The Rape of Gaia: “Avatar” and the Politics of Nature
The ship lands on the planet, drawn there by insatiable greed, to be sure, but also, as soon becomes apparent, by mere bloodlust, the perverse desire to destroy what isn’t of it. Along with its war machines, the ship carries one of its victims: a man who, though broken by the violence of his people, remains inexplicably devoted to this violence. The planet is green, harmonious, inhabited by the sort of not-quite-human beings who, when they hunt, thank the spirits of the animals they kill; these beings are themselves holistic, harmonic, vegetarian in spirit if not in practice, and they worship a tree which provides for their needs. The damaged boy meets a girl who takes him into her holistic world and teaches him what’s really important. The boy learns well, discovers a kind of sex which is about love and understanding each other’s needs, and, when called upon, saves the holistic tree from the violent, greedy, lustful demands of his people.
“Avatar” (2009) represents to perfection a certain contemporary understanding of the relationship between man and nature. Nature is peaceful, passive even in its activity; if home is the place where everything is in its place and all is provided for, the realm of peace, nature is more homelike than home. For all these reasons, nature is a woman. Man is violent, angry, driven by greed and lust; he can find no pleasure except in possession, and knows no “true happiness” at all. “Man” is here manifestly masculine. The relationship between man and nature, in its first moment, is roughly that of the abusive boyfriend to the all-forgiving and rather helpless battered woman: man is guilty before nature, all the more guilty because he really does love her and could be happy with her if he could find it in his heart to be kind for once. Nature tries to save him, to let him see what’s really important, but alas, he refuses, he only continues to beat her. But the abusive boyfriend hurts himself as much as anyone else; he is one of those lonely men who hurt anyone who tries to love them. (Such men fail to be genuinely tragic only because they so obviously pity themselves.)
In the second moment1—the moment of fantasy, of wish-fulfillment—man finally does understand. He accepts the gifts of nature, so freely given; he too becomes “natural,” returns home. He slows down, he calms his greed and lust, he begins to understand that life isn’t all about the pointless exploitation of natural resources. And better still, in becoming “natural,” he saves nature: his transformation is the only thing that can save the holistic, domestic way of life. (If history has taught us anything it’s that the blue people certainly can’t save themselves.) Man and nature complement each other perfectly in the end: man must become feminine, emasculated, and in a certain sense domestic to save himself, but nature in turn needs man to defend her. Nature’s survival, because it is dependent on his ethical transformation, becomes the symbol of his newfound virtue; nature is saved and man is, at last, happy.
This construct—nature as the battered woman—is, I think, characteristic of a certain strain of modern liberal politics. Nature figures here as a strictly passive element; that we are destroying her speaks not to our imprudence but to a deeper guilt, our need to constantly expand, conquer and consume. Our guilt is our failure to find peace or happiness; nature is merely the abused object which gives substance to this guilt; we imagine increased skin cancer and melting icecaps as fitting punishments for the damage we’re doing. One hears echoes of such a model everywhere, from talk of our “oil addiction” to sadistic PETA propaganda material to the tracts of the Slow Food movement. “We as a society” (a characteristic manner of speaking in this context, ambiguous as it is concerning who exactly is guilty) are too fast, too greedy, too aggressive; nature is the victim required by our ethical failures.2 We can save nature only by redeeming ourselves. A new way of dramatizing the nature-culture distinction organizes a new kind of politics (society will find peace only by recognizing itself as guilty) and a new kind of ethics (the subject will find peace only as peace with nature).
This dramatization marks a sharp break with the nature-myth which has oriented a good deal of political thought in the past century: that of man as an organizing, civilizing force faced with the task of bringing peace and order to an anarchic and feminized nature. This myth, which informed everything from justifications of colonization to Socialist Realism to spaghetti westerns, cast man (embodied in reason, technology, and self-control) as the agent of potential salvation; man at once proved himself and fulfilled his destiny precisely by taming nature. This idea has, I think, shattered against the force of events—a hard-won mistrust of civilization, technology, reason and perhaps man itself has become ubiquitous in our culture. Yet it lives a strange, inverted afterlife in the myth I have been describing: the idea that nature should tame man.
What is the value of all this? The answer is complex. Politically speaking, the new myth commits the original and constitutive sin of left-liberal politics: it misrecognizes a political problem as an ethical failure. It is not, of course, “we” who demand too many resources, who find ourselves unable to stop expanding and consuming although we know it will bring us no true happiness; it is capitalism which does these things. It is capitalism which cannot help but eat rainforests, and no amount of holistic locavore anti-consumerism will affect this in the least. Politically speaking, the attribution of global warming to fat, greedy, SUV-driving Americans is the worst kind of political dead end: by casting nature as the victim, environmental politics limits its sphere of influence to those who enjoy feeling knowingly guilty. This class, though surprisingly numerous, will never be a majority.
But the myth of the nature-victim constitutes a subjectivity which is ultimately more ethical than political, a sort of updated unhappy consciousness: one for whom unhappiness refers directly to an ethical failure figured as a failure to partake in nature. This position will have ambiguous consequences beyond its political manifestation, but its precise import remains obscure. It does not suit my taste—it renders nature (woman) boring and civilization (man) sinful—but it suggests a certain promise which places it beyond the myriad marketed self-help doctrines which have passed for an ethics in America for so long. This movement’s concern for practice and physicality—for food, exercise, sleep, self-care—sets it apart, as does its explicit recognition of dissatisfaction with the world. Perhaps the new spirituality will turn out to be richer than tree-worship; we’ll see.
1 For an early version of this narrative entirely lacking in the second moment, cf. Shel Silverstein’s bracingly laconic The Giving Tree (1964). Shel Silverstein, by the way, is better than you remember him to be, even if you remember him fondly.
2 It’s worth noting that global warming has come to fill the place occupied on the liberal left during the Cold War by nuclear holocaust, now that nuclear holocaust is somewhat less imminent. The threats are different, but the rhetoric is the same: “we as a society” shall be punished for our militarism, our possessiveness, our failure to give peace a chance.