Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Balance and Progress: The Philosophy of Avatar

I’d previously ignored all the hype and pre-story about Avatar, however one piece I had seen was Miranda Devine’s claim that the ingenious blue humanoid Na’vis philosophy of balance (as against the company’s push for change & development) makes it a lefty film. Watching the movie this weekend I came away finding myself both often rooting for the Company against the Na’vi and of the view that if any political philosophy is to be found within it, Avatar is a deeply conservative movie. To illustrate this, I want to replace the usual left/right divide and propose a slightly more pejorative version: Up, Balance, Down. See the chart on the right (Apologies I only have MS Paint to hand)

The Up Agenda:
Taking Darwin’s Origin of Species as a guiding light, Upward political philosophies see nature as inherently amoral and hostile, with relief only possible through development, change and progress. This means a certain willingness to deliberately shape both human and natural environments as an aid to larger goals. Economic theories which have political currency take this path given their focus on increased prosperity, either in an opportunity sense (capitalism) or an outcome sense (communism). Liberalism, with its strong views of what an ideal society ought to look like, regularly strives for progressive change, as does a nationalistic platform which sees future prestige/power for the nation (like building up a big army & using it).
Reaching its height in the Enlightenment and the triumph of reason, these political philosophies argue that deliberate action can shape naturally found environments for the better. Of course not all paths are equal, liberals reject communist reasoning and aims and vice versa. None of these philosophies would justify the abuse suffered either here on earth by the environment/native populations or the deliberate destruction of the Na’vi’s homeland, but finding themselves in an environment which is far far less welcoming that found on Pandora (more on that later) the only true means of survival of the species is development. Comparing current living standards to previous ages seems to emphatically support the case, such as our increased ability to withstand natural disasters, disease, and have enough resources to ensure re-population and growth. Of course there are always unintended consequences, of which global warming is as good an example as possible. And this, the Balance agenda would charge is the problem with Up philosophies.

The Balance Agenda
At the heart of the Na’vis world view in Avatar is a belief of all things in balance. Cameron cheats here, by making the spiritual link with nature of indigenous earth bound human populations a biological reality, via the tendrils at the end of their hair, and shown most directly in the attempt to switch humans into the bodies of the Navi at the Spirit Tree. Man and nature are one. At heart of a balance philosophy the view that nature (both environmental and human) automatically produces a stable and sustainable environment, so long as we don’t interfere too greatly. A belief in god is often important here as a deliberate balancing agent(either as creator or tweaker), however it is not necessary.
Devine and co-charge this represents a green left agenda, seeking to maintain the environment, but it is also a deeply conservative agenda too. Both environmentally (as UK Tory leader David Cameron and blogger Andrew Sullivan endorse, and Tony Abbott seemed to claim in his recent speech) and socially as a defence of the status quo. Of course sometimes positive action needs to be taken to maintain the strength of pre-existing institutions and social structures. Social Democrats often take this line, arguing that only with a decent welfare system and adding legislation to protect and stabilise during difficult periods (ie minimum wage/maternity leave), we can achieve a better equilibrium. Having effectively achieved that mix by the mid-20th century, their focus has been balance ever since. Conservatism is at times embued with a spirit of progress, such as its embrace if not recent subservience to capitalism, just as the green left are often socially liberal in a way social democrats are not. But overall, none of these political theories seek radical social-restructure, rather action to protect the critical elements of the status quo in both nature and the environment. Even facing a threat like Global Warming, the Green Left still largely seeks to maintain society as is, just made side changes (like switching depleting fuel sources for sustainable ones). Even their railing against capitalism and growth (see as Clive Hamiltons work) is to seek a better stability across society.

The Down Agenda
Rarely seen, some political philosophies do in fact advocate a regressive turn. The best recent example is the Taliban in Afghanistan who steadily returned women into the home, reduced the role of education, science and tools of entertainment (even so far as banning kites), all in the name of seeking an idealised former past (whose historical existence is often doubtful). As Karen Armgstrong shows in ‘The Battle for God’, this is a common move of rebels within all three of the major monotheistic religions, but it need not necessarily be religiously driven. It combines both a belief in an earlier balanced time period, with a reason/religious drive to re-shape the environment to the ideal.

Fascism, such as the Nazis of Germany is also driven by views of a mytholigised past of Aryan domination. Hence they sought to re-take the ‘homeland’ of old, change social mores, and remove those parts of the population which challenged that stability (intellectuals, gypsies, gays, jews etc). It was this idea of a regressive return to ancient village life which seems to have most enticed the philosopher martin Heidegger, though ironically, the Nazi’s combined this with the most modern technology of warfare and industrialization as the tools for implementation.

(This is obviously a rough and quibbable dissection. Capitalism after all is represented as a natural phenomena by its supporters, and hence best left to its own devices to seek equlibrium. However, that’s really only the case theoretically rather than practically, and even Adam Smith saw the need for a human hand at work to keep the mechanism functioning properly (such as the removal of monopolies and establishment of law and order). It is also subverted as countries endorse capitalism largely for its prosperity benefits rather than it’s potential for equilibrium or justice. I’m happy to hear any arguments about placings/other political philosophies I’ve left out in the comments)

When thinking about this during the movie, I found myself often quite sympathetic to the Company. Cameron has to venture into the realms of science fiction to make the Na’vi’s philosophy of balance/connection to nature a physical reality, careful never to show disease or suffering which they must in fact suffer far greater than any modern western citizen (notice that the oldest Na’vi is no more than about 50). Here on earth, I see no evidence that such balance is to be found. We may well be the only tiny rock in an unimaginably big universe which sustains life. Everywhere else, like Mars where it may once have survived, it’s now long dead.The planet earth as we know it was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. First life did not emerge in the broiling seas until at least a billion years later, with what we know as life, ie multi-cellular organisms over 3 billion years later. Human existence can be credibly stretched back to 200’000 years. Even today with all our development and knowledge, nature still daily tries to kill us. Haiti, China, Pakistan have all suffered recent earthquakes, The Pacific and South East Asia Tsunami’s, most of the world see’s floods regularly, with many area’s copping tornado’s & hurricanes too. Not to mention diseases, accidents, wild animals, droughts, storms, etc. As little as we know, asteroids the size of cities could be streaming directly towards this earth, certain to snuff out all life with them, they’ve hit before, and we wouldn’t know until too late, and with no sensible options for saving ourselves. What comforts we have gained (steady access to shelter & food) are because humans have changed the world to suit our needs. For every flourishing of nature in one area, another is too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet to sustain humanity. Hell over 70% of the planet is covered by seas which are largely lethal to us, and certainly cant be lived in (without significant developments such as building submarines, underwater structures).

As a progressive, I think the idea of balance is a myth. That doesn’t mean that life or the environment in all it’s myriad ways is worthless. In fact it makes it far far more worthy, because it is so rare and unique that any life has managed to survive. There is no way that the Company should be allowed to destroy such a resource as they do in the moview. But unlike the Na’vi, the green left, conservatives, I don’t believe that only careful management can ensure the survival of our species. It is either up or out. The Na’vi’s life is not a viable model of existence. Unlike the regressives, I don’t believe that humanities best days have already come and gone. I believe that with careful, humble reason, based on as careful a study and knowledge of nature in all its glories and threats, we can improve society, both human and natural and eek out a survival. Devine ought to take a second look at the movie, it’s got a very conservative philosophy at heart. Even Cameron has to cheat to achieve it.

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  1. Matt C

     /  January 19, 2010

    I agree that the conservative reaction against Avatar appears ironic but I don’t completely understand your argument here.

    It would help if you clearly define what you mean by conservatism (which I recognise is hard as no one normally takes the time to do so). At times, you seem to suggest that conservatism advocates no change (or even a regression) to achieve some form of balance or harmony.

    But most conservatives recognise that change is necessary. One of Burke’s most famous quotes is, “a society without the means of change, is without the means of its conservation.” Remember Blake was a whig who was anti-slavery and advocated a more moderate approach to the American colonies.

    Further, the concept of balance or harmony is not one that I have seen conservative authors spend much time on. This is a concept more in line with William Blake and other Romantic figures. Indeed, at time you seem to confuse romanticism and conservatism.

    Romanticism was a reaction against the enlightenment. It seeks a return to a more idyllic, non-scientific time, which in their view, was more attune with the way human beings behave.

    Conservativism shares some attributes with this worldview. Specifically, it does reject overly scientific or rational approaches to real-world problems; arguing that mere humans cannot disentangle all the different problems and possibilities that alternative options might generate. Instead, we should revere those traditions and practices that have lasted, noting that their longevity indicates that they have some worth, even though that may not be evident to even the cleverest.

    But it is crucially different in other ways. Romanticism wants a return to a world that it sees as much better than the present. Conservatism has none of this. It specifically rejects the possibility of a utopia. Although it reveres traditions and customs, it does not pine for long-forgotten ways of living.

    Finally, I must say I haven’t actually seen Avatar so I can’t comment on how all this relates to the specifics of the movie.

  2. Rob

     /  January 19, 2010

    You are right to point out that Cameron has to cheat in his sci-fi universe to make his ‘balancing’ philosophy work, but I think his sleight-of-hand is even more devious than you describe. Essentially he is advocating a hunter-gatherer / tribal way of life as more ‘in-tune’ with nature. His movie allows us to play out the tragic colonisation narratives of North/South America, Australia etc. from the other side, where the technologically powerful, nature-raping, intruding colonists are militarily defeated by a society which has a mystic link with nature which the colonists cannot comprehend.

    This is pretty much the 18th century ideal of the ‘noble savage’, and whatever the philosophical merits/de-merits of this concept, there are two interconnected reasons why Avatar’s promotion of it fails in the real world:

    1. The native aliens in Avatar actually can commune with nature, by being able to plug into animals and trees with their pony tails, something which no human society has ever been able to do (I hope).

    2. This ability to force animals to do what they want (hardly really ‘balance’ when you think about it) is what eventually allows the aliens to militarily defeat the humans. i.e. by riding dragons and horse-things into battle.

    This cheat means that Avatar’s aliens get all the benefits that we mere humans can only achieve through crude and nasty domestication of animals and plants. It essentially falls into the all-too-common trap which sees indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples (for example Indigenous Australians) as somehow different from the colonisers, when in fact we are all just humans…with no funky glow in the dark blue skin or ability to connect our brains to trees…

  3. Hi Matt – Thanks for your comments. By Conservative, I mean the political theory which through taking a somewhat negative view of human nature, reject that society can be socially engineered. This is very much in line with Burke and his concern with the social fabric and organic development of society. An agenda seeking balance is not anti-change as you rightly note, but rather seeks to maintain that which naturally emerges.

    Of course modern anglo-american conservatism (if it even deserves the name) is quite a different beast, as willing to engage in social engineering as those they oppose, and defined more by an identity than a conservative temperament or philosophical view of the world.

    Conservatives wouldn’t call it a harmony or balance, but they see an appropriate justice and equilibrium in the natural ordering of society. That some are wealthy & some poor is a natural and ‘just’ outcome, and attempts to interfere with it seeking radical equality (from the french revolution to Communism) are doomed to failure. Therefore Conservatives, unlike Romantics and the Green Left, don’t necessarily endorse what a natural society looks like (ie many conservatives were critical in ending racism, addressing poverty or giving women rights), but they do think trying to stick as close to it as possible it is the only viable option.

    G’day Rob – I certainly agree. Examples of early or tribal humans wiping out species or significantly changing environments are numerous (for example the Megafauna in Australia died out shortly after humans first arrived here 40-50 thousand years ago). Technology and population mean our damage is on a scale unprecedented, but that is only a quantitative not a qualitative difference. Not to mention that developed society is very environmentally aware, from clean air acts, to addressing acid rain, nuclear waste, water pollution and now trying desperately to address climate change without sending our species into poverty if not mass deprivation. We’ve damage the earth, but we know it, and we’re trying to fix it.

  4. chris

     /  January 21, 2010

    “Technology and population mean our damage is on a scale unprecedented, but that is only a quantitative not a qualitative difference”

    can you expand on this? Are you suggesting that the amount to which we damage the environment has no impact on the quality of our lives? Quality of the environment? I don’t understand 😀

  5. By that comment I mean that, it is only the scope & size of damage which is different, not the type. People today are no more malicious or have a desire to destroy the environment than human beings at any other time in existence. We simply have more people (with necessary effects) & our technology works quicker (ie chainsaws instead of axes to cut down forests).

  6. chris

     /  January 21, 2010

    The environment doesn’t care about our intentions or desires. In the past humans lived well within sustainable limits, it’s our rapid growth in numbers coupled with a huge increase in demand for natural resources that makes us more destructive now than ever before. We have a responsibility to live within our means, something we are all failing at miserably!

  7. Chris – “In the past humans lived well within sustainable limits,” I don’t think thats true, and that is one of my central concerns with Avatar.

    Indigenous people may speak of their connection to nature (and well be right) but the empirical record shows they shaped & changed it just like we do. The only real sustainable use of environments occurred when farming began. Until then people simply used up resources & moved on (such as the aboriginal tribes migratory patterns). There are many many cases of species of animals & plants which didn’t survive their first contact with humanity.

    The only difference is they couldn’t change it as much as we can. Either negatively, or as is starting to occur, for good (preserved natural areas, re-breeding endangered species, addressing climate change etc)