December 18, 2009

Cameron's "Avatar"

An interstellar mining consortium is seeking to harvest an extremely valuable mineral from a moon circling a distant planet. The moon is named, "Pandora", and it is the home to a race of blue humanoids roughly twice the size of you and I. A botanist is with the mining crew, along with a sizable detachment of heavily armed mercenaries. All this is old territory. Science fiction has dealt in this theme, and in these icons, ever since the middle of the nineteenth century when H.G. Wells divided the future Earth between a peaceful surface race and a violent subterranean one. The one new idea brought to the table is the self-aware Gaia-world which allows the planet itself to take an active and decisive role in the final confrontation.

But don't let that stop you from seeing the movie. It is visually stunning, emotionally stirring, and intellectually captivating. The Na'vi are more simian, more violent, and more realistic than their archetype demands, and the greedy corporate raider who commands the mining company outpost is more compassionate, and more trapped between what he must do and what he wants to do, than his archetype is normally allowed to be. All told, this is the most human approach to the problem of exploitation versus preservation that science fiction has ever presented us. This is Heinlein territory, or perhaps Asimov. "Avatar" has the potential to transform the genre in ways we have not seen since the days of post WWII pulp magazines.

It is not, however, the most humane, and that troubles me.

Art creates reality in the same way that reality creates art. The two are locked in a dance of give and take that has been with us since the beginning of self-awareness some 250,000 years ago. "Avatar" is the latest in a long string of stylized cave paintings that reveals our inner world in a consciously vain and narcissistic effort to manipulate the external world. Once again humanity is positioned as the center of creation and when two different human cultures meet, the result is as bloody and violent as ever. I am left heartbroken not at the destruction and death such meetings always produce, but at our own inability to move beyond seeing our individual self as the center of a vast web of interlinked networks whose sole purpose is feeding the ego.

Communism failed, and failed badly. The Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight and China had to take on capitalist economics in order to survive. The people of both Myanmar and North Korea are starving, dressed in rags, and forced to live under the iron hand of a dictator who sees the natural resources of their respective country as his own personal possession. Zimbabwe and Somalia have now joined them, while the rest of Africa struggles to move forward against such widespread corruption that each country defines its neighbor according to the level of graft in daily life. South America is little better, and our "advanced Western society" daily sinks closer to the same depths of corruption and poverty.

"Avatar", after four years of production, is released during the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. This is no accident. Idealism and utopianism still view capitalists as evil and glorify the settled hunter-gather lifestyle as living in perfect harmony with nature rather than as the desperate struggle for survival it really is. James Cameron is going to make a fortune off of this movie and is going to use that fortune to reinforce his own luxurious lifestyle. Radical global warming activists riot in the streets of Copenhagen then return to well-heated, well-lit, well-connected homes that only exist because natural resources have been exploited to build them and are continually exploited to maintain a pleasant warm cocoon against the worst blizzard Copenhagen has seen in decades.

There is no golden past for humanity to return to. The gates of Eden are permanently blocked by the flaming swords of the cherubim. We can only move forward and the only way for us to move forward is to stop viewing our physical and spiritual needs as being locked in competition. We need both the food, warmth, water, and sex that keeps our species alive and the emotional communion of family, friends, and society that keeps us sane. The two cannot be separated and as long as we continue to view them as combatants we will continue to destroy everyone who opposes our desperate struggle to get those needs met.

Our only hope, the only way our children and grandchildren will reach the stars and survive the collapse of our sun, is if we learn to cooperate. The advantage of free market capitalism over communal sharing of resources is that it provides a clear incentive to find that cooperation, reach that balance of exploitation versus preservation, and allow us each the luxury of free time to spend with our friends and families.

The only way for the benefits of a future space-faring commerce to blend seamlessly with the needs of an alien race of hunter-gathers is for us, before we ever leave this planet, to learn to live together. If we cannot live together, then the vision of "Avatar" will never be realized for one reason and one reason only: humanity will self-destruct.

The one thing the climate change alarmists do have right is that our time is limited. We are on a clock, a clock that will not stop counting down no matter what technology we develop to sustain ourselves. It is a matter of billions of years rather than decades, but the clock is still very real, and the outcome very final. Global warming is only one minor symptom. It is not the problem. The real problem is that everything changes, including the sun, including the earth, including our view of ourselves. There is no utopian past, and there is no utopian future. The time has come to wake up from our daydream and work together. Not because of some collective need for peace and tranquility, but because the longer we dwell in narcissistic hypocrisy the closer we come to the day our sun goes nova.

It's not about environmental preservation versus capitalist exploitation. It's about a finite pool of natural resources and a very real cataclysmic end that could occur in as little as a few million generations. One day the world will end and if we have not freed ourselves from the bonds of this Earth then humanity will end with it.