I suspect that many conservatives are overestimating the appeal of Avatar’s politics as such. Rather, Avatar’s neo-primativist aesthetic is appealing, regardless of any contemporary political resonance, and that romantic primativism (as opposed to specific policy content) is what is really appealing about liberal feel-good environmentalism, too. It’s the pose, not the policy.
Avatar, Dances with Wolves, A Man Called Horse . . . Why do we dream of becoming primatives? My guess is that in stereotypical tribal cultures status inequality, while great, is fixed, and therefore not much of a source of anxiety, while in liberal cultures status is fluid and largely self-determined, and therefore a source of great anxiety. Nobody really moves up through Navii society, but nobody moves down, either. If you’re not the chief, the dauphin, the high priest, a top soldier, or the mate of one of these, you’re part of the undifferentiated horde. (And Pandora’s hoi polloi are less individually differentiated than are the various forest monsters.) This has more appeal to status-anxious moderns than many of us might imagine.
Of course, in these fantasies the adoptive primative brings certain sophsticated-world privileges with him, and therefore ends up a high-status member of the primative society he joins. (And therefore gets to bed down with a big blue Zoe Saldana. Not a bad trade-off for plumbing, if you ask me.) A Man Called Horse would not be nearly as attractive a fantasy if Horse had remained a slave to the end.
Romantic primativism has deep appeal across the political spectrum. Jonah, as our in-house authority on the aestheticization of politics, is well positioned to appreciate this. I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching and writing about the kook fringes of American politics, and you’d be surprised at how rabidly environmental certain of the neo-Nazi elements are. My guess is that, left, right, or kook, people are most drawn to political enviromentalism because of the romance of the primative than are drawn to the romance of the primative because they really care about cap-and-trade vs. carbon taxation.