Avatar and the Gaia Hypothesis

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Today my mind was blown by James Cameron's sf film Avatar in full-colour 3D. Some spoilers follow.

Tolkien created the ents, the tree-shepherds, out of his sense that trees are so large yet so defenseless against the man -- or the orc -- with an axe and a torch. The moon Pandora, Avatar's world, is Tolkien's ents on a global scale. It's Lovelock's natty old Gaia "hypothesis" turned concrete reality. Lem's world Solaris is covered by a sentient global ocean. Pandora has a sentient global jungle that fights back against the despoiler.

It is of course wish fulfillment for the guilt-ridden modern urbanite -- that Mother Nature is a real thinking being and able to protect herself. Alas, she is not. Or should I say -- lucky for us brainy chimps, she is not, because then she would have snuffed us way back in the pre-pottery Neolithic.

We're not up against a formidable opponent. We can't even console ourselves with the feeling of being up against a half-competent adversary. We're alone with our guilt at fucking over ecosystems that are completely incapable of opposing us or adapting to us. We're holding the axe and all the tree can do is rustle its leaves. Wouldn't it be great if we weren't responsible for the environment?

It might be seen as a concession to realism that the film's lo-tech indigenes -- unlike the Ewoks of Endor -- prove no match to hi-tech military forces. That's also where Avatar parts company with LeGuin's The Word for World is Forest. But instead of getting herded off to a barren reservation or ending up as ghetto proles like the indigenous peoples of historical Earth, Pandora's people are saved by Mother Nature.

Don't miss the movie!


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For decades I've worried about what we are doing to the earth. Maybe she is fighting back with global warming, quakes, tsunamis and volcanoes. The best thing that could happen to this planet is if Stephen Kings Captain Tripps plague hit and wiped out most of us.

As for us being "brainy chimps" -- I'm not so sure that we are. What brainy being would kill the one thing that keeps it alive?

As for the movie -- it's amazing. Breathtaking doesn't begin to describe it. If you haven't see it -- go. If you have seen it -- go again. :)

Everything I've heard about the movie's plot, story, theme, etc seems so pedantic and childish... I can't bring myself to drop a ten on it. Would it have been so terribly hard to have someone with more sophistication than a twelve year old give the script a once over?
I'm a lefty anti-corporate class warrior guy, my first love being animals and nature and the whole nine. But I'm realistic enough to see the ruin of the biosphere and think we need more radical solutions than hippy dippy religion. Hell, some weirdo could see a movie like this and see it as a reason to avoid "exploitive" space travel that may allow us to ruin alien ecosystems. If we don't get off this doomed rock, that isn't gonna help the pandas any, is it?
Plus I just hate bad writing. Cameron just showed us his George Lucas face. I'm not going to smile at it.

By CS Shelton (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink

Mostly you see it for the look. Though as I've remarked several times now - next time some daft newager babbles on about energy and connections to the earth, I can just ask them to show me their connector cable. Not got one? Oh dear, well, so much for that.

Avatar is a very pretty movie. The visuals are lush, colorful, and eye-pleasing. The plot is threadbare and dull. About halfway through, after being sated by the pretty pictures, I was so bored that I skipped out on the rest of it.

More people banging on about 3-D. Some of us can't see it. (I even got up and wrote about it!)

OK, I know your main point is the Gaia thing. Ignore me :-)

Hm? Ecosystems can't oppose or adapt to us? Evolution didn't somehow stop for the rest of the world when humans appeared, nor did competition or any of the other ways organisms interact with each other. Ecosystems are changing in response to us, certainly. Biodiversity is dropping and any number of areas won't look at all like they did in the last interglacial-but quite a few organisms thrive because of us, or take advantage of the habitats we create. Give it a few million years and speciation will take up the slack. Ecosystems may not adapt so as to preserve the characteristics we'd like, but it's adapting.

Have to agree with #2 & #4 (CS & Zeno). I liked "District 9" much better but it was a lot less audience friendly, far more subtle and much more interesting in its overall comments on life, human nature and what appeared to be a relatively possible reality in such an event. Also went to see, "The Book of Eli," surprisingly good with a twist. I'm not sure how I'd label it...just unusual and interesting.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 16 Jan 2010 #permalink

Janegael, the planet has seen a lot of global warming, quakes, tsunamis and volcanoes long before there were any humans around. But true, we're not brainy enough to predict the global repercussions of our actions very well.

Cath, haha, connector cable indeed!

Adam, what we're seeing right now is not ecosystems adapting on the geological time scale. They're simply collapsing through a human-induced mass extinction event. Wait until we retain an equilibrium lasting more than 10 000 years and see if humans are still part of the equation.

Mike O, I liked District 9 a lot too, but there was too much fighting in the second half.

