Can brilliant filmmakers be lousy thinkers? This question is being raised because of an interesting interview with James Cameron in the Los Angeles Times. In this interview, Mr. Cameron proudly describes his film Avatar as follows: “Nature gets to fight back. It’s Death Wish for environmentalists. When did nature ever get to fight back in a movie?”
Well, the answer is, as James Cameron should know, every time we see a person in a film who dies of a disease like cancer or tuberculosis, or as a result of floods, earthquakes, or hurricanes, we see how nature fights back. In reality, as in Haiti, we see what happens when nature takes control and destroys houses and roads and bridges — does it make him happy to see how nature destroyed a whole country?
James Cameron is 55 now, and if he takes care of himself and listens to his doctors and personal trainers he can easily last another twenty or thirty years on this planet. In the Middle Ages, Mr. Cameron’s Scottish forbears had an average life expectancy of about thirty years because they couldn’t fight the forces of nature. When they were born, they could expect the same lifespan in years as Mr. Cameron still has in his middle age.
Until human beings started to understand the complex universe of micro-life, discovering bacteria and viruses, beginning a scientific journey to understand nature at its most basic level, we were at nature’s mercy.
Ancient human existence was marked by a search for food and a fear of disease, which the humans at that time considered to have been brought upon them by supernatural forces. Even in the Roman and Greek periods, and also in pre-Columbian North America, human beings on average didn’t have a median life expectancy at birth of more than twenty-five years. It was the industrial revolution that gave us longer life spans — especially the construction of modern sewer systems in the nineteenth century which created a revolution in sanitation, leading to less disease.
In nature, organisms are engaged in an eternal battle to pass on their genes. Both huge and tiny organisms attack each other for nutrition and living space, and human progress was only made possible when we started to investigate natural processes and break up the natural chain of cause (diseases) and effect (death).
As organisms, we human beings seem to have a physical system fit for thirty to forty years of existence. According to nature, that’s enough. Nowadays, scientists use their ingenuity for finding even more techniques to limit the consequences of growing old, which itself has been made possible by successfully limiting natural forces. We spend most of our health care resources on people older than sixty — many of their illnesses occur because we live longer than our natural lifespan.