Avatar and Environmental Justice


In an interview yesterday with Dianne Glave author of Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage (August 2010), she shared some of her insights with me about the movie Avatar, and its connection to people of color and the environment.

So you finally  saw Avatar! What are some of your initial thoughts?

Many people were raving about Avatar, so I had to see it! And while director James Cameron is breaking his own record [over Titanic] with more than a billion dollars in gross sales, I was pleasantly surprised by something different: the emphasis on environmental justice on the fictional planet Pandora, and its native people, the Na’vi.

Tell us more about what the movie meant for you as an environmentalist.

Movies amplify and parallel societal concerns. Even though the recent film 2012 also told a story of environmental destruction, Avatar went further because it takes the movie-goer on a very personal journey, an intense love story between characters from literally different worlds:  Jake Sully and Neytiri.

Dianne Glave

Why do you think a love story was an important narrative device here?

Love and relationships are fundamental to the earth’s sustenance and survival. In the movie, the love of Jake and Neytiri empower them and their respective communities to effectively battle a hostile military presence.  Futuristic Earth is in trouble and needs Unobtainium, a mineral located under a sacred tree that contains the spiritual life of the Na’vi, whose worship and biological lives are literally connected to everything in their environment. For example, the Na’vi’s tails symbiotically fuse to plants and the creatures they ride as a symbol of empathy and interconnection to all living things.

Why is Avatar an important story now?

The conflict between the military and the Na’vi reflect modern day concerns regarding who controls and exploits natural resources here on earth—in countries like the United States, and in your own backyard. People who are marginalized, particularly people of color who face environmental racism, deserve environmental justice. This includes access to natural resources like water and land, along with recreation facilities like parks and accessible open space.  Here in the United States, no one should have to live near a toxic waste dump or around the bend from a nuclear plant. The same was true for the Na’vi, who battled to keep their planet pristine filled with wondrous trees and creatures, protecting it from becoming a strip mine for a mineral.

Anything else you want to add?

I will stop here although there is so much more about the movie I would love to share and how it related to current issues with people of color and the environment. And I certainly don’t want to ruin it with spoilers for those who have not seen Avatar in 3D! At the very least, I encourage everyone to see it for the spectacular visual effects and compelling love story. The environmental themes are a real bonus for those of us who are green.

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Dianne D. Glave lives in Atlanta and teaches in the department of history at Morehouse College. She is the coeditor of To Love the Wind and the Rain: African Americans and Environmental History.

Available August 2010


5 Thoughts on “Avatar and Environmental Justice”

  • Thanks, Rue! What a great article and interview. I, too, was particularly moved by all the various symbolism that was going on within the movie “Avatar.” Global warming and the exploitation of the planet; the exploitation of people as “others,” and the justification of such exploitation by naming said people as “savages”, etc.; imperialism, colonialism, etc., etc., were just so many intense issues that were beautifully woven into this movie via great visual effects, colors, and a simple–yet powerful–story line.

  • I feel similarly about the movie and have been mulling around some great Environmentalism/Indigenious peoples/Imperialism parallels. She hits spot on.

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