Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Thinking about "Avatar"

Ran Prieur has a good post about "Avatar", which I saw a couple of weeks ago at our local cinema. When I saw it I was somewhat taken aback by the heart-on-the-sleeve anti-industrial-exploitation-and-anti-imperialist stance, coming from the heart of the beast so to speak. My first thought was: how do you get the kids to join the Marines after they've watched "Avatar"? The "bad" characters were well drawn: the boss of the mine and the tough bastard in charge of security. The ordinary soldiers were also portrayed as "just like us" which added to the moral dilemma for the audience.

There was nothing original in the plot, but for a mainstream blockbuster to come right out and show the dynamics of the destruction wrought by our industrial civilisation so clearly and emotionally was, as far as I can remember, a first.

Many years ago I worked in the oil industry in Asia and saw all this sort of thing happening firsthand. What struck me at that time was how dependent we all are on this system for our wealth, and how ignorant most people were (and still are!) about how it works. Later, in the eighties, I was involved in the conservation movement at a political level and even there the gap between what people said they believed and how they actually lived amazed me. Like caring about East Gippsland forests but seeing nothing wrong with jetting off around the world for a casual holiday.

I hope I'm not coming across as a moralising extremist, because I think our problem lies not in struggling to be "pure" in some extreme way, but in seeing the embeddedness of our lives in a complex system which we have built, but which none of us understand or control and which has us all hostage. The most innocent of our actions have great moral consequences, such as buying a mobile phone which uses materials obtained from Congolese warlords, thus helping finance one of the most appalling conflicts on the planet.

What is the answer? "Avatar" certainly had none — the movie was made by the very system which it criticises and the ending is ridiculous. I think the real answer is both darker and in some ways easier than we would like: no great moral revolution, but a running down of the system back to a level of relative powerlessness, with no change in human nature at its core.

The "system" as it is, runs on the inchoate desires of us all. We get the political systems and politicians we "deserve" because very often they represent the various poles of our unresolved moral dilemmas, and we project the "otherness" of the parts of ourselves we can't handle onto those we see as our political foes, and over-idealise our political friends who stand for all our "good" bits. This is a childish morality which is undoing the sense of community which we need to preserve our present social systems, and it stems from a childish relationship to the forces which control our lives — necessarily, because we hardly understand them! Thus the system falls apart in yet another way, adding to resource depletion and overpopulation.

Thus the wheel revolves and the great cycle of nature takes its course.

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