Why Avatar is wrong-headed: Against romantic environmentalism

Students of mine know that I am very interested in environmental issues and am, by at least some measures, something of an environmental radical.  While I think environmentalism is best understood as a conservative issue, needless to say many of my fellow conservatives (including Dr. Sherlock!) think I am an environmental kook.

That said, I am not a romantic environmentalist and I think obligations to the environment can be best understood only as they pertain to social justice issues.  Here is an amusing but also substantive attack on the romantic environmentalism presented in the film Avatar (which I have not seen since I don’t really go for big box office orgies of spectacle).


Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

33 thoughts on “Why Avatar is wrong-headed: Against romantic environmentalism”

  1. What if the elements, of which the environment is composed, possess awareness or intelligence of a sort; would it not be a matter of social justice to consider ‘their’ point of ‘view’?


    1. A middle ground might be the “sentientism” you see in people like Peter Singer. Singer argues that all things with interests deserve moral consideration. Sentient things (animals) have interests, so they deserve moral consideration. So Singer thinks that animals have rights and need to be considered as part of the social justice equation.

      Sandi’s view looks more radical, something like a “deep ecology” that would take into account the “interests” of all of the “elements of which the environment is composed”. But it is just really hard to see that those “elements” have interests or a “point of view”. Sandi – do you have any reason to think that they do? Do we have any reason to think that rocks, moss, much less “eco-systems” (which are not individuals to begin with) have a “point of view” or have “interests”?

      It seems to me that the argument in the linked article is pretty good here – the author cites Thronton: “[the] paradox of environmentalism [is that] it indulges a thoroughgoing anthropocentrism and anthropomorphising even as it claims that it wants to ‘decenter’ humans from its ideology and to consider nature in its own terms. But nature has no values, no ethics, no morality.”


  2. It is just something I am exploring, nothing I can really defend adequately. My experiences in nature force me to consider this as a possibility though. Individuality, in my opinion, is a bit fuzzy in many respects not just as it pertains to ecosystems. I respect the broader scope of society that you recognize here, I guess I am just not sure how to define sentient quite yet. I will check out the article, sounds interesting–I embracing paradox at the moment…


    1. Can you say more about the experiences in nature that make you consider that rocks have a “point of view”? Some kind of mystical experience? I am not being flip.
      I love the outdoors, and I think we have substantial stewardship obligations. But my understanding of environmental obligations tend to be “anthropocentric” (made in reference to some human interest). Anthropocentric environmentalism gets a bad rap since it is usually thought to be “thin”. But I don’t think it is. Read Teddy Roosevelt for an example of a thick anthropocentric environmentalism. Or Pope Benedict.


      1. Are we defining mystical as lying outside of current scientific explanation? Then yes, I would say I have had mystical experiences in nature. Were these experiences real? I would say yes; repeatable (in an experimental sense) no, but none the less real.


  3. I was happy when Hurt Locker beat out Avatar for best picture yesterday. Even beyond the romantic environmentalism, Avatar was a perfect storm of all my least favorite movie cliches. Cameron’s environmental viewpoint seems born from the miscegenation of the dregs of deep ecology and post-colonialism.

    I know I sound bitter, but it really rubbed me the wrong way to see Cameron patting himself on the back for joining the fight against imperialism 50 years late. In a day when “Blood for Oil” is an unambiguous insult, you’re not breaking any new ground with the idea that subjugating a people for their natural resources is bad. (Zizek has an interesting point about our general hypocrisy on this; thanks for the link, Mike.) A movie dealing with the lazy hypocrisy of people like Cameron would have been much more interesting.

    Also, Cameron’s ham-handed criticism of the Iraq war is hilarious. The Iraq war (however misguided it might be) is more than just a simple land-grab. Cameron’s attempt at criticism through having his hyperbolically evil sergeant recycle Iraq war rhetoric had me laughing in the theater.

    So don’t feel bad you missed this one, Kleiner. In ten years when any modest studio production has available the same level of CGI that Cameron used for this film, the Academy will be very glad they didn’t give the Best Picture Oscar to a subpar action flick.


