Friday, May 30, 2014
The Dishonesty of Avatar
NOTE: These seventeen essays were reproduced from my now defunct former blog, Random Notes, as they are going to be cited in an upcoming essay. For the most part they deal with three subjects, "common sense" and pragmatism, organics and GMO foods, and the belief in the inherent purity and superiority of all things "primitive". A few are on other topics, but I think those three cover most of them.
I have been reading reviews of Avatar, and have decided I am not going to see it. Now, I know that sounds political, but really it isn't. There are any number of films I love whose politics differ radically from my own. The reason I have decided to eschew this film until it comes on cable and I am very bored is that, quite simply, the plot sounds resoundingly trite. And that, more than explicit politics, is a deal breaker for me. I can watch a raving left wing paranoia fest, so long as it is interesting. Why Dr Strangelove is one of my favorites, yet the explicit politics are 180 degrees off from my own. For that matter, much of Sam Peckinpah's explicit philosophy is abhorrent to me, and so is at least part of Alejandro Jodorowsky's, but I adore the films of both. And, while I think I would agree more with Andrei Tarkovsky, I still don't think we would see eye to eye, yet his films appeal to me as well. But, unlike the reviews I have read of Avatar, those directors made interesting films. And, in the end, that is the biggest reason to see a film, to keep you interested, and Avatar sounds simply dull.
However, there is one reason I am writing about this, and it is a political reason. That is that Avatar points out one of the biggest cheats in modern film. Or rather, in modern pro-environmental films. And that is, that the "eco-utopia" always has to include some magic or magical technology, or else the whole argument falls apart*.
In Avatar we get aliens who can talk to animals, commune with trees, endowed with magically good health and lacking disease, with no problem from lack of resources and apparently no population pressures.
Sounds great. And that sort of mystical nonsense is the only way to make the "noble savage" seem preferable to the "evil technological man".
The reality is, in these sort of stories, the "noble savage" would live to, maybe, 35, if lucky. Long before that he would have lost most of his teeth. Odds are good he would also lack at least some digits, if not a limb. He would probably have frostbite if he lived in temperate climes, and certainly would have serious scarring. He would be malnourished in the winter season, or the dry season in more tropical climes. He would often be blind from parasites, and would often have diarrhea. Malaria or similar diseases would result in weeks or months of incapacity, often resulting in starvation.
Then there are the other realities. For example, climate changes would often result in changing food supplies, so even if he was fortunate enough to live in a food-rich environment, he may regularly need to move to other regions as food supplies shift. This would likely displace those already there, resulting in brutal, genocidal conflicts, sparing neither women nor children. In addition, as population grew, provided food supply allowed it, the surplus population would be too much for local supplies, leading to either the practice of exposing unwanted (often read as "female") children, or the routine expulsion of surplus population, as well as the need for additional conflict with neighbors.
I could go on, but I think my point should be clear. Without the magical solutions of these films, either in terms of outright magic or super technology, the reality of "ecotopia" is nowhere near as appealing as even the most filthy and polluting technological society. And that only makes sense. There is a reason that agrarian societies adopted dirty coal burning technologies, why farmers fled "bucolic paradises" for 18 hour work days and "unlivable wages". Because "bucolic paradises" only existed in georgic poems and the fantaies of gentlemen farmers. The reality of primitive existence is not pretty, even relatively recent farms were far from ideal. No matter how ugly cities were, in the 19th century they were better than most farms were for the laborers.
But that reality goes against too many ecological dogmas, so they invent magic to wish it away. Better to keep the fantasy alive than to admit that technology, the physical manifestation of man's intellect, is our best hope for improving life on this planet.
* To be fair, the patron saint of the libertarians, Ayn Rand is just as guilty in her own way, creating the mystical free energy engine to power Galt's Gulch. If you really thought it through, not only would Galt and his friends have left a foot print big enough to draw the attention of every statist on earth, but by recruiting only the best and brightest, the top-heavy resultant society would collapse from lack of those willing to do scutwork.I admire her aim, but the economics of Galt's Gulch do not work. Either the best and brightest would be reduced to doing menial labor, leaving no time to use their real talents (essentially reverting to subsistence labor) or else needing to import huge numbers of laborers to support the massive intellectual superstructure, which would make them immediately obvious, unless they used force to keep what would amount to a slave workforce, as doubtless some laborer would eventually become dissatisfied with the elite's utopia and ask to leave, threatening to ruin whatever concealment they had. But that may be the topic for another post. (It would be fun to poke holes in Atlas Shrugged, as it is so cherished by some, but I worry that my wish to do so may be a sign of a bit of immaturity on my part. Still, immature or not, I probably will write it some day.)
It is not precisely relevant, but I am always amused at "enlightened" intellectuals praising the primitive. Yet they rankle at the "theocracy" of the right. Do they not realize primitive societies are always the most repressive and hidebound? Do they think their cherished primitives would be open to their iconoclastic ways? They would be the first on the pyre. Yet in their delusional belief in the "noble savage" they imagine that somehow primitives are bohemians in war paint and loin clouts. Just absurd. (For a bit more on this see "Rousseau's Foolish Legacy", "Happiness", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "A Western Evil?", "In Defense of Standards" and "Addenda to "In Defense of Standards"".)
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/12/21.