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James Cameron's Avatar: a Masterpiece of Permaculture Design?

Chris Johnstone
Wednesday, 30th June 2010

Chris Johnstone reviews James Cameron's epic from a permaculture perspective

avatarpic.jpg

Copyright 20th Century Fox

"Can we take some of this tree–hugging crap out?" asked Fox executives, after reading the script for Avatar the movie.

"No", said James Cameron, the director, "that's why I'm making the film". His vision was to take audiences into a different world, to show a different set of possibilities. "Avatar asks us" he said, "to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth." With its huge budget and groundbreaking 3D effects, this film has already made more money than any other movie in history. Could it also be regarded as a masterpiece of permaculture design?

Avatar: the Movie

The story is set in a fictional future on a faraway world. The plot acts like a mirror, reflecting back to us events unfolding on our planet now. Beautiful forests are being torn down to make way for opencast mines; a large
corporation employs its own private army to crush opposition from the local population. The world of Avatar is a large, life-rich moon called Pandora. The indigenous people are the Na'vi: tall, blue-skinned and living with a deep spiritual connection to the forest-world they are part of.

Cameron explains his intention: "the Na'vi represent that sort of aspirational part of ourselves that wants to be better, that wants to respect nature". They have developed such a richly satisfying life of connectedness that they can't be bought off; preserving the beauty and vitality of their world is more important to them than anything a materialistic society can offer.

Avatar: the Emotional Impact

Even more striking than its special effects are the film's emotional effects. When I've asked people about their experience of Avatar, many tell me they've felt deeply touched. Some report a strengthening of purpose, with a greater willingness to play their part in the protection of life on earth. Others have described loving the film, but feeling a deep sadness afterwards; a brief search on the internet suggests this is not uncommon. There's even a diagnostic term to describe it: 'Post Avatar Depression'.

Anna, a young woman who cried for an hour after watching the film, told me about her experience: "The feeling I had was one of mourning: mourning our loss, as a species, of our connection to the basic sustenance of life". Anna added that she had felt silly at responding to a film in this way. Yet, for her, it was so much more than just a film; it was a profound wake up call to what is happening in our world. Anna described the effect this had: "Avatar has contributed to a growing ecological consideration within me; I am finding it increasingly difficult to assume the position of a lack of personal responsibility by the 'burying my-head-in-the-sand' method".

So what's this got to do with permaculture?

Permaculture zoning

Permaculture involves conscious design to support sustainability; as this approach has developed, its focus has widened. David Holmgren describes this shift when he writes: 'the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved into one of permanent (sustainable) culture'. Permaculture concepts, like zoning, have sprouted new branches, with 'Zone Zero Zero' referring to the inner landscape. This is the 'place' of mind and heart where thoughts, feelings and imagination grow. But is it possible to apply design principles here?

A good starting point is the principle of 'observe and interact'. By paying attention to what's going on inside ourselves, we come to know the terrain we are working with. However, awareness is only the beginning; design is guided by intention and intention is really about choice.

If your inner landscape were like a garden, what would you choose to grow there? What kind of thinking and emotional states might help you maintain your energy, be productive in your life, enjoy it more and contribute to our world? As an example of how inner design can work, I'd like to look at the project of growing more motivation.

Permaculture and Inspiration

For many years I worked as an addictions specialist in the health service. A key insight I gained is that motivation isn't just something some people have and others don't. It can be consciously cultivated. Just as plants need nourishment and protection from pests, there are influences that feed motivation and others that block it. The kind of mourning that Anna felt after Avatar, for example, fed her motivation. A potent blocker of motivated states is the idea that 'negative' thoughts and feelings are always bad things and so are best suppressed, denied or avoided.

Joanna Macy, whose powerful empowerment approach takes a different view of pain for the world, writes: 'pain has a purpose: it is a warning signal designed to trigger remedial action'.

The insight that painful feelings can activate motivation leads to an inner design strategy we can use: to honour our disturbance when encountering information we find dis-turbing. 'Honouring' is about making room for, and allowing ourselves to hear, the emotional signals that tell us our world is dangerously off course. Like Pandora, Earth is under attack. And we are the attackers. Yet does it have to be like this?

When interviewing people about past events that inspired them, Sarah, a permaculture teacher, told me about a slideshow she'd seen. In this, a barren landscape became transformed into a lush, green forest. As care, attention and permaculture principles were applied to restoring the land, it developed into a rich terrain productive of fruit, wood and other resources to support local people. This slideshow transmitted a story of healing, rather than harming, our world. In Avatar, the Na'vi model a similar principle in their way of life. Stories like these are the seeds from which our motivation grows. And the place they get planted is between our ears, in Zone Zero Zero

Chris Johnstone edits The Great Turning Times, www.GreatTurningTimes.org and is author of Find Your Power – A Toolkit for Resilience and Positive Change, price £12.95, new, revised and expanded edition due to be published by Permanent Publications on 18th May 2010, available from www.green-shopping.co.uk.

Find out more about Chris Johnstone at: www.ChrisJohnstone.info 

Help spread the permaculture word...

Terry Mock |
Tuesday, July 16, 2013 - 12:53pm

Deepening Perspectives on Sustainable Land Development

Opening to critical acclaim and unprecedented commercial success, James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacle Avatar has become the fastest film to reach $1 billion in box office receipts. Here’s the plot set up – In 2154, the profit-focused RDA corporation is unsustainably mining Pandora, a lush, Earth-like moon of another planet. Pandora is inhabited by the Na’vi, a sapient species who has adapted to integrate their lives in ways that sustain their planet. The Na’vi resist the colonists’ expansion, which threatens the continued existence of the Na’vi and their ecosystem – sort of like Dances with Wolves meets Star Wars.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Charles C. Mann sets the record straight with a new nonfiction book released this past month that provides a fascinating look at the real lives of ancient Meso-American people – Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491. This is an adaptation of Mann’s best-selling nonfiction book 1491, which turned everything I had previously learned about American history on its head by demonstrating that a growing number of anthropologists and archaeologists now believe that the Western Hemisphere before Columbus’s arrival was well-populated and dotted with impressive cities and towns – one scholar estimated that it held a hundred million people or more – more than lived in Europe at the time. The Indians had transformed vast swaths of landscape to meet their agricultural needs by using fire to create prairies for increased game production, and had also cultivated at least part of the forest, living on crops of fruits and nuts.

The contentious debate over what the ecosystem looked like before Columbus arrived has important ramifications for how we sustainably manage the landscape of the future – one which many environmentalists may not like to hear. According to Mann -

Guided by the pristine myth, mainstream environmentalists want to preserve as much of the world’s land as possible in a putatively intact state. But “intact,” if the new research is correct, means “run by human beings for human purposes.” Environmentalists dislike this, because it seems to mean that anything goes. In a sense they are correct. Native Americans managed the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its 1491 state, they will have to find it within themselves to create the world’s largest garden.... http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/09/haiti-deepening-perspectives-sustain...

Sustainable Land Development Initiative
http://www.triplepundit.com/author/sldi/

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