Perspective on Avatar, the Movie

James Cameron’s vision of Pandora caused me to think in new ways about what it is to have a sustainable culture. Clearly the Na’vi culture is completely sustainable, and in many ways very advanced. Here are some perspectives on the history of our planet and my take on some of the ideas in Avatar.

History Reminder

As we consider the plight of the planet, it is good to look back and remind ourselves what the earth used to look like and how it got this way.

Precambrian Era

In the beginning, say 2-3 billion – with a B – years ago, the earth was covered with a reducing atmosphere. No free oxygen was present. Only carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia and hydrogen. Oxygen is very toxic and very reactive and so it reacted with the hydrogen and methane and sulfur and iron, and it was all bound up in the products of the reactions – Water, Carbon Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide, and Rust.

When life first evolved, it comprised various species of bacteria that fed on this atmosphere and probably the likes of the deep ocean vents, both in the ocean and in shallow pools on the surface. In places there was a meager living to be had from finding “Resources” in the form of un-reacted chemicals and further reducing those chemicals to the ones mentioned above. This state of affairs in the history of life went on for untold millennia with no real change, no higher life forms, no plants and no real fossils except for the mats of bacteria that were left, mineralized, in shallow waters that we find as the only fossils from this period.

Precambrian Era Timeline

But then there was a technological break-through in evolution. Some cells invented photosynthesis. They figured out how to use the light of the sun and carbon dioxide to make food at first, and later structural materials in the form of cellulose to build their bodies. This was a major break-through since the power of the sun, and the availability of carbon dioxide was apparently limitless. And the explosion of these algae and later the other plants, still in the oceans and shallow waters transformed the earth. Well that’s not the way they saw it. From their point of view there was a toxic crisis. Photosynthesis produces oxygen, and at first this was simply reacted in the atmosphere with the residual hydrogen and methane and all was well, but eventually more oxygen was produced than could be reacted away and it began to build up. Early plants were not adapted to deal with this toxic by-product and no doubt many species of algae died as the toxic oxygen built up in the atmosphere. But eventually, these algae evolved to protect themselves from the toxic oxygen and the levels continued to rise.

As the oxygen concentration rose, some strains of life evolved to depend on it as an energy source. It turns out that if there is enough free oxygen, it can be combined with other things in the environment, like the structural materials in the plentiful plants to provide an energy source, and so the first herbivores evolved. And once there were herbivores the carnivores could evolve.

Carboniferous Period

Along our journey we can recall the Carboniferous Period, from 360 to 290 MYBP [Million years before present] when the O2 and CO2 concentration was much higher than it is today. Now we have 21% O2 and 300ppm CO2. In the Carboniferous there was 32% O2 and 800ppm CO2. Talk about Global Warming! Actually the global temperature average was about the same as we have today. And certainly this was pre-industrial. The higher levels of oxygen allowed large insects, Meganeura, similar to a dragonfly, with wingspans as large as 75cm – about 2.5 feet.


The take-away messages from this history are that

  1. One specie’s pollution is another specie’s requirement, and
  2. Life has evolved from a basis in exploitation to a sustainable ecology.
  3. Life wasn’t always based on sustainability. For the first more than one billion years of it’s existence, life was exploitive, just as man is now.

In order for sustainability to evolve, life had to use up the easily exploited resources – the primordial Petro-chemical deposits of methane, ammonia and hydrogen – and evolve the means to depend on the cycle of photosynthesis employing the sun and CO2.

For a time, man has taken the easy way of exploiting the available resources, but like the plants before us, we need to learn to live sustainably.


Life has evolved to recycle everything completely. We have only to look at any verdant ecology on the planet – Coral Reefs, Rain Forests, Temperate Forests, Temperate Ocean ecosystems – and we see complete recycling in a complex web of life. We have studied these eco-systems for years and while we don’t understand all the details in each one of them, we do understand the large picture in all of them.

We have now made our own ecology too, an exploitive one, much like that of the early bacteria. This is not to compare us with bacteria, but only to remind us, as we know, that such exploitive ecosystems are fleeting in the history of life. The resources run out and the toxic bi-products build up, and if we continue on this path, not only we, but all the life around us must evolve to live with that toxicity. I’m not talking about the CO2 and Methane that may build up in the atmosphere. The bulk of the species on earth will not be adversely affected by a rise in CO2 to 380 or 500ppm. Life has been there before. Many plants will see this is as a food boon and there may be a verdant time after we have poisoned ourselves off the planet. When there is more CO2 in the atmosphere, photosynthesis is more efficient. In the grand scheme of things, the mass-extinction caused by the human condition will not even rank among the top 10 such events, tragic though it will be. But I’m sure that we don’t want to be among the extinct.

Let’s look at some of the resources that we use, and even now attempt to re-use and re-cycle [R&R]. Let us recall that Reduce does not figure into ecology. Life is greedy and uses all the resources available to it. However, everything is re-used and re-cycled. Some of the materials that human ecology uses are: Metals, Paper, Plastics, and Glass. You can add more to the list I’m sure. But our pathetic attempts to recycle these only recovers a small portion of our use of these materials and most recycle programs are a joke compared to what happens in any ecology that we have studied. R&R is very complex to get right. It has taken millions of years for these ecologies to evolve the complete recycling programs that they use. How quickly do we think we can duplicate this complexity for all the materials that we use?

