Stranger than Fiction
Avatar, Copenhagen, and the Politics of Climate Change
You know humanity’s in trouble when James Cameron is a more credible authority on climate change than Barack Obama. While Obama is returning from a disappointing meeting in Copenhagen that was supposed to address the danger of global warming, Cameron is leading the way in promoting a critical public dialogue on the dangers of unsustainable development. Cameron is one of the most celebrated directors of this generation, and his new film Avatar is an unapologetic attack on imperialist wars, environmental degradation, and the culture of corporate greed.
Avatar is set in the year 2154 on a far off planet, Pandora, which is targeted by multi-galactic corporations for exploitation because of its rich natural resources. There’s only one problem: a native population - known as the Na’vi - is sitting in the way. The corporate executive leading the human expedition to Pandora - played brilliantly by actor Giovanni Ribisi, decides early on that the Na’vi must be forcibly removed from their land in order to ensure the efficient extraction of a valuable mineral - comically dubbed “unobtanium” - which will help ensure his company massive profits and perhaps solve the looming energy crisis that is plaguing a dying Earth. Playing a war veteran and paraplegic, actor Sam Worthington assumes the film’s lead role as Jake Sully, a war veteran and participant in the Avatar program, in which he controls one of many alien bodies (mixed with human DNA) that are designed and grown for the purpose of infiltrating Pandora and winning the trust of the Na’vi (in order to force their removal).
Avatar is an unflinching condemnation of American militarism, including the genocidal violence conducted against Native American peoples, and the murderous “shock and awe” aggression of the U.S. in Iraq which has led to the deaths of over one million Iraqis. The film also exposes the dark underbelly of mercenary violence in light of the brutal attacks on Iraqi civilians by groups like groups like Blackwater and Aegis Defense Services. In Avatar, the military campaign against Pandora’s natives is led by military veterans who are opportunistically employed by the Resources Developmental Administration - the corporation responsible for leading the intergalactic expedition - against the native Na’vi.
While film critics laud Avatar’s stunning 3-D special effects - which cost an estimated $230 million to create - the most valuable aspect of the movie is its contribution to a much needed dialogue on the dangers of climate change and the hollowness of materialist culture. Central to the film is a moral challenge to capitalism, as well as a questioning of enlightenment notions of linear “progress,” personified through efforts to commodify nature - as if it is simply one more material resource to be instrumentally packaged and exploited. Avatar challenges humanity’s blind commitment to the ever expanding quarterly corporate profits system and the preoccupation with economic growth at the expense of our future. Are the last 150 years of our history a magnificent representation of the height of human civilization and splendor, or do they represent a failing experiment, marked by the pursuit of corporate greed and the deterioration of the natural world? Avatar tackles these critical questions with a style and frankness that is rare in the world of big business filmmaking. The true paradox is that this movie will be one of the most profitable films of all time. Still, the ideological contradictions inherent in the capitalist system should not prevent movie-goers from appreciating this film, despite the efforts of mainstream movie critics to ignore or condemn its political messages.
Movie critics from corporate newspapers across the country have marveled at Avatar’s technological brilliance, while ignoring its warnings about the destructive consumption of non-renewable resources and the effects on the planet and humanity. The corporate press seeks to indoctrinate Americans into believing that “success” and the “American dream” are driven by how many widgets one purchases. The logical contradiction of attempts to satisfy ones’ emotional needs through a consumer system that always leaves one wanting more is not lost in Cameron’s latest work, although the message is clearly missed by the film’s reviewers. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times celebrates Cameron as a cinematic “visionary,” while denigrating Avatar for being an “anti-technology film that touts the healing powers of nature but is up to its neck in the latest gizmos and gadgets.” Joe Morgenstern of the reactionary Wall Street Journal laments that “the closer the story comes to a lumbering parable of colonialist aggression in the jungles of an extragalactic Vietnam, the more the enchantment fizzles.” USA Today’s Claudia Puigi is in awe at the films “breathtaking” special effects, but not its “clunky dialogue.” In the Boston Globe, Ty Burr attacks this “latest high-tech entertainment [which] lecture[s] us that technology is wrong. Human civilization too. The movie’s cultural politics are childishly two-dimensional, at times insulting, especially if you know anything about the armed forces.” Associated Press entertainment writer Jake Coyle criticizes the movie as clichéd: “the message of environmentalism and of tree-hugging resonates, but such a plainly just cause also saps Avatar of drama and complexity.”
Upton Sinclair once said that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” Occupational ignorance is of no surprise considering that Avatar’s critics have built prestigious careers in a corporate media system that sells the public on the virtues of limitless consumption. It turns out that it’s very difficult for mainstream pundits to recognize the lies sold by the mass media and by corporate political elites - specifically the false promises that continuous product consumption can make you happy and whole, and that the rest of the world can be “just like the U.S.” if they sign on to “free market” capitalism. Elementary logic suggests that these promises (especially the second one) are a sham, considering that the U.S. consumes 25 percent of the world’s energy, with a population of only 300 million people. Some basic arithmetic demonstrates that, if the world’s poor actually took the U.S. up on the promise of limitless affluence, we would need approximately six Earths for the planet’s 6.7 billion people to reach America’s level of consumption.
The verbal scorn Avatar’s politics received from the punditry hasn’t stopped corporations from trying to cash in, in Orwellian style, from the film’s financial success. Perversely, the film has been tied in to product advertisements for McDonald’s Big Mac, LG cell phones, and Coke Zero. Still, those who view the film with a critical eye will have little difficulty recognizing its anti-consumerist, anti-imperialist themes. Furthermore, Cameron’s politics are quite insightful at a time when scholars document the United States’ reliance on indiscriminate violence and collective punishment in fighting in Iraq (see Michael Schwartz’s excellent book, War Without End for more on this). Similarly, Cameron’s suspicion of mass consumption is on point. The past 150 years of capitalism’s “progress” are founded on an unsustainable carbon-based economy, and no political or business leaders have come up with any coherent plan for how to wean humanity off of destructive non-renewable technologies. Currently 86 percent of world energy consumption is derived from fossil fuels, and the likely impact of the failure to cut such consumption is the major focus of environmental scientists in the wake of the failed Copenhagen talks. Finally, Cameron’s analysis of the structural impediments to sustainable development is truly insightful. Cameron does not take the easy way out, like many directors who caricature corporations as the evil embodiment of a few bad apple executives. Quite the contrary, the major face of corporate power in the film is the CEO-esque figure, Carter Selfridge (again played by Giovanni Ribisi), who explains that the forced removal of the native Na’vi from their land is nothing personal and something he doesn’t enjoy doing. Selfridge explains that businesses demand ever increasing quarterly profits. All companies, after all, have to make money. Selfridge’s self-acknowledged racism and contempt for the Na’vi is also politically relevant, in light of the U.S. occupation of Muslim lands and the continuing attacks on Muslims that are present in American popular culture and in the press (I document these biases at length in “Fort Hood Fallout,” Z Net, Dec. 4, 2009).
In the classic poem “Don Juan,” Lord Byron explained that “truth is always strange, stranger than fiction.” This saying remains relevant in light of the global warming debacle. Who would have thought that in a film like Avatar, set in a fantastic and remote science fiction world, we would discover more truth about ourselves than in the real life Copenhagen conference, spearheaded by political leaders who refuse to acknowledge the obvious reality that there are real ecological limits to economic development?
Little of substance has come from the Copenhagen meetings, celebrated by Obama as an “unprecedented breakthrough” in the effort to save the planet for humankind. The deal supposedly commits India, China, and the U.S. to reducing CO2 emissions in the future, while pushing the U.S. and its allies to provide $100 billion a year to help the Third World reach emission reduction targets by 2020. In reality, the targets set by Obama have fallen far short of the demanded cuts scientists say are needed to curb global warming. Perhaps most importantly, the Copenhagen agreement contains virtually no details on how aid to the Third World will be funded, and no deadlines for when (if ever) this “agreement” will be made legally binding. Celebrating Copenhagen in light of this non-binding agreement is akin to celebrating laws outlawing financial speculation which have no enforcement mechanisms.
Mainstream media discourse on Copenhagen has ranged from non-existent to counterproductive. An examination of all the cable news programming on MSNBC, Fox, and CNN from December 17-19 - during the height of the Copenhagen talks - finds that just 12 of the 52 stories covering the event (less than a quarter) are accompanied by any sort of public policy debate. In other words, there’s been very little actual discussion among media guests on the progress of the talks and the merits and drawbacks of the agreement reached. Rather than critically evaluating the meetings, most of the reporting simply parroted the statements and actions of those who attended the meeting - specifically Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
When debate did take place, it was largely toxic. Out of the 12 cable programs that did contain debate about Copenhagen, three quarters (nine programs) sought to construct an artificial debate about the “controversy” of global warming. These discussions featured on one side the conclusions of the vast majority of the scientific community that global warming is real, caused by human activity, and represents a serious danger to humanity, and “the other side,” populated by a very small community of deniers (including conservative politicians, fossil fuel-funded think tank representatives, and right-wing pundits) who conspiratorially claim that global warming is a hoax created by scientists to gain prestige and make money, and that making unneeded cuts in CO2 emissions will destroy jobs and impair the economy. Sadly, the public “debate” on Copenhagen hasn’t gotten beyond propagandistic and brain dead claims that one has to choose between the environment and the economy.
The severe deterioration of our media culture on a major issue like climate change is unfortunate in light of the public mandate that exists for immediate action. A USA Today/Gallup poll from the second week of December suggests that 55 percent of Americans currently favor “signing a binding global treaty at the Copenhagen meeting that would require the U.S. to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” An ABC/Washington Post poll from this month demonstrates that 65 percent of the public agrees that “the federal government should regulate the release of greenhouse gases from sources like power plants, cars, and factories in an effort to reduce global warming.” Majority public support for curbing CO2 emissions is all the more impressive in light of the media and political assault on the science of global warming (for more details, see my article: “A Culture of Denial” Z Net, November 22, 2009). Public opinion is always susceptible to manipulation, and we should not be surprised if the public becomes less open to proposed CO2 cuts as climate change deniers intensify their efforts to block Congressional action.
Obama’s trip to Copenhagen represents a window of opportunity for progressives. A renewed environmental movement is absolutely necessary to counter the barrage of misinformation that global warming deniers will employ as legislation aimed at reducing CO2 emissions is debated in the Senate in 2010. Progressives must make it their first priority to challenge global warming propaganda, as we’ve seen the damage that can be done when corporate voices manipulate public opinion in the battle over health care reform. This time, we have the opportunity to learn from our past failings.
Anthony DiMaggio is the author of “When Media Goes to War” (forthcoming from Monthly Review Press in February 2010) and “Mass Media, Mass Propaganda” (2008). He teaches U.S. and Global Politics at Illinois State University and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org