After 13 years of waiting, Avatar finally has a sequel in the newly released Avatar: The Way of Water. The movie has stunning visuals, a decent story, and has received mostly positive reviews. It also grossed a whopping $2.024 billion worldwide, making it the sixth highest-grossing film of all time.
As with the first movie, the sequel is keen to highlight the contrast between peaceful natives living off the land and the violent invaders destroying their world. There’s a colonial angle here, but there’s an environmental one too. Both movies uphold living in harmony with Mother Nature as a virtue, and they decry human industrialization and exploitation of the environment.
This isn’t the first time Hollywood has gone out of its way to make this point. In the 2012 film The Lorax, the creators highlight the problems with an artificial world and the benefits of letting nature take its course. Greedy capitalists are blamed for making everything fake and dirty, while defenders of the environment are depicted as heroes.
A One-Sided Picture
The issue with this presentation isn’t so much that it's wrong as that it’s incomplete. It’s true that the environment is a source of great value and that harming it can cause problems for humanity, but that’s not the whole story. The environment can also be a source of danger, and mastering it with technology can be tremendously beneficial for humans.
The hunting of the whale-like Tulkun in Avatar: The Way of Water is a great example of the movie’s one-sided portrayal of humans and the environment. In the movie, the Tulkun are presented as benevolent sea creatures that are deeply intelligent and avowed pacifists. They communicate with each other and with the native Na'vi people using a special Tulkun language, and they are respected by almost all creatures.
They are hunted by humans, however, because they possess a certain anti-aging serum called amrita. According to the movie, amrita is one of the most valuable assets in the universe—a small vial sells for $80 million.
Much of the movie’s plot revolves around a group of Tulkun hunters who unashamedly kill the sea creatures for this serum—that is, for the money. As the movie portrays it, this is just humanity at its worst, taking advantage of Mother Nature out of reckless greed, indifferent to the suffering it causes.
The movie uses a variety of tactics to make sure the injustice sinks in. First, it hints the Tulkun are more wise and intelligent than humans, which immediately suggests ethical issues with killing them. It also follows their stories and families, allowing the audience to build an emotional attachment to the species.
But there’s an alternative perspective that isn’t considered here, and it has to do with the $80 million price tag. When that number is presented, we’re supposed to think of pure greed, but this is an incredibly biased perspective. To alleviate this bias, we need to look past the money to what that money represents.
The reason things sell for a high price is because they are incredibly valuable for humans. If people are willing to give up $80 million for something, chances are it improves their standard of living by a lot. In light of this, the suffering and death of the animal needs to be weighed against the suffering and death of people that will inevitably result if this serum isn’t obtained.
It’s worth asking ourselves, what’s so bad about helping humanity become better off? Do we have a moral obligation to suffer and die if the only alternative is killing an animal?
There’s an unavoidable trade-off here between the well-being of the Tulkun and the well-being of people, and it’s by no means obvious which is more important. This is even more true in the real world, where humans are by far the most intelligent species. Are we supposed to give up fishing—or all of animal agriculture for that matter—because killing an animal is simply wrong?
Rethinking How Humans Relate to the Environment
In a 2019 talk, author and energy expert Alex Epstein explained the problematic underlying paradigm that characterizes so much of the environmentalist movement, and his explanation helps us see the one-sided thinking behind Avatar: The Way of Water.
“The dominant way of thinking about our environment is what I would call the delicate nurturer view,” he said. “So the idea is that earth is naturally stable, it’s safe, and it’s sufficient. … The idea is that absent us screwing things up, we basically live in the garden of Eden.”
The truth, he argues, is quite the opposite. “The actual nature of our environment is wild potential,” he says. “So it’s dynamic, dangerous, and deficient.”
It’s also important to understand how humans fit into the picture, Epstein argues.
“People who view nature as a delicate nurturer tend to view human beings as polluter-parasites. So our activities—we make the earth dirty and we quickly squander its very limited resources.”
This is a common perspective, but Epstein doesn’t buy it.
“The other view—the view that I hold—is no, human beings are not polluter-parasites. We are perfecter-producers. We take a naturally dangerous and deficient planet and we make it far safer and more abundant.”
There’s no question that humans can have a negative impact on the environment and that unchecked exploitation is wrongheaded. But implying—as the new Avatar movie does—that almost all environmental impact is wrong simply goes too far.
When we think about real-world environmental issues, we need to avoid one-sided thinking. The costs need to be weighed against the benefits. Industrialization shouldn’t automatically be seen as bad, and making money shouldn’t be seen as pure greed.
Human progress depends on our ability to master our environment, or at least tame it.
It would be nice if Hollywood acknowledged that in its movies.