Leaving the cinema after watching Avatar: The Way of Water, there were clear but unspoken emotions amongst all viewers. Shock. Anguish. Dismay. Pain. Warmth. Besides from the visuals themselves, the awe was derived from the beautiful storytelling of a family, a nation and a world just trying to survive in harmony and peace. There are many obvious and more nuanced themes from the movie that we at MORE believe to be imperative in modern society in learning to exist alongside nature.
The mistreatment of indigenous people
Perhaps one of Avatar’s core themes is the mistreatment of indigenous people - and we needn’t go as far as Pandora to see examples of this in our own lives. Indigenous people are routinely exploited by corporations and groups around the world and throughout history. As pointed out by J. Lowe and K. Ahmad in an article for Drug Science, indigenous folk make up 6% of the global population and occupy roughly 25% of the Earth’s surface, safeguarding and caring for their - often resource-rich - local areas. Pharmaceutical companies are particularly guilty of so-called ‘indigenous washing’, defined by First Nation as “a term to describe the deception of the general public by government and industry in trying to cover up their theft of indigenous peoples lands, natural resources and cultural riches by pretending that they are acting in the best interests of the native peoples. The term is coined in analogy to greenwashing.”.
Biopiracy is one way that pharmaceutical companies exploit indigenous people. This is when indigenous knowledge is patented for profit without any of these profits being returned to the indigenous people who discovered its usage or occupy the land where the plant grows. An example of this scientific colonialism is the case of the Quassia amara as researched by J. Rose for The Coversation. This was a biopiracy case between the French IRD (Institute for Development Research) and local officials in French Guiana when, during interviews with locals about medicinal plants with anti malarial properties, they discovered the Quassia amara flower. A patent was granted in 2015 and locals were never credited or given any profits as it was seen by European scientific precedent as a new discovery as the anti malarial compound was found using alcohol extraction methods rather than how the locals used it in a tea - despite the fact that it was local knowledge that allowed this discovery. Another famous example is turmeric which was patented by the US Patent Office in 1995 for two healing properties, as described by A. Sabharwal in an article for Lexology. This rocked the Indian scientific community who claimed it to be an act of biopiracy as turmeric had been used by Indian people who centuries for its healing properties. In a landmark decision, the patent was revoked by USPTO - a positive step in the right direction.
White saviour complex
An issue that Avatar does not address in either the first or second movie is the white saviour / white hero complex it perpetuates. Jake Sully is a likeable character but it’s undeniably his fault that the assault on Home Tree was so successful in the first movie, and him being applauded for saving it ignores the fact that if humans had never arrived in the first place the Na’vi wouldn’t have been threatened. Sully’s portrayal of “white centering”, described by D. Cox (2020) as when white people put their feelings above POC’s because they’re “helping”, is clear throughout the movie, with the focus more on Sully’s anguish as he fights between supporting the humans or the Na’vi, than the Na’vi themselves. Once again we see the white point of view placed above any other, and see white guilt placed above people of colours’ suffering.
Overexploitation of natural resources
Another core theme of both Avatar movies is the overexploitation of natural resources. The humans in the movie harvest “unobtanium”, a made-up example of the many Earthly resources we overexploit every year. J. McCarthy (2017) explored some of these, ranging from everything from sand to water, fossil fuels to palm oil. Looking at perhaps the most talked about example, fossil fuel usage from 2015-2017 stood at 99 billion barrels of oil used, 25 billion tons of coal burned, and 10.6 million cubic meters of natural gas used. Fossil fuels make up most of the world's energy demand and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future as renewable alternatives aren’t being developed quick enough or at a scalable size, and are often significantly more expensive to install. However, they will be cheaper to produce once operational. For example, a Megawatt hour of solar energy is estimated to cost between USD$2-40 by 2050, while a barrel of oil will be between USD$20-110 (J. Ashworth, 2022). This is the kind of longer term thinking we must employ to reduce emissions and preserve the Earth, rather than focusing on short term, economically orientated goals. As we bleed dry the Earths finite resources, alternative renewables must be sought out. Otherwise, not only do we risk mass failings of modern infrastructure that relies on fossil fuels, but the continued use of fossil fuels before then will result in other harmful consequences like air pollution, global warming and climate change.
The final core theme we noticed that Avatar: The Way of Water addressed is the mistreatment of animals. The whale-like 'Tulkun' creatures seen in the second movie are hunted and killed in cruel ways by humans in order to extract valuable resources from them, before discarding the rest of the carcass. These wasteful and cruel practices are reminiscent of many Earth animals who are similarly hunted for one part of them - such as shark fins, elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. According to the WWF, each year over 20,000 elephants are killed for their tusks, roughly 500 rhinos killed for their horns, and 73 million sharks for their fins. These staggering figures show the depth of the issue and are only three examples of the millions of other species killed in vast quantities each year.
This is especially wasteful and frustrating in the case of these three examples when the rest of the animals’ body goes to waste as only one part of them is seen as valuable and sought after.
While Avatar 2 has faced much criticism, it also raises a multitude of important issues that should be at the forefront of global conversations. We must respect the people, animals and natural world around us or various planetary boundaries of Earth will be exceeded and resources run dry. If we can learn any lesson from Avatar: The Way of Water it would be to do MORE to protect the world that provides us with so much, before we have to escape to and begin exploiting another one.
Let’s all DO MORE to afford our planet and each other the same respect we believe we deserve.
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