REVIEW | Avatar: Storyworld creation, justice and environmentalism on Pandora and Earth

It may seem that watching Avatar is akin to taking a libertarian pill. True, the libertarian nutrients are rich and of universal appeal. Unfortunately, the pill is also laced with the same bad old drug: anti-technology, anti-business, and pro-primitivism.

(Estimated spoiler risk: Moderate)

Avatar is a beautiful piece of modern visual artistry and it deals reasonably well for a film with several classic science fiction themes (see the postscript for recommended novels). It portrays legitimate defense against military aggression, making a much-needed popular statement of anti-militarism.

The story of a soldier looking for “a single thing worth fighting for” is poignant. How often throughout history has the impulse to defend been manipulated and twisted for unsavory political aims?

Roderick Long said in his review that, “The movie’s most important message may be this: soldiers are responsible, as individuals, for the actions they carry out, and when they’re ordered to do something immoral they have an obligation to disobey.”

Despite the film’s thematic positives, it also encourages some dangerous misconceptions. It identifies as a “corporation” an entity that carries out actions that only states on Earth are known to perform. It also mixes a clear and principled justice issue with a primitivist, anti-technology motif in a bait-and-switch rhetorical move.

We will tease apart these and a few other confusions, clearing a path through the film’s Rousseauian intellectual thicket wide enough to enable us to enjoy the show without compromising our minds. In examining these confusions, it is instructive to reflect on the role of storyworld creators, both those who create science fiction and those who create "message," news, spin, and sometimes even "science."

In enjoying science fiction, we happily hand over to storyworld creators the power to temporarily redefine reality. We must take extra care to take back that ability at the theater exit or upon closing the novel. Other kinds of storytellers await us in the non-fictional world, and their motives do not include providing entertainment.

The justice issue: how the plot could have been made more challenging and why it wasn’t: Stephan Kinsella characterized the dominant plot issue in the film as illegitimate invasion met with legitimate defense. In his review, he writes that Avatar, “was about a group of people (the Na’vi) defending their property rights on the world Pandora from aggressors (the human invaders), and about one of the humans (a soldier named Jake Sully) deciding to join and help the right side.”

This aspect is present and strong. Yet there are also negatives swirled deeply into the mix in ways that will make certain key issues quite difficult for most people to keep straight.

To begin with, the film makes a weak attempt to portray the antagonist entity as a “private corporation.” Kinsella linked to Lester Hunt’s review, which argues powerfully that it has been states throughout history that engage in the practices this “corporation” is shown engaging in. Hunt identifies these practices as: “using military force to invade and conquer foreign lands, slaughtering wholesale numbers of the inhabitants and burning their dwellings, all in order to steal their property.”

From the anti-corporate left-liberal perspective, using fiction to misrepresent a military mini-state as a business corporation may be designed to suggest rhetorically that certain corporations can influence government policy, including military deployments, in pursuit of their own narrow ends. The left liberal seldom realizes, however, that the offending corporations are working to gain special advantages at the expense of everyone else, including other corporations, sometimes especially their own competitors, so this is no basis for criticizing corporations as such, merely the offending ones and only for actual offenses. See Murray Rothbard’s classic article, “Wall Street, Banks, and American Foreign Policy.”

From a libertarian standpoint, the actions of the militarized quasi-corporate entity portrayed in this film clearly place it far outside the realm of acceptable market action, defined by the sphere of mutually consensual exchange of titles to property. In fact, since it attacks property that has clearly long before been homesteaded, it has absolutely no moral or legal leg to stand on. I felt this point was made too simply from a dramatic standpoint, though that simplicity may have been strategic, a point to which we shall shortly return.

The bad guys could have been given at least some shred of plausible claim to right. For example, if the miners failed to persuade the tribe to move, they could have drilled in from a location the tribe did not own. They could have reinforced and later backfilled the mines so the surface would not be affected. Of course, that would be a large added cost of extraction for the miners, but there would be no need to negotiate, and bitter, long-term enemies (another substantial cost and risk item at best) would not be created.

But this would leave no conflict for the film, so the miners in this example, in tunneling from the side, might miss something about the geography or ecosystem. Perhaps they are about to damage the homesteaded tribal village or great tree without realizing it. Now we would have a real conflict. Both sides would have at least a potential claim to right, though possibly mistaken. We would be beyond melodrama.

As portrayed, however, the bad guys are the embodiment of pure wrongdoing, so viewers do not have to trouble their higher brain centers in order to figure out whose side to be on. But perhaps this theme is presented in such simplistic terms because it serves as a sure-fire delivery mechanism for another theme, one that, while supposedly Earth-friendly, stands on shaky ground.

Environmentalism, real threats, and storyworld creation: The depiction of alternative creatures, plants, and ecosystem is creative, plausible enough to be entertaining and captivating, and beautifully handled. In assessing the environmental statements this film makes, though, one must tread carefully. The film does two things simultaneously: 1) it presents a science-fictional storyworld, the assumptions behind which viewers must accept to enjoy the show and 2) it attempts to make an environmental statement that viewers will take out of the theater with them.

On Pandora, there are verifiable scientific realities in the ecosystem that scientists and other protagonists begin to understand during the film. The militarist mining-intent faction of the humans do not much understand this and most emphatically do not care. These emerging science-fictional facts about Pandora may well influence the lifestyle choices of the natives, making a primitive life close to nature more attractive.

Viewers accept all of this for the purpose of entering and enjoying the story. However, even though these conditions are quite different from the non-fictional facts of Earth, many viewers will emerge from the theater feeling that Earth is like Pandora in more ways than it actually is. Many will mentally check how much they have lately donated to environmental organizations. Indeed, the Sky People (Earthers) are said to have destroyed the whole ecosystem of their own planet!

While the film mercifully refrains from specifying exactly how the humans did this, an average contemporary audience in 2009 and 2010—most of whom will lack the benefit of a warm-up from Richard Lindzen or Lord Monckton—will clearly surmise that this must have been done through some combination of industrial pollution, resource depletion, and catastrophic anthropogenic global climate change.

The problem is that the anthropogenic global climate change hypothesis and associated catastrophe scenarios are themselves largely fictitious (see, for example, Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years). Use of weak science gives science fiction a bad name. Science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) is supposed to strive to extrapolate from real science as much as possible. But what a useful metaphor fictional storyworld is for our real world and its politics. Most people, for example, accept the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis. They accept what the storyworld creators—pseudo-science-fiction writers and producers in government, state-funded academia, some corporations, and the mass media—tell us to believe about the Earth.

Will Avatar, given the general state of logical and scientific thinking these days, help people better distinguish fact from fiction? In most cases, I think it will help blur the lines further because of the prevailing context of opinion into which the film appears.

Unfortunately, there is a real, verifiable way that certain humans could destroy the entire Earth ecosystem—nuclear war. This is an invention of the very class of entity—the state—to which many AGW doomsayers seem intent to hand virtually unlimited power. It is only the state that has repeatedly proven itself to engage in mass destruction and pillaging in real life. Nuclear war is a statist activity that has nothing to do with genuine commerce, property rights, mining, energy, tribalism, nature, or any other legitimate value the film treats. Worse, it is not a fictional, hyped threat, but a real one.

Watch out for the bait-and-switch: The story structure of Avatar pulls a classic bait-and-switch move of the kind I identified in my analysis of President Obama’s inauguration address. The plot takes people in with a universal theme of aggression met with justifiable defense. It then thoroughly mixes this theme up with elements of tribal-environmentalist, anti-industry fantasy.

These themes are so thoroughly blended that few viewers will be able to distinguish them. Most viewers are rightfully on the side of those defending their homes and neighbors against aggression. But these same viewers are welcomed to take on in the bargain a vaguely Luddite, pro-hunter-gatherer attitude that is actually an entirely separate matter.

It may seem that watching Avatar is akin to taking a libertarian pill. True, the libertarian nutrients are rich and of universal appeal. Unfortunately, the pill is also laced with the same bad old drug: anti-technology, anti-business, and pro-primitivism. Authentic justice acts as the delivery mechanism for a primitivist hallucinogen. That does not make this a bad movie. It just means that when we walk out of the theater, we have to make an extra effort to separate legitimate principles from vague, primitivist yearnings.

Few contemporary viewers are equipped to do this well, especially with a theme as hallowed as environmentalism. Most are unlikely to realize that tribal or hunter/gatherer life, at least on Earth, is almost always glorified in rich-country portrayals—the disease, unceasing work, cyclical starvation, and early death it entails in real life is rarely portrayed in the fantasy versions (see Rothbard’s “Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism, and the Division of Labor“). The storyworld premises of Avatar could be viewed in the context of a long line of fictional mechanisms for such glorification.

To get his primal energies back, modern man needs to go running, play a sport, or go for a hike, not work to destroy the foundations of civilization by trying to substitute an unreal version of primitive life for the actual social and environmental conditions required for authentic thriving.

Equally important, one must be able to distinguish legitimate productive activity, generally characteristic of businesses, from naked aggression, generally characteristic of statesa distinction that films like this work mightily to obscure.

Overall, I found this an engaging fictional storyworld and fun entertainment. Along with its confusions, it portrays positive values of justice, courage, and discovery. With some reflection, one can tease apart the separate legal and enviro-ethical issues the story so deeply mixes and get on with enjoying the show.

Let’s just be perfectly clear on the backstory, though. How could the Sky People realistically have destroyed their own ecosystem?

Only the state is up to performing at that scope of evil.

Postscript: Novel recommendations

Sci-fi theme 1—Consciousness transfer: Avatar handled the theme of consciousness transfer into another body reasonably well. It has been done in much more depth in novels. Old Man’s War (2005) by John Scalzi depicts consciousness transfer into a cloned and genetically modified version of one’s own body, optimized for military performance (and younger). Forever Peace (1997) by Joe Haldeman, which won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and a Campbell Award—a rare feat—depicts technologies for direct consciousness linkup to remote mechanical fighting machines. It explores the moral dilemmas this entails and is a wonderful metaphor for the modern mechanized soldier.

Sci-fi theme 2—Identification with aliens: It is always an impressive feat when science fiction can invite us to identify with an alien species. Avatar manages it. Two great science fiction novels do it at a deeper level. The creatures into the inner lives of which Vernor Vinge transports us in A Fire Upon the Deep (1992; Hugo Award) and A Deepness in the Sky (1999; another Hugo Award, a Campbell Award, and a Prometheus Award) are not even humanoid, they are structured entirely differently and yet he gives us a sense of what it would be like to be one of them.