  4. Just a few notes: You should at least give some thought to the fact that Earth and “the environment” literally gave birth to us, it is the Mother Earth. This should at least give some pause to the impulse to believe that we are the ones who give meaning to nature and not the other way around. Also, give consideration to deep time and the future…that all creatures, all culture and civilization to come will spring from nature, and not us (unless you happen to be a post-humanist). It’s not so much that nature can be anthropomorphized, but that, in the end, nature subsumes even the process of anthropomophization.


    1. So by “literally gave birth to us” you mean figuratively gave birth to us, right?

      How are we set off from nature? You say that nature (not humans) will give rise to the next set of creatures, culture, and whatever, but how is it that humans aren’t part of nature? If we were “literally” birthed from nature’s womb, how did we lose that family resemblance?


    2. By “literally give birth” I mean nature was our progenitor; it wasn’t some vague notion of cause and effect. No, not “literally” as in labor (of course).


  5. I agree, of course, that the inviolable worth of the human being trumps the worth of any other living or non-living entity. In that sense, I think it is silly to not admit to being anthropomorphic: I think most anybody would rather see a deer or a bear or a dolphin die than a human being. But too often our anthropomorphism just turns into carelessness, selfishness, and callousness, as if my imagined ‘right’ to ride my four-wheeler anywhere I wish is somehow an expression of my inviolable dignity, and the liberals or preservationists or ecologists who cry ‘foul’ are merely sentimental New Agers or overbearing socialists.

    Our fundamental responsibility to human beings does not somehow replace or exempt us from our secondary responsibility to other sentient beings, in the same way that meeting my fundamental responsibility to feed my children does not exempt me from my responsibility to educate them: first things first, but once primary needs are met, further moral obligations arise.

    I may have a far greater right to life than a cow, but a ‘right’ to gorge on hamburgers does not follow from this. Too many anthropocentric arguments make such leaps, overextending human ‘rights’ and arrogantly diminishing, even mocking, other considerations.

    I think it’s true that a sentimental environmental ethic has its confusions, but I think anti-environmental conservatives are more confused: conservatives are alleged to understand that there is much worth conserving within our cultural heritage, but their general anti-environmentalism contradicts this. If conservatives don’t jump on the environmental bandwagon and realize the implications of the haste and waste of our pathologically-imbalanced relationship with the earth, the rape of our world will spell the end of everything that conservatives (and I too) hold most dear.


    1. Yes, the anthropocentric view of environmental obligations has been so co-opted by libertarians that it now strikes most as just selfish and careless. But I think it is a mistake to then shift to a leveling of the moral playing field (as if raccoons, much less mushrooms, have the same moral value as a human person). After all, perhaps the single greatest public policy innovation regarding the environment (national parks and monuments) were made on TR’s totally anthropocentric view of environmental stewardship.

      Pope Benedict has really been very good on this – pointing out how our primary responsibilities to other persons (“social justice”) always already take up substantial responsibilities to animals and the environment. People find his writings on the environment – particularly his connecting the rights of the unborn to environmental stewardship – surprising, but what he is doing is working out all of the consequences of truly respecting the dignity of all human persons. A big part of that includes a flat rejection of the libertarianism that, in my view, drives so much of the selfish brand of anthropocentrism (I find this to be nowhere more true than here in Utah).


  6. I’ve not seen the film, and probably never will (just don’t care, and 3D should go the same way it did last time), and agree that Cameron has been mostly done since that movie everyone saw because of a naked chick and a fake boat. He’s best remembered for the first two (and really only) Terminator films, Aliens, and a few others where he really managed to put action and intensity together, instead of just throwing shit on screen for 2 hours.

    But to the topic, I agree with Kleiner about environmentalism being a conservative issue. I’m a conservative with some liberal leanings (which would be easier if those liberal issues weren’t supported so much by whackos, liars, and emotional semantics), but environmentalism is primarily about conservation and stewardship, which is how conservatives I know feel. I’m probably more radical than Kleiner in some degrees, though I also am not too supportive of most recycling and global warming movements. The former causes a lot of dangerous waste and the latter is way too politicized for my liking, and has been exploited by mass marketing. Rather than conservation and responsibility, people are told to save the planet by buying “green” products and fancy lightbulbs. I view nature as a sort of “living system” in that it acts and reacts internally without the kind of conscience many would try to give it. Its not humanist, because we are but one animal, and just like anything else, if we fuck up, we get fucked up. Its not hyper complex, its “dumb” because its very simple, like a body attacking bacteria with certain responses.
    Regarding non living things like rocks, I think all things have spirits, part of their telos whatever it may be, but its nothing I can defend scientifically. Instead its part of what I might call mystical experiences for lack of a better term, while I don’t worry about the feelings of a rock if I break it with a sledgehammer, there’s still something there I can’t fully explain, though I also don’t want to dive into new agey false paganism lingo. This past summer I worked demolition at an 82 year old bank building, tearing out the inside and some of the steel window frames (forgot to wear a mask, so I’ll be dead in the 30 years I guess). I didn’t care about destroying the dry wall or cement bricks, but something felt strange about going after those old windows. In the outdoors when I’m doing trail maintenance with Save Our Canyons its similar. I’ll prune trees and move rocks and fill holes and whatnot, but damaging a tree too much makes me feel awful (though many were already dead from beetles).

    Where I think films like Avatar (or a hundred others really) fail in regards to this “romantic environmentalism” is that it makes primitivity a virtue. I agree with Pentti Linkola quite a bit, though can’t go as far as he does, but I think there is a grave problem with romanticizing primitive culture because its primitive. Being healthier or more virtuous is one thing, being “simpler” is not, because it is willing to disregard that “simple” people who lived here also caused mass extinctions, practiced slash and burn agriculture, and were only limited in abuse by lack of technology. Hippie hordes (ones who “wanna save the world, but all they is smoke pot and smell bad!” Eric Cartmen) latched on to the simplicity for its own sake, rather than looking at nature as a system with great diversity that required balance in itself and in its species. We need resources as anything else does, but we aren’t the center of the universe, we are dependent as anything else as well. I don’t found my environmental beliefs in humanism, though I agree that legally, that’s usually the best way to proceed.

    Crap this is long, I apologize, Huenemann will probably try to kill me for this.


  7. yeek, bad idea to stream of consciousness write in a lab. Should have said “…is one thing, being “simpler is another”

    Dan, interesting points, and I agree with many of them. The issue of life value comparison is a forked road for me though. Did my dog or bird mean as much as it would have if it had been my mother? I would say no for a whole variety of reasons, but do I think Mike Vick is a far worse person than Donte Stallworth? Absolutely.

    Where my judgment comes in is a matter of intent. Cruelty is cruelty, exploitation is exploitation, although I’ll be perfectly willing to admit that the destruction of a forest doesn’t hit me the same way as a newsreel featuring the trafficking of child sex slaves in the United States (if such simple language can even do such an understanding justice). But I do think there is a correlation in mentality and self justification. I always curl a brow when I hear people who gladly tear down a forest to put up a parking lot or trophy hunt that “of course I’d never do that to people” because I can’t see what stops them. If the world exists solely for your pleasure then what difference does species make?

    The issue of right to life to me is a strange one too. In natural law there doesn’t seem to be one, you live because you survive, but as social creatures we’ve developed judicial systems to function more effectively. If I’m lost in the woods, a reasonable amount of animals have less a priority to life than I do, because I want to live and I have to eat. It doesn’t change when we become more civilized (even vegans are killing things to live) so I think it comes down more to intent. If you kill an animal, there should be proper intent (dragging Kant into this, damn!) if you are just killing to kill, I don’t care what species it is.

    Agree with you Dan about pop conservatism, neo cons (basically liberalism for screaming little kids) who put everything into hyper materialist oligarchy (all about wealth). I don’t care how many jobs a toxic waste dump on a river may create, it ain’t gonna happen. Its a modernist mentality of heliocentricism which I’ve commented on before. They play the christian card so that they can have their cake and eat it to, be “blessed to the kingdom” while making the universe revolve around themselves.

    More length, ah!


  8. It’s interesting to note that the author’s primary objection is not the overvaluation of nature but that Cameron and “romanic environmentalists” imbue nature with an anthropomorphic sense of human meaning, giving it a status that it doesn’t have. Since the site is Catholic, it’s surprising that he doesn’t consider, given the single statement he’s contruing all this from, that Cameron isn’t defending the merit of nature from the perspective of its creator. In this sense any kind of pantheism can as easily be translated into the notion of nature as God creation. Seeing humans from nature’s perspective is then equivalent to considering how the Christian god views us. Of course, this is almost certainly not what Cameron means, since as far as I know he’s an atheist. But it’s interesting when you realize that it could as easily have been, so one wonders exactly why the author is so upset. Even if it is in fact the expression of some kind of pantheism, Cameron’s statement isn’t in itself “traitorous” or “suicidal.” Maybe it was use of the phrase “rooting for.” Not sure.


  9. Haven’t seen Avatar, not planning on it, and much like you and the author on Insight Scoop, I don’t enjoy those big box office shows, series, movies, or what have you.

    Romantic environmentalism, though, aside from the portrayed picture given in the media, is definitely a feasible mean of living given certain economic conditions. Most romantic environmentalists want to
    “get away from it all” and “live in nature as one part and whole”, etc etc. That’s all dandy in theory, and like every other romantic theory, it serves as the base for which societal/economic/political models are based on.

    No ideology in history has been completely set through and seen succeed in every aspect of its theoretical base, and so will the theory of environmentalism and natural living. The answer to any of these questions really is economics and the efficient use of what we have given complete rational knowledge on the part of consumers (meaning everybody, not just those who buy the particular product, but people; consumers are producers, and producers are consumers).

    I dont really think my reply here has any significant aim, just saying that this romanticism may be irrational and unreal, but it is not out of the ordinary for all other theories we have seen, and given time and economic pressure, we will reach a point close enough, and after that will come another revolution for change of some romantic far away place that the miserable and depressed dream of. The reason for the attention given to environmental romanticism is because of the large follower base, which without a doubt, will lead to reform.


  10. Slight tangent here, but there are so many more things wrong with Avatar than its view of environmentalism (I should mention that I am probably one of the most radical environmentalists around, but find deep ecology to be hokum).

    For a laundry list of Avatar’s problems (presented in an incredibly humorous way) I highly recommend http://autotelic.com/avatar_-_the_metacontextual_edition

    And yes, it does briefly touch on the environmentalism of Avatar.




  11. Daniel Botkin is an ecologist who gives a good argument for conservation without romanticizing nature or thinking of it as a static, human-free abstraction. He has quite a lot of material on his website and more in the library.


  12. I have to say first that I’m always surprised that people get so worked up over movies. I guess I’m not enough of a cinephile to care much one way or the other. I was thrilled by “Avatar” because it was unbelievably fun to watch. I just sat there with a stupid grin on my face for the whole 4 hours, or whatever it was. My son got motion sickness from it, which was also way cool.

    Second: can anyone find an instance of an intellectual approving of a blockbuster hit?

    Third: isn’t the great big message of the film that some romantic things (love, nature, community, beauty) are more important than power and money? Is that really so objectionable?


    1. I only go see about 1 movie a year, so I am not a big cinephile either. But I do think it is worth taking movies seriously. I think Plato gets it right in the Republic – art and cultural media are the de facto shaper of souls and opinions. Movies are, far more than books, the cultural medium of our times. Over 75 million tickets to Avatar have been sold. But 1 in 4 Americans did not read a single book last year, and the average is 4 books per person per year (but some people, like academics who read dozens of books a year, are seriously skewing that average).
      In other words, it is far more likely that Jenny Q. Public has her opinions about love shaped by the Titanic than it is that her views are shaped by Shakespeare, much less Beethoven or Kierkegaard. In other words, since we should care about culture we should take pop culture seriously. Thomas Hibbs is a fine example of how to do this in a substantive way (his book ‘Shows About Nothing’ is a great little book on the history of nihilism in popular culture from the exorcist to seinfeld).


    2. Here’s a list of the best-reviewed movies of the last two decades or so, according to metacritic.com. The Lord of the Rings movies and Pixar movies have played well to audiences and critics (The Return of the King is #2 in all-time highest gross and #15 on the metacritic list). Avatar scored a metacritic ranking of 84, meaning it just barely missed making the top 200 list. So there are lots of intellectuals who liked Avatar; they’re just not as vocal as the ones who didn’t.

      I can definitely see why people liked the movie. It just happened to be a perfect storm of all my least favorite movie cliches. I’m pretty confidant that once the immersive CGI used in Avatar loses its novelty, Avatar’s tired story won’t be able to carry it.


      1. Source is presuming that film critics are intellectuals. Is this true?

        Let’s presume that everyone on this blog is an intellectual. Here is the list of the top ticket selling films of all time (not top grossing, # after film is tix sold). Do any of the intellectuals on this blog want to approve of any of these box office hits?

        1 “Gone With the Wind” (1939) 202,044,600
        2 “Star Wars” (1977) 178,119,600
        3 “The Sound of Music” (1965) 142,415,400
        4 “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) 141,854,300
        5 “The Ten Commandments” (1956) 131,000,000
        6 “Titanic” (1997) 128,345,900
        7 “Jaws” (1975) 128,078,800
        8 “Doctor Zhivago” (1965) 124,135,500
        9 “The Exorcist” (1973) 110,568,700
        10 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937) 109,000,000
        11 “101 Dalmatians” (1961) 99,917,300
        12 “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) 98,180,600
        13 “Ben-Hur” (1959) 98,000,000
        14 “Return of the Jedi” (1983) 94,059,400
        15 “The Sting” (1973) 89,142,900
        16 “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) 88,141,900
        17 “Jurassic Park” (1993) 86,205,800
        18 “The Graduate” (1967) 85,571,400
        19 “Star Wars: Episode I” (1999) 84,825,800
        20 “Fantasia” (1941) 83,043,500


    3. I’ve only seen 11 movies out of that list, and I haven’t seen most of those since I was a kid. I like Star Wars (the 1977 version; Episode I sucks). E.T. is very cute and one of Spielberg’s best.

      Also, I’m pretty sure going to film school qualifies you to be an intellectual, especially since most of those critics wrote dissertations on something like “Lacan’s Mirror Stage Applied to the Post-Feminist Power Structures of ‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.'”


  13. Disney can rot, although Snow White was made when they were still willing to spill a bit of blood. They managed to take some of the most amazing footage ever captured (from the Discovery Channel/BBC’s Planet Earth miniseries) and make it unwatchable.

    Not to further pollute this thread with my presence but I rather enjoy Raiders of the Lost Ark and Exorcist for the same reasons, they both embrace a powerful mysticism in life, through the very deeply personal (exorcist) and the scientific (Raiders). I admire the wonder they embraced, and knowing what I know now of Star Wars I respect it a bit more because that reason too. Except for Jedi, which was a few powerful moments wrapped in nonsense.

    I admire films as a great platform for ideas and art, but I agree with Kleiner on this. Too few people are willing to engage, because culture has been substituted for pop culture. I agree there has always been a hierarchy of great works and what is generally watched, I think our problem is that there is no cultural consensus to build around, so instead the common stuff just appeal to cheap emotions and bathroom wall philosophy. Kleiner, in our intro class from years ago, and myself still today, deal more with kids who think the Matrix is a guideline for something. “The Matrix problem”, which is titled as if its something new. I’m not talking about those who don’t have the time to read Plato and Heideggar, and so won’t have the knowledge to call it hack philosophy, but the people who clearly do, and choose not to engage anything else. Aaron of Shaft and philosophy major mentioned this to me once of dealing with kids who’d just discover Foucault and run with it, without ever knowing the conversation.

    Unfortunately, the response with movies and art is “its all entertainment, so who cares” when we should care, because it does legislate to our souls. I don’t watch many new movies because there’s just nothing really worth watching. Even “indie” films are trashy a lot of the time. Revolutionary Road was about a married couple who just hated each other. I grew up with parents who split up, why would I want to watch that nonsense on screen? If that’s the message you want to keep showing people, why should we ever expect things to change? Why would people seek to improve if all we ever want to see/show is how broken and pathetic they are? I get it, the 1960s said men were horrible oppressive evil rapist meanies and should be ridiculed constantly as failed fathers and abusive husbands. That makes perfect sense (ugh.) I know the Lord of the Rings movies weren’t as good as the books, but I still loved their desire to look at dynamic, complex and interesting characters in a different lens than our own.

    As for that dissertation example by Source (cute :)), that’s a big problem of academia, too much focus on abstract over reality, too much effort to build a career rather than seek truth in education. That’s the kind of thing that gives intellectuals and elitism a bad rap.


  14. I am more inclined to agree with Huenemann on this one. I enjoy films for the experience provided; it is a bit presumptuous to expect anything more, really.

    Kleiner, I think you speak to the more fundamental issue when you reference Platonic aesthetic philosophy, but I wonder if that is really a fair application in regards to blockbuster movies. The primary end of these blockbuster movies are to make a (sizable) profit. People in general react poorly to anything with which the disagree. Having people react poorly to your product is clearly a flawed business model. Thus most all blockbusters seek to be as uncontroversial, while still innovative, as possible. I have a hard time seeing Avatar as an exception to this.

    Under the previous logic, it seems to me that rather than attempt to propagate an original message, most blockbusters are more accurately understood as reflections of what is perceived as the dominant mindset of the consuming public. I would thus contend with your classification of movies as societal-shaping mechanisms. I think they are rather useful tools, acting as mirrors, in understanding the current state of the American mindset.

    Like in most things, I am much more comfortable faulting the consumer than the producer. If most Americans are willing to pay $9.00 for an escape to a slightly kinky, environmental utopia, why not provide them with one?


    1. “I enjoy films for the experience provided; it is a bit presumptuous to expect anything more, really.”

      Now, I love films. I really enjoy the cinematic experience. As a lover of films, I feel like a need to get up on my soapbox and yell, “Expect more! Don’t be satisfied! Think about your cinema!”

      Of course, it’s fine to enjoy Avatar. Lots of people did; I didn’t. I think I have good reasons for why I didn’t like that particular film, and I suspect that as time passes and CGI gets cheaper most people will come to agree with me.

      Likewise, it’s fine to enjoy a summer blockbuster. There’s nothing wrong with providing “escape to a slightly kinky, environmental utopia.” People will pay for it.

      None of this, however, means that “it’s presumptuous to expect anything more [than the experience provided].” First, don’t think that my criticisms and the criticisms of the other people who didn’t enjoy Avatar are somehow disconnected from our experience of the movie. I know the idea of the conceited elitist afraid to own up to his own feelings is popular, but movie critics experience movies in the same way as the rest of us; a critic’s reaction to a film is bound up entirely in his or her experience of the film. When I watched Avatar, I honestly did not enjoy myself. The plot was as see-through as cellophane and the battle sequences were stupid; although the world was quite immersive, I don’t really care much for that sort of stuff (I’m more attached to the verbal and narrative parts of cinema than the visual).

      Even though I think Cameron’s romantic environmentalism and shallow post-colonialism are silly, I don’t fault him for making a movie that showcases him. I can’t imagine that summer blockbusters are just “mirrors” to the American pop-culture mind, however. It seems obvious to me that the stories we tell influence our perceptions and actions of the world. In fact, it would be interesting to discuss the purpose and place of narrative and art in our development and lives on this blog.


  15. I wanted to let you know about a project we have launched to use the film “Avatar” in the classroom. Since this is a philosophy blog, I’m surprised at the number of people here who missed the link to bigger ethics questions than just environmentalism. You’ll notice that we identified 14 topics and wrote discussion topics for each. See: https://sites.google.com/site/globalavataredprogect1pandora/
    You also find that each topic area links back to issues relevant to Earth.
    One of the broad mistakes made here is to think that a film presents an argument. It doesn’t. Instead, it links us to a topic for further reflection and dialogue, which you all are doing, and which we’re thrilled to see.


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