Last week I watched the 3D blockbuster Avatar, where a giant mining corporation uses any and all available tactics to access the mineral “unobtanium” from under the land of the Na’vi, a tribe of intelligent aliens indigenous to the planet Pandora. The corporation starts with building schools and offering other things valued by humans and when that fails, the corporation uses military force to evict the Na’vi from their land.
At moments I felt like I was watching a remake of the documentary I saw a month before, Crude, which chronicles the extraction of oil by Chevron-Texaco from the lands of 30,000 Ecuadorians in the tropical forests of Ecuador. Of course, there were some superficial differences—the Na’vi were blue, 10-feet tall and could literally link up with the forest ecosystem of which they were part. The Ecuadorians aren’t 10-feet tall or blue, and cannot literally connect with the spirit of the Earth (Pachamama as Ecuadorians call this or Eywa as the Na’vi call the spirit that stems from their planet’s life) but they are as utterly dependent—both culturally and physically—on the forest ecosystem in which they live and are just as exploited by those that see the forest as only being valuable as a container for the resources stored beneath it.
Both movies were fantastic reminders of human short-sightedness, one as an epic myth in which one of the invading warriors awakens to his power, becomes champion of the exploited tribe and saves the planet from the oppressors; the other as a less exciting but highly detailed chronicle of the reality of modern battles—organizers, lawyers, and celebrities today have become the warriors, shamans, and chieftains of earlier times.
Two highlights of these films:
At the end of Avatar, Jake Sully—the warrior hero—asks Eywa to please help fight off the humans, for they will destroy Pandora just as they destroyed Earth, saying something like “there is nothing green on our planet any longer.” Interestingly, Eywa listens and the wildlife of the forest drive back the colonizers. Stay tuned for the planetary response of a feverish Earth. Don’t expect charging rhinoceroses and pouncing tigers as we’ve killed most of them, but the dramatic shifts triggered by climate change will do more to crush human transgressions than any Toruk could.
And watching Crude, I couldn’t help but find it amazing that one of the leading characters of the film (albeit never acknowledged) was the oil used to maintain our consumerist way of life—some of which was certainly extracted from the very forest in contention. From charity concerts and countless flights from the U.S. to Ecuador by lawyers involved in the case, to the plastic (i.e. oil-based) rain barrels to provide drinkable water to those living in the now polluted forests and even the film equipment itself, oil is ubiquitous in every scene (and every facet of consumer societies). So fighting exploitation of delicate ecosystems and the exploiters themselves is certainly important—whether in our myths or in real life settings—but without finding sustainable sources of energy, and especially shifting cultural norms so that we expect less consumptive lifestyles, we will never stop seeking out new sources of oil, unobtanium, or whatever mineral is central to our economies at that moment. And if indigenous people live on top of these deposits, well, they’ll either need to move or be moved.