These kinds of R&R can never put our civilization on a long term recycling path. It’s a land-fill reduction policy at best.

We can only hope to succeed with a long term R&R program if we hook into nature rather than imitating it. We must adopt mostly biological materials for our civilization rather than metal and glass materials to have any chance at true R&R. That way the complex evolved organisms of nature help us rather than our having to invent all the process ourselves.

If life on this planet had evolved incorporating metals and glass into the ecology, then the R&R for those materials would already be in place in nature, but they are not. Metals and stone and glass [Silicon Dioxides] were left out of nature’s processes. This probably tells us something about the chemistry surrounding those materials. It requires too much energy or there are no suitable chemical processes for those materials to be incorporated into a sustainable ecology. We should take this hint from nature, who has had billions of years of experience in this area, and adopt materials where the chemistry supports reasonable R&R processes. Unless you are a snail or a diatom, stone and silicates are not a part of your ecology.

The Message of Avatar the Movie

And now we come to a message I found in the movie Avatar. I’m not sure if James Cameron had this message in mind when he wrote the story, or whether it is an emergent message that he did not see or intend.

Pandora is an example of a sustainable civilization. In order to see this, you have to stop looking at the Na’vi as primitive people. Think of them rather as a highly evolved race of folks with a global internet – you’ve seen the movie, right. I’m not going to review or repeat the movie here. If you have not seen the movie, then go see it and come back to this.

Let’s look at what the Na’vi have:

  1. Places to live. Large buildings where large numbers of people can live in close proximity. Ok they happen to look like trees. Really big trees.
  2. Abundant food and water nearby. You can pick from Rainforest, Prarie or Oceanside tribes. Like we do now.
  3. Vehicles of several types for transportation both on the ground and in the air. Presumably in the ocean too, although we didn’t actually see examples of this in the movie – or at least I didn’t see it.
  4. A planet wide communication mechanism. Previous stories might have called this Gaia. Although the don’t seem to be using it as effectively as they might. They flew to the neighboring tribes rather than going to the nearest tree and doing a phone call. By the way, as I read the movie, no ancestors were lost when one of the life trees was destroyed. That was the tragic destruction of a local terminal, nothing more. The planet wide network backs up multiple copies of everything: a Carbonite subscription is built into the system.
  5. Everything they have is self-replicating and self-repairing. Except their bows and arrows.

Let’s see what they don’t have:

  1. Pollution of any kind. All of their needs are met with natural substances that are completely recycled by the surrounding ecology, whether that be rain forest or prairie.
  2. Population problems. They have adapted their numbers to a sustainable level.
  3. Political misunderstandings – in the absence of the Sky People at least. If you can’t understand your neighboring tribe because your local spoken language has evolved, just hook into the life tree with your neighbor and understanding will be enhanced by the Babelfish program that is present in the life-tree network.

Let’s look at other properties of what they have:

  1. Their vehicles are smarter than ours. They can hook into their horses and birds to tell them where to go, but the horses and birds already come with many modern features that we are hopelessly trying to add to ours: Collision avoidance, unattended operation, automated driving in crowded traffic. When you start with an animal that flocks or herds and knows how to stand up and avoid running into another or a tree, then it’s much easier to build a vehicle that does these things. If you start with a piece of metal and a computer, perhaps it can be done, but it’s much harder.
  2. It may be harder to learn to fly, or drive, than it is for us. But once you do, it is potentially much safer. And who can say that our teenagers should not go through a rite-of-passage than makes them appreciate the privilege of driving rather than viewing the car as a toy. Perhaps the Na’vi have a lower teenage vehicular death rate than we do. And if you do spend a late night out partying, it is useful if your car knows the way home by itself.
  3. Who needs wide-screen-HD-tv when you can hook into the stories of the ancestors? And who is to say that story-tellers among the Na’vi cannot hook into their local life-tree and imagine their stories to be told, or recount their experiences, to be recorded for all after them to enjoy in full 3D with a complete sensory experience.

The Na’vi and the World of Pandora is not a primitive aboriginal past, but rather a picture of a possible and rich sustainable civilization that we can aspire to. Our present course of building a metal, glass and silicon ecology and then recreating sustainability is going to be much harder than adapting biology to our needs to accomplish the same ends.

Now all we need to do is to get this temporary Global Warming thing under control as we see what the real long term goal is for our civilization.

Unanswered Questions

There are many unanswered questions in the Avatar story. Rich material for sequels to be sure. Here are some of the questions that I have:

  1. How did Pandora arise? Did it naturally evolve? or was it created by the previous un-sustainable, metal-glass-ecology civilization as they grew out of that primitive technology.
    Are the floating mountains the remnants of the previous toxic metal-glass ecology? Long derelict remnants of buildings in a floating city?
  2. Are the Na’vi still in control of their own evolution in ways that we cannot understand? Can they create or modify the life forms around them, perhaps using the life tree as an intermediary? A larger Direhorse, an ocean crossing whale vehicle, a bird that can transport the aged or very young.
  3. Do the Na’vi know and understand their origins. Apparently they do by listening to the life tree. They probably have a better connection with their past than we do, since all we have are history books and fossils.
Floating Mountains

– windy

Images Copyright by Twentieth Century Fox and others.
Text – Copyright (c) 2009, Darrell Duffy