The occultic meaning of the word "Avatar" is really Lucifer/Satan. -That alone should have raised eyebrows, but it didn't lol
-Think about that for a minute..what would happen if James Cameron just named the film -SATAN- ...would people then want to consider the real meaning behind the film?

The entire Movie/Entertainment industry is a well financed satanic psychological war operation being executed upon the public right before their eyes.

Just like all the other Illuminati controlled industry, the Movie/Entertainment industry is a tool designed to advance their agenda of a "New World Order" and the deceptions that come along with it.

In the satanic Illuminati occult dogma, the term "AVATAR" represents their coming Anti-christ, and is the Illuminati occult representation of Satan incarnate.

The Illuminati believe that through science they will be able to genetically produce a "Body" or "Host" that can then be possessed by the actual spirit of Lucifer/Satan.

This "host" that the spirit of Satan will inhabit is called the "AVATAR"

James Cameron has actually named his entire film project based around the satanic doctrines of demonic possession and modern DNA manipulation, in which the Illuminati seek to bring about the "New Age humanoid", or demonically possessed biological human entity.

I like how this tread is 90% trolls.

@ #9 > Is that Poe at work? Either way, I have a feeling it's the most hilarious thing I'll read all day.

And to stay somewhat topical: I also enjoyed the movie, although I have to admit that I found the 3d to be more of an annoyance at first than anything. I certainly wouldn't say it made the movie a more enjoyable experience.

My main beef with it: why did the human have to be "The Chosen One" or whatever? Couldn't they have had his lady-friend be the same? Or, for some actual depth to the story, maybe the partial-baddy who opposed him could have been the Na'vi's saviour (the son of the chief or something... It's been a few weeks since I saw it).

Grumblings aside, definitely enjoyed it. Especially for all the critters.

By Kenneth mcFarlane (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

#2, compare this kind of movie with an opera where the story is also often childish or stereotypic. It's the experience that counts, not the story. This is made most explicit in Luc Besson's 'The fifth element' where there is an actual opera performance at the center of the movie, which is extremely silly but well made.

I've never seen James Lovelock suggest that the earth is actually a sentient being, that seems to be the territory of the New Agers who have latched onto the Gaia hypothesis and whom Lovelock has taken pains to distance himself from. The Gaia hypothesis is really about how non-linear dynamics among the earths biota create a complex, self-regulating system. I'm sure there are plenty of legit criticisms of Lovelock out there, but it frustrates me to see this continuing mischaracterization.

By Tyler DiPietro (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

I take it that very few ecologists even believe that the biosphere is "self-regulating". It's like any dynamic system: mess enough with it and it simply breaks.

Won't be seeing it based on above comments.

Off topic but saw The Road not long ago. Very true to the book.

I'm not sure I'd classify it as sci-fi. Uncounted human beings all through history have found themselves trapped in hopeless disasters similar to this, Easter Island must have been very similar. Imagine what it was like inside the walls of countless besieged cities where the survivors ate one another only to eventually be enslaved or exterminated.

Is there any doubt about how humans would behave in a world stripped of its natural resources?

Speaking of extermination, watched Inglorious Basterds last night. Not recommended. Revenge flick. A Jew bashes in the heads of German soldiers with a baseball bat, classic Tarantino.

Just call me Debbie Downer ...


I should add as well, cool visual effects aside, I fly a little remote control heli. Therefore I admit to finding the ducted fan helis here pretty cool as well.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 17 Jan 2010 #permalink

I wasn't all that impressed with the Na'Vi hair link. After all, the bad guys had that amazing avatar link. That link was WiFi to the Na'Vi RS-232 cable connectors. No wires, no Lady Clairol conditioner. It works in the vortex zone. It does full consciousness transfer, no symbolic mumbo jumbo stuff. It was totally amazing. Too bad the rest of their technology was kind of dated in comparison.

I also wasn't very impressed with Gaia. For crying out loud, Gaia can draw on the forces of an entire planet. Where were the tornadoes trashing the heli-ships? Where were the earthquakes toppling the goon stompers? Where was the torrential rain and deadly lightning? What did the planet do instead? It sent out a bunch of animals, maybe a bit bigger and nastier than elephants! That really works against machine guns and heavy artillery. Lucky for the Na'Vi the bad guys didn't use tempered glass in their combat fliers or the sequel would have to be Avatar 2: Unobtainium Flats.

On the plus side, it was a great movie. The story moved right along. With a set like that, who can blame the director for working it? Sure, climb a couple more trees ad jump off! People pay good money for zip lines and bungie jumping. The dialog was A+ comic book dialog, and I'm a big fan of comic book dialog. The villain was a typical Cameron villain twirling his mustache and chewing the scenery. Lucky for the Na'Vi he had to wear a mask outside or he would have just gnawed up that unobtainium with his bare teeth. The 3D was pleasantly restrained so I could do binocular for most of it, unlike Beowulf.

I'd say go see it. I'll probably go see it again.

P.S. I'm glad to see unobtainium is back. It was a critical war supply in liberating Europe in the early 40s.

"Mother Nature is a real thinking being and able to protect herself."

I have this awful feeling that we may be her brain. If so, I think she needs a good therapist.

umm hey Jennifer you may wish to brush up on your Sanskrit,
the actual meaning of Avatar is descent of God and has nothing to do with "Satan". Actually Satan is a Judeo-Christian myth that isnt even addressed by the Vedas because they were written by Rishis (sages) who were completely beyond such simplistic dualism. If anything the movie warns against the corporatocracy that you would identify with the Illuminati. These same Illuminati were the ones that wiped out the Shamanic cultures (i.e. Navi) and created the Bible as a menas of social control. The movie actually warns against the Illuminati.

By Dean Hayden (not verified) on 27 Jan 2010 #permalink

It's not badly written. It's just utterly predictable. The story doesn't get in the way of the movie's visuals, and that may be deliberate. After all, we've all heard some stories a thousand times, and that doesn't stop us listening again.

"Mother Nature is a real thinking being and able to protect herself," is Prince Philip's genocidal fraud. Humanity is the highest and best contributor to earth. The idea that humanity is a virus is a fraud and only a relatively recent fraud. The basis of the Humanist Renaissance is that humanity is the jewel of Creation.

By Sean OLeary (not verified) on 02 Feb 2010 #permalink

I don't share your romantic view of humanity's worth. But as I have written before, I do think that a planet with life that is never observed by an intelligent creature is basically pointless from a human perspective. Maybe I should re-run that entry here.

@19: what dictionary are u using????? Mine definitely defines AVATAR the same way that Jennifer's own does...it represents the incarnation of the evil entity (satan) into a genetically engineered body. By the way, James Cameron is a 33rd degree Freemason...look it up and think before you speak.

Hey Satan fans, the word avatar is actually Sanskrit and means "local personification of one of the main Hindu gods".

33rd level freemason? Word definitions as the physical presence of evil in the world? Social control by "illuminati." Yeah, look, this is all fiction. I believe religion serves a purpose but this is all a little cracked. Another novel, "Snowcrash," addresses similar issues...suffice to say that shamanistic cultures and those lacking moral/ethical codes were responsible for the spread of great deal of disease. Said diseases could frequently be named as evil spirits. For as much as I like Stephenson, I'd also say I doubt very much he believes that the proper pronunciation is an actual issue...although it certainly makes for a great novel.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 26 Feb 2010 #permalink

Frankly, Martin, I'd forgotten about that basic connection with the word avatar. The other irony is that what first brought me to Science Blogs, generally and yours in particular, was your review of "Anathem."

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 27 Feb 2010 #permalink

power comes from the barrel of a gun, now where the hell did I put mine....

Mother Nature is NOT a theory. She is real, She is everywhere, and SHE IS PISSED. i think you no-good layabout fucked up ladida talking uni students need to get you fat ASSES off the computer, and get them down the fucking job centre. STOP USING MY TAX TO TALK BOLLOCKS!!!

By Irritated.. (not verified) on 15 May 2010 #permalink

Yeah! And on your way down there, why not check in with the barber and GET A HAIRCUT for once! Damn kids.

The entire universe is connected. Life on earth is influenced by and may even depend on cosmic radiation from as far away as the Crab Nebula and even beyond that. There would be no universe without humanity, and vice-versa. All things are connected. To consider the "point" of a planet without humanity is a contradiction, because there would be no planet in the universe and no universe at all without humanity. Similarly, of course, there would be no humanity without the universe.

By Sean OLeary (not verified) on 08 Nov 2010 #permalink

It is true that geological studies show changes of the environment that contradicts the strong Gaia hypothesis of ecosystems working towards an optimum state. It is also true that there is evidence that ecosystems have collapsed from within. However, the frequency of such ecosystem collapses through geological history is many orders of magnitude lower than the extremely high frequency predicted by the Malthusian model of maximum reproduction. So evolution must be driven by something other than maximization of reproduction. The selfish gene model (the theoretical mechanism basis of the Medea hypothesis of life destroying itself) appears to be supported by simple computer simulations, but so does strong Gaia hypothesis. The strong Gaia hypothesis failed scale-up to more complex systems, and the missing frequency of Medean ecosystem collapses can be explained if the selfish gene model also fails scale-up to the greater complexity of real life because real life is too complex to be livable to such rigid, unselfcritical entities as the selfish gene model claims that living organisms are. In other words, the selfish gene model is based on the same methodological error as is the strong Gaia hypothesis. This is explained in greater detail on the pages "Moderating the Gaia/Medea debate" and "Self-organization" on Pure science Wiki, a wiki devoted to the scientific method unaffected by academic prestige obsession. I recommend Pure science Wiki!

By Martin J Sallberg (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013 #permalink