DARK GREEN RELIGION: NATURE SPIRITUALITY AND THE PLANETARY FUTURE
AVATAR and DARK GREEN RELIGION
In Dark Green Religion I indicated that the phenomena of dark green religion was widespread and I could not write about all manifestations of it, suggesting that readers would be able to identify their own examples. After the film Avatar was released, since I thought it was such a good exemplar of dark green religion, I began to discuss the film on my website. That discussion is immediately below. I also began to develop a book project about this motion picture which was published in 2013 as Avatar and Nature Spirituality.
A good place to start when considering whether Avatar exemplifies dark green spirituality is with James Cameron, who wrote the original screenplay and directed the film. When accepting the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture, for example, Cameron made clear the dark green spirituality at the heart of his film:
AVATAR asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that's the wonder of cinema right there, that's the magic.
In an Oprah Winfrey special shortly before the Academy Awards, Cameron repeated this theme while adding, with delight, that at the climax of the film the audience had come to take the side of nature in its battle against the destructive forces of human civilization.
Feelings of belonging and connection to nature, and beliefs that nature has intrinsic value and should not be exterminated by human beings, are central characteristics of dark green religion.
Indeed, according an exchange in an Entertainment Weekly interview, it would appear that Cameron is a radical environmentalist. When a critic issued this challenge to him: "Avatar is the perfect eco-terrorism recruiting tool”, Cameron answered, “Good, good, I like that one. I consider that a positive review. I believe in ecoterrorism.” (See Avatar’s Success: Romantic Narratives and Dark Green Religion, by John Moorhead, TheoFantastique, 27 January 2010.) In James Cameron's Avatar, Elizabeth Renzett provides more background on Cameron's longstanding environmental radicalism. see the section, "Cameron's Mission," below.
It was not long, however, before activists managed to get Cameron to take a concrete stand on behalf of indigenous people, their cultures, and habitats. As reported by Alexei Barrionuevo in the New York Times on 11 April 2010, in Tribes of Amazon Find an Ally Out of ‘Avatar’, Cameron joined Atossa Soltani, the executive director of Amazon Watch, deep in the Amazon with members of several tribes who had been battling a new dam. They insisted the dam would drown the habitats they depend on and destroy their cultures. In addition to recording Cameron's outrage at the project, the article quoted José Carlos Arara, the chief of the Arara tribe, as stating after watching a DVD of Avatar, “What happens in the film is what is happening here.” He was not the first and would not be the last indigenous person to see parallels between the film and the experience of his people.
While Avatar won the Golden Globe for Best Picture it lost in this category in the Academy Award competition. Immediately after the award ceremony I wrote a short essay suggesting that an important reason Avatar did not win best picture was that Academy voters were not ready for this radical, dark green, message; see War of the Worldviews: Why Avatar Lost, which appeared 11 March 2010 Religion Dispatches.
Below I provide additional reflections about the movie as well as a journal of the kind of reactions it has evoked, many of which provide evidence of the prevalence of dark green spirituality around the world.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLES REACTIONS
Avatar exemplifies those forms of dark green religion that closely link animistic spiritualities of belonging to nature with resistance to biocultural simplification. By biocultural simplification I mean the erosion of biological and cultural diversity as agricultures spread, killing, converting, and displacing small-scale foraging and pastoral societies. Public Radio International provides a window into the positive reaction that some indigenous people in Amazonia have had to the film, in both a print story and podcast, as well as in this video:
I thought this video was very interesting so I asked Professor Tod Swanson of Arizona State University, and expert on indigenous cultures in Ecuador, who also runs a field school in the Andean Amazon, if he had any comments about it. He responded,
This was a very interesting video, actually quite nuanced with a variety of ages and perspectives. All of the narrators identify with the conflict in the movie. What I am impressed with is how closely they connect it with the immediate events of the Ecuadorian situation. Last September there was a "levantamiento" or uprising in which Shuar school teacher Basco Wisuma was killed and the Shuar nation radio station "the Voice of Arutam" closed down. A primary demand of the uprising was to declare a moratorium on oil exploration and mining in the two largely indigenous provinces of Pastaza and Morona Santiago, where most of these narrators come from. After the teacher was killed the government agreed to dialogue but the dialogue broke down. Nearly all of the narrators respond to Avatar as though it were an event in this immediate context. The Shuar narrator says that he is ready to fight. The woman who speaks last, Blanca Chancosa, is a past vice president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations of Ecuador (CONAIE). She criticizes the film for portraying a complete break down of dialogue into two opposing sides. She says that there has to be a third way of dialogue. This week in the Ecuadorian papers you can see that the dialogue has broken down. The Ecuadorian Indian movement declared an end to dialogue and the beginning of another uprising. The leader of the coastal section of the indian movement advocated dialogue but is now being sanctioned by the national Indian movement. Very interesting.>
It is also interesting that all of this is taking place in a nation that has a new constitution (from 2008) which, remarkably, establishes legal rights for nature as well as a"plurinational" state. As Swanson noted during our correspondence, however, "the difficulty is that the new constitution also establishes many other rights such as the right to decent housing and the right to (free) healthcare. Funding these rights requires drilling for oil most of which lies under Amazonian Indian territory."
PERCEPTION & 'EYE-TO-EYE' EPIPHANIES
I See You, which was sung by Leona Lewis in the film, reflects the experience of kinship with non-human organisms, through eye-to-eye contact, that leads some to dark green perceptions.
I found this music video, in the same online article where I found the Cameron quote about Avatar's message of ecological interconnection and the miracle of planetary life (see Sourcing a Super Connected World). The article's discussion, as well, struck many dark green themes, while urging readers to listen to the video.
This informative article explores how, during the early 1980s, Cameron was swept up on the ecology movement in the wake of the Santa Barbara Oil spill.. During this time, he wrote play in the genre of environmental apocalypticism called "Extinction Syndrome" (a common theme in dark green religion). Cameron quotes from this interview reveal his longstanding antipathy toward corrupt and environmentally destructive corporations and governments, “The idea that governments and corporations were utterly corrupt, evil … systemically wrecking the planet through wars and environmental carnage was pretty much the mainstay of my thought process as a teenager. So you see I haven't moved very much.” Later in the interview, Cameron noted, proudly, “The greenest decision [we made] was not to shoot in a rain forest. The incursion of a film crew with its trucks and equipment would have had a devastating effect. It would be too strong an irony to make a film about protecting habitat and biodiversity while trampling and bulldozing plants.”
This interview shows that Cameron's set out to use technology-enhanced art to help people break past their addiction to technology and recover their wonder for the world. Renzett suggests in the interview that he had a messianic drive, but this is ultimately belittling, suggesting that he was somehow deluded that he was himself in some way divine. It would be more accurate, and charitable, to say Cameron is on a dark green mission.
Ivakhiv, a University of Vermont Environmental Studies Professor, here provides an nice roundup and analysis of the diverse reactions evoked by the film. His Avatar reflections complement the section of my website devoted here to Avatar, as it is not as tightly focused on dark green spirituality. Like Ivakhiv, I particiapte in a listserve for environmental anthropologists and am grateful to them for the discussion and leads to Avatar-related phenomena, some of which are found here.
This NY times essay exemplifies the delight and wonder of a biologist who, through her studies, arrives at and expresses the kind of affective connections to nature I analyzed in Dark Green Religion. It also provides an example of the way that many of those who have affinity with dark green spirituality have found the motion picture Avatar emotionally evocative and intellectually compelling.
In this essay, for example, Yoon wrote that Avatar "recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world."
She soon added, "What is sort of funny for me is that I spent much of the last six years working on a book about exactly this, about how inside of all humans there is a deep desire and ability to really see life, to see order among living things, and about the joy that comes with it. So at the end of Naming Nature I make a plea to readers to go out into the world and see the life and find the order in the living world around them."
