An ecological philosophy of film

This article was first published in The Ecologist.

I’ve just published a book, called A Film-Philosophy of Ecology and Enlightenment. In this book, I discuss films such as The Road, Melancholia, Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But what’s it all about? What does the title of my book mean?

I’ll briefly explain, by way of an example. Which constitutes a kind of ‘trailer’ for the book…

Incendiary themes

The final chapter of my book is about the biggest blockbuster of all time, Avatar. Consider the following important fact about Avatar: this was a film so potentially incendiary, eco-politically, that the authoritarian Chinese Government felt compelled quietly to ban it, for fear that it would ignite rural land-revolts.

Or rather they tried to ban it in a way that didn’t look as if they were banning it. Only the 2D version of Avatar was banned in China, while the 3D version continued to be shown. The explanation for the withdrawal of the 2D version must have had a lot to do with the kind of people who only had access to 2D cinemas (i.e. poor and rural or provincial folk, the ones who might rebel over land-grabs and the like). The Chinese government was apparently quite confident that well-off urban people wouldn't cause any trouble.

That story alone tells us much of what we need to know about the potential power of films to change our world, a reason for giving them the serious attention that I do.

What I claim in my book, about Avatar, is that Avatar ‘literalises’ what is metaphorically true of our world:

- The trees are a global network, sustaining life and consciousness

- We can link our consciousness with other language-using creatures and with other non-language-using animals (with or without technology)

- Ey’wa is Gaia, Mother Earth

- The atmosphere, the air we breathe, is potentially becoming lethal for us

- The real wealth of the world lies not in shiny minerals, but in life. (Recall Ruskin’s great remark: “There is no wealth but life”.)

- The world is stunningly beautiful when we open our eyes to see it and attune ourselves to living harmoniously within it.

- The Tree of Souls is a metaphor for the fact that imagination and dreaming need not be private experiences. Creative forces can be harnessed and utilized collectively.

'I see you'

Like many of the films considered in my book, Avatar ends by making a kind of call to the viewer. The call, in this case, is manifested powerfully as the main protagonist opens his eyes and gazes directly into yours, at the end of the film.

This call, I argue, is a call upon you to complete the film. How? The call is a call to replenish and restore the ecosystems of our fragile world, not merely of a fictional world, ‘Pandora’. The call is to save our world. The only world we have.

What we must first do is say (and mean) “I see you”, then we must wake up and appreciate the fact that we live in a paradise. As Jay Michaelson put it: “In the Na’Vi cosmology, what’s really happening is the [Ey]’Wa in me is connecting with the [Ey]’Wa in you. This is echoed in their greeting, “I see you”, a direct translation of the Sanskrit Namaste, which means the same thing.

"'Avatar' is also from the Sanskrit, though the film plays on the word’s two meanings, of an image used in a role-playing game, and a deity appearing on Earth). As the Na’Vi explain in the film, though, “I see you” doesn’t mean ordinary seeing – it, like Namaste, really means “the God in me sees the God in you.””

Transformative encounters

At one key point in the film, Norm - one of the film’s hero-human-scientists, and a fellow inhabitor of an avatarian-body - teaches our hero, Jake, what the true meaning of “I see you” is: “I see you, I see into you, I see who you really are.”

The story of the film is the story of Jake struggling with this. Early on in the film, for instance, he says “I sure hope this tree-hugging stuff isn’t on the final”. Eventually, after terrible setbacks, he learns to realise a deep sense of honouring himself and The Other.

The story of the film as a transformative ‘therapeutic’ encounter for we viewers is the story of us struggling with this and learning to realise it.

How do we get to the point of being able to do this, to truly say “I see you” to everyone and everything? Well, first, as I have already implied, by really seeing the film. By, as it were, saying “I see you” to Avatar

The argument that I make in my book, with regard to this film and a dozen more, requires some courage. It requires courage for viewers to enter into it and accept, and make their own, and not to condescend or express contempt, as many critics of Avatar have done.

Willingness and determination

I am taking a risk in saying this, and you are taking a risk if you believe it. It is ‘safer’ to remain on the barren heights of intellectual superiority, to mock the pretensions of a massive, commercial success.

It is particularly tempting to look down on a popular film, to ‘prove’ yourself superior to it – because then you are by implication ‘superior’ to the tens or hundreds of millions of people who love it.

I think that the risk of opening oneself to Avatar and to hope is well worth taking. The sterility and (in the end) systematic unsafety of the alternative - of trusting to business as usual, hoping only for techno-fixes, getting stuck in denial and distancing oneself from nature - is something we know is not the answer.

We know when we dare to feel the Earth beneath our feet, as we experience Jake doing when his avatar runs for the first time.

Like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom trilogy, Lord of the Rings and Avatar teach and express a love of the physical, and of the biological. I predict that this theme will only become stronger in the sequels to Avatar that will appear in the next few years: a willingness to embrace our animal nature, and to love life, and a determination to enable future generations to do the same - this kind of willingness and determination manifest across the output of The Ecologist, from its beginnings to today.

Dare to dream

It is relatively easy for academics and critics to feel secure in the citadels of the cognitive mind. But it won’t stay easy for long.

It is time to come down into the green fields and forests and jungles of physicality and of spirit: to play, to imagine, to dare to dream. Collectively surely, we must take the risk of daring to hope.

Daring to hope means that we may yet have the courage to save ourselves and our planet. To share a common will to prevent ecocide, and to fully achieve the glorious potential of life.

That, and nothing less, is what my book is about. How films and/as philosophy can enlighten us. And, maybe, help us to live eco-logically again before it’s too late.

Publication: