Caitlin Rose, my guest blogger, has sent me another thoughtful blog post based on the movie Avatar. Avatar is set to become the biggest grossing movie of all time, so it must be pretty good (I have not seen it). Caitlin's blog post follows:
So I finally saw Avatar, after everyone’s been buzzing about it for what seems like months. I had heard that the special effects were incredible, but the story was slim. Despite my initial low expectations, I found myself absorbed in the characters and their struggle and I thought the movie touched on a number of deep questions, among them: what is progress? What constitutes advancement in human society? What does civilization mean?
These questions have been on my mind recently because I’ve been surprised to meet a number of people who are interested in ecology and spirituality, but who have not made the logical step towards becoming a vegetarian. Burnt out on mindless consumerism, environmental toxicity and waste, many people long for a life that is simple, sustainable and fulfilling. Looking around for an example of another way of life, they often turn to indigenous populations. Talking to one man about vegetarianism, I found he was quick to denounce factory farming, but he still considered meat eating to be justifiable on the basis that native populations were able to eat meat and still maintain their health and the health of their environment.
This conflict between the values of so-called “modern civilization” and indigenous society is at the heart of the story in Avatar. Avatar takes place on the planet Pandora in the year 2154, as a battle brews between Earthlings intent on stripping the planet of its natural resource and the native population, the Na’vi. Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine, is recruited into a program that will project his consciousness into the body of a Na’vi. His mission is to gather intelligence, earn the trust of the native people and find a way to negotiate their relocation. On his first foray in his new body, he meets Neytiri, the daughter of the Na’vi ruler. After her initial disgust with his clumsiness, she agrees to initiate him in the customs of her people. As Jake becomes more involved in the life of the Na’vi, he begins to see the forest like the Na’vi do: not as a hostile environment to be conquered, but as a network of consciousness and home to abundant life.
Given a glimpse into human society 150 years in the future, we find that technological advancement has only brought the people of Earth increasing environmental degradation and spiritual emptiness. By contrast, the Na’vi live simply, in concert with their environment. They find their work, education and entertainment in the jungles of Pandora. As Jake puts it, when discussing how to negotiate with the Na’vi to abandon their home territory, “what are we going to offer them? Blue jeans and light beer? There’s nothing we have that they want.”
While the Na’vi hunt animals for food, it's clear they understand the weight of the sacrifice the animal is making. After killing an animal that resembles a deer, Jake says a prayer he learned from Neytiri, calling the animal “brother” and thanking him for giving up his life to feed the tribe. Similarly, when wild dogs attack Jake, Neytiri defends him and kills some of the animals in the process. Afterwards, when he thanks her, she turns on him and spits, “Do not thank. This is sad. They did not have to die. It’s your fault. Because you are stupid, like a child.” So while animal killing is considered necessary for survival and defense by the Na’vi culture, it is not considered ideal or desirable. We can reasonably imagine that if the Na’vi culture developed a form of agriculture that created an abundant plant-based food supply, they would easily give up the practice of eating animal flesh.
Ultimately, when we find something valuable in the philosophy of another culture, it is important to follow in their footsteps by understanding what they have understood, not by merely imitating their actions. Because they lacked material resources to support large populations or build complicated structures, the native Americans, Australians and central African tribes lived closely with nature, and this allowed them to appreciate on a daily basis that they were dependent on a network of other living beings. Further, they could clearly see the distinction between living, spiritual energy and dead matter. They appreciated that everything that moves and breathes is displaying consciousness, and that the presence of consciousness always indicates the presence of an individual person. Intelligence of the kind (sometimes) displayed by human beings sets us apart from the animal kingdom, but it is not the last word in the definition of personhood. Animals display personality, they develop attachments, they love, they get jealous, they get angry, they mourn, they show compassion. Denying the presence of a person in the body of an animal is a denial of common sense. It is this common sense - cultivated by a soft heart, in connection with the natural world - that is the root of actual, functional intelligence. This intelligence is celebrated in Avatar, and desperately needed in our world today.
On the other hand, the lifestyle of indigenous populations cannot be idealized. A consequence of their lack of material resource was that they lived with the constant fear of starvation and as a result they had to kill animals in order to survive. In this day and age, we have progressed materially to the point where it is no longer necessary to eat the bodies of animals. We have fruits and grains and vegetables in abundance. But as consequence of our material progress, our spiritual understanding - our common sense - has devolved. We no longer recognize the distinction between living energy and dead matter. We are taught in school that all life is chemical in essence. As a result, we see the environment, animals, even other people, as inert, dead objects for us to exploit. Ironically, this failure to appreciate that our environment is alive and conscious is causing a crisis that increasingly undercuts our material aspirations.
If we want to lead fulfilling lives, we must balance material progress with spiritual progress. We can take the example of indigenous populations who understood intuitively that they shared a kinship with all living creatures, but we should take their understanding to the next level, and act on it according to our time and place. If we want to truly follow in the footsteps of the native cultures of the Earth, we will recognize that it is no longer necessary for animals to give up their lives in order to support ours. We will cultivate a new relationship with animals and work together with them to create an abundant, sustainable, plant-based food supply.
I think this topic is ripe for more discussion, but I’ll have to save it for a later post. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts.