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.
If Cameron had lived the way human beings have been living since they developed into a species we call homo sapiens, Mr. Cameron would have probably died after he finished his masterpiece The Terminator, which he made at the tender age of thirty. We would have missed great moments of Hollywood entertainment. But thank heavens Mr. Cameron was born in the twentieth century, after the discovery of penicillin and aspirin, after amazing revolutions in hygiene and medical equipment, and the discovery of DNA and so forth. He didn’t die young like the poet John Keats, as film director Jane Campion shows in Bright Star — another film in which “nature gets to fight back” and killed Keats with tuberculosis when he was twenty-five. Nowadays, John Keats would have lived a long and fruitful life.
In Avatar, it is not clear what kind of diseases create pain and suffering among the blue Natives of the imaginary planet Pandora. But there must be natural bacteria and viruses on their planet too. How do these blue creatures fight “bad” bacteria that weaken their bodies? How do they fight leukemia and recover from heart attacks? Or do they die young, lacking medicines, emergency rooms, bone marrow transplants, defibrillators — all because they respect the growth of deadly bacteria and tumors as products of a sacrosanct nature?
For most of our existence, homo sapiens were terrified of walking into a forest because it could mean death. If man wasn’t killed by a ferocious animal, or a member of another tribe, he could break a leg and he would undoubtedly die. In our age, after having killed the ferocious animals and having suppressed our tribal instincts, if we break a leg, we call 911 and a Medivac helicopter will transport us to a nearby hospital. No wonder we have no hesitation hiking around in unknown forests, enjoying the landscape, feeling happy about the aesthetics of nature. Only after having us delivered from the dangers of nature, modern technological society allows us to peacefully embrace nature.
Mr. Cameron made a carbon footprint the size of an African nation in the production of Avatar, and by encouraging people by the millions to drive to a nearby theater to view his creation. But he nevertheless gleefully states: “Nature gets to fight back.” While profiting from man-made, nature-defying achievements like medicines, airplanes, computers, the external combustion engine, heating and cooling — everything meant to overcome the limitations brought upon us by nature; while living a long, healthy and wealthy life due to the liberating qualities of human culture, James Cameron states that he enjoys seeing how nature fights back.
That is a very stupid remark by one of the greatest artists of our time.