient, and I have to wonder what unspoken indoctrination occurred, since we share so many opinions. He addresses this issue through a more theological lens, and you should read his take.

– Travis Kavulla is a former associate editor of NR and a Gates Scholar in African history. He lives in Montana.


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