Here Yoon articulated a key dark green epistemological claim, regarding the importance of experiencing nature oneself, first hand.
Yoon continued, "Please excuse me if I seem a bit breathless, but the experience I had when I first saw the film (in 2-D, no less) shocked me. I felt as if someone had filmed my favorite dreams from those best nights of sleep where I wander and play through a landscape of familiar yet strange creatures, taking a swim and noticing dinosaurs paddling by, going out for a walk and spying several entirely new species of penguins, going sledding with giant tortoises. Less than the details of the movie, it was, I realized, the same feeling of elation, of wonder at life." After this, Moon described how certain television shows and table top books inspired her love of nature. These were some of the same sources that, in Dark Green Religion, I contended have inspired generations of nature lovers.
Finally, Yoon identified with the female scientist in Avatar, who at the end of the film approached "the most sacred and most biologically important site on Pandora," demonstrating through her never-ending scientific curiosity that there was "no line between her wonder, her love of the living world and her science." In this essay Dr. Yoon both exemplifies dark green spirituality and recognizes it when she sees it.
A recent graduate of Swarthmore College (USA) reflects the sadness he, and many others, have felt when viewing Avatar, that they have no access to a sublime and beautiful earthly place reminiscent of Pandora. His essay also provides links to Avatar forums where people have shared such feelings with others. The felt loss of an edenic world, which is a common aspect of Dark Green Religion, is in evidence both in Croken's reaction and the others whom he discusses.
Identification with the oppression of the Na'vi by indigenous and other ethnic groups
The Dongria Kondh tribe from eastern India appealed to Avatar producer James Cameron for help in defending their sacred mountain against a London-based mining company. The tribe was supported by indigeneous rights organizations, which produced a video "The Real Avatar." It likened the tribe to the Na'vi and the mining company to the forces of destruction in Avatar. (See websites, below, for links to the supportive organizations and to the video). Celebrities including the human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger (once the wife of the Rolling Stone's Mick Jagger) and Michael Palin (the British comic who became famous with Monty Python), along with several religious groups, joined the campain to prevent the mine. Claming to be acting according to Indian law, but little doubt bowing in part to the international pressure, in a rare victory for an indigenous group resisting extractive enterprises, the Indian government blocked the mine in August 2010.
This brief news report provides another example where an indigenous group, in this case in South Asia, sees parallels in their own experience and that of the Na'vi on Pandora. The writer expresses critical perpsectives and activist sentiments that are common in dark green religion.
This article by Goldman and the next one by Michaelson reveal a number of ethnic groups who liken themselves to the Na'vi, including Palestinians, Tibetans, and Jews. In the case of the Palestianans and Jews, this is somewhat ironic, given the longstanding antipathy of Abrahamic religions toward pagan nature religions. But this and Michaelson's article show that it is possible to fuse dark green spiritualities with monotheistic religions.
Michaelson suggests that the worldview of the Na'vi parallels the Jewish Kabbalah, which in some interpretations, has affinity with dark green religion.
Respect for indigenous peoples, and a desire to stand in solidarity with them, is common in dark green religion. Indigenous organizations and those working in solidarity with them have deployed Avatar as a metaphor for the struggles they were battling.
The Indigenous Environmental Network, for example, launched a campaign against the exploitation of tar sands in Canada, appealing directly to Director Cameron for help.
Cultural Survival and Survival International are two prominent international organizations devoted to the survival of indigenous peoples and to the ecological integrity of the habitats upon which they depend.
Survival International, for example, had been supporting the Dongria Kondh, a tribe in a remote region of India, which was trying to save their sacred mountain against a London-based mining company. After Avatar was released, they linked the struggle to the film by uploading their documentary about it, with an expanded title, on youtube: The real Avatar: Mine – Story of a Sacred Mountain. As discussed in the book, many anthropologists have affinity with dark green religion. Those who do often work with the above-mentioned groups in the cause of bio-cultural conservation.