Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fiction's Philosophy

Take It or Leave It

After watching James Cameron’s big budget epic Avatar, one of the central messages that Cameron leaves with us is that the human race is doomed to destroy the planet if we don’t change our violent, militaristic and ultimately, selfish ways. Much like the alien race in the movie, the Na’vi, we need to evolve to work with and heal our planet before all of our resources are completely used up. I dare to ask if Cameron was influenced by the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.

In Ishmael, the narrator of the story answered an ad in a newspaper placed by a teacher that was seeking a pupil who “must have a desire to save the world”. The narrator discovered the teacher, named Ishmael, was a gorilla with the ability to communicate telepathically. Through Ishmael, the narrator learned that throughout the history of the planet, there were those who were what he (Ishmael) called the Takers and those who were the Leavers.

The Takers, Ishmael explained, came into existence approximately 10,000 years ago (around the time of the Agricultural Revolution) and that they were basically the people that made up Europe, parts of Eastern and Western Asia and the Americas. The Takers considered themselves the pinnacle of human evolution and felt that the laws of nature and the laws governing all life did not apply to them. The Takers felt that they were meant to rule the planet and conquer it if necessary.

The Leavers were the “primitives of the planet” and were representative of all other cultures that were not agricultural or industrial powers. The Leavers took what they needed from the Earth and left the rest alone. In good times, they prospered, in bad times they may have starved. But they did not abuse the resources that were given to them and they let the natural process of evolution take its course.

In Avatar, we see the idea of the Takers as the RDA Corporation, as well as the humans that have come to the planet Pandora to help mine for a precious mineral called unobtanium (an interesting name which has the connotation of being unobtainable). The RDA Corporation have also employed military personnel to sweep the planet and remove any unwelcomed obstacles that might prevent them from mining. Obstacles to the Corporation included the presence of the planet’s natives, the Na’vi, whose homes and lands stood directly under a massive deposit of the mineral.

The Leavers were the native Na’vi, who lived in peace and harmony with the planet, and who also worshipped Eywa, a type of mother goddess. Dr. Grace Augustine (played by Sigourney Weaver), who was the head of the Avatar Program along with the rest of her team, could also be considered Leavers. Dr. Augustine argued with Parker Selfridge, the head of the RDA mining operation and with Colonel Miles Quaritch, the head of the military/security forces on Pandora, that the destruction of the Na’vi’s Hometree could have disastrous effects on the gigantic bio-botanical, neural network of Pandora. Of course both Selfridge and Quaritch were not interested in Augustine’s concerns and ultimately launched an attack on the Na’vi and Pandora’s ecosystem, when they (the Na’vi) refused to relocate.

While the representation of the Na’vi and the ways that they “commune” with their planet may be a bit simplistic and hokey (at times, especially at the end of Avatar, I felt as though I was watching a sci-fi version of The Lion King), the message that both Cameron and Quinn are trying to convey is an important one.

If we, the human race continue to plunder, invade and burn through the planet’s resources without giving anything back, we are doomed to extinction. If we continue to adopt a Taker mentality and horde resources without giving any to those less fortunate, we are doomed to failure. If we consider that we are the pinnacle of evolution, rather than realize that we are just a blip on the radar in the grand cosmic scheme of things, we will be unable to change our selfish, “taking” ways until it is too late.

In the real world we see examples of this Taker mentality everywhere we look…in Iraq, in counties like Darfur and Rwanda, and in the Amazon rain forests. As long as we continue to believe and perpetuate the myth (as Quinn describes) that we are superior to all other races, countries and/or species, free to dictate and do as we please, we, the human race will be impotent in stopping our inevitable destruction.

The message that Cameron and Quinn make quite eloquently, is that we are all a part of the planet, and as such, we have a responsibility to preserve it. Ultimately, it’s up to us whether we take up the mantle of responsibility, or we leave it.

"Avatar" image courtesy of
"Ishmael" image courtesy of


  1. Interesting. I'd not heard about any connection. You may be on to something here.

    I've not seen Cameron's movie yet, but I've heard many people give it their equivalent of a thumb's up.

  2. The similarity wasn't lost on the Vatican either, who, curiously, are as sensitive to this world view as Daniel Quinn suggested in The Story of B.

    "Vatican: 'Avatar' Worships Nature, Not God"