No Garden to Get Back to: Understanding Post-Avatar Ecological Depressive Disorder


No Garden to Get Back to: Understanding Post-Avatar Ecological Depressive Disorder is an article in Religion Dispatches by Ryan Croken.

It may be only a movie, but it is turning significant segments of its audience into eco-radicals. We can go ahead and dissect the film’s weaknesses, but as our planet dies, and politicians fail, is this really how we want to talk about the most influential ecological parable of our time?

I’m pointing us to this article on Avatar because it is an example of words I am slowly beginning to see in the media; as our planet dies. I’m not talking about wild apocalypticsm here, but simple acceptance on the part of many writers.  Our planet is dying. Maybe, just slowly, people are waking up at last.

We recently linked [link lost] to similar sentiment expressed by Derek Jensen.  In that article the loss of hope leads, according to the author, to a re-empowerment, which will not happen until hope is lost. Byron Smith at Nothing New Under the Sun constantly talks about global warming and ecological issues generally,  in terms of ‘what is right’, not ‘rights’ or hopes, or technology. Smith’s PhD research focusses around: “What is a faithful Christian response to impending civilisational decline? What role ought nightmarish apocalyptic visions play in Christian moral reasoning on these matters?” We can see the same shift in sentiments to one of urgency and failure in the exchange between Monbiot and Kingsnorth here.  Are things shifting... or shifting enough?

George Monbiot wrote of the Copenhagen Summit

Humanity is no longer split between conservatives and liberals, reactionaries and progressives, though both sides are informed by the older politics. Today the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers; those who believe that there should be no impediments and those who believe that we must live within limits. The vicious battles we have seen so far between greens and climate change deniers, road safety campaigners and speed freaks, real grassroots groups and corporate-sponsored astroturfers are just the beginning. This war will become much uglier as people kick against the limits that decency demands.  is... a battle between two world views. The angry men who seek to derail [the Copenhagen]  agreement, and all such limits on their self-fulfilment, have understood this better than we have. A new movement, most visible in North America and Australia, but now apparent everywhere, demands to trample on the lives of others as if this were a human right. It will not be constrained by taxes, gun laws, regulations, health and safety, especially by environmental restraints. It knows that fossil fuels have granted the universal ape amplification beyond its Palaeolithic dreams. For a moment, a marvellous, frontier moment, they allowed us to live in blissful mindlessness.

The angry men know that this golden age has gone; but they cannot find the words for the constraints they hate. Clutching their copies of Atlas Shrugged, they flail around, accusing those who would impede them of communism, fascism, religiosity, misanthropy, but knowing at heart that these restrictions are driven by something far more repulsive to the unrestrained man: the decencies we owe to other human beings.

So even the opponents of restriction know the ‘golden age’ has gone.  Folk all over the place accept this, and have seen with a new clarity that we have been abusing Earth. Others seem sublimely unaware. Life goes on, as though it is all an issue for someone else to solve. If we just wait, it will all be OK.

I spent six days of my recent holidays riding across South Australia. Two of those days were 45 degrees centigrade (113F) immediatley  followed by a day of constant rain!  Admiration and bemusement were present in equal quantity among my friends!  But there was a disturbing amount of reaction against my endeavour which charactarised it as “dirty.”

These are the people who live in the airconditioned comfort of their cars and computers, and who have lost all contact with Earth.  They have no desire to save Earth, because they have not lost it. They are the people who would not even see the destruction my biologist’s eye saw one whole profoundly depressing day.  Probably for them the long journey would merely be boring, the aircon filters removing the stink of death I smelled the whole 30 miles I rode along the Coorong. They would not see the failing remnant ecosystems.  They are the people who say, “Isn’t it lucky for the farms that the trees only grown around the edges of the paddocks!”

One of these people is so “clean” that I wonder if they don surgical gloves when they go to the toilet. There seem to be whole industries of soap and cosmetics, devoted to removing us from Earth... or is it the removing of Earth from us? There is a profound denial of our earthliness and our mortality.

This is at the root of the death of Earth. We want our cars, computers and airconditioners.  We don’t really care about earth.  And the reason we don’t care is that we don’t live in Earth. We live on it, in air conditioned comfort. We have no connection to the planet. We have lost any sense of reality. One person was honestly surprised that you could ride a pushbike a hundred miles.

All the debates on TV and in the press happen in an air of unreality. They’re about somewhere else. They are something to be fixed by some one else because we are not outraged by what we see, because we don’t see.  We are no longer of Earth.

After watching Avatar, writes Croken

....  what was once considered merely unsustainable becomes unendurable. What was once irresponsible now seems intolerable. As you yearn to see yourself as an integral part of the dynamic planetary system around you, you are suddenly awakened to the fact that your corporeal spirit is mingling with garbage. You have profaned your home planet, your life, and, quite possibly, your afterlife, for you now imagine your body buried in a cemetery next to a bunch of strangers on the side of the highway, with unknown chemicals seeping into your coffin like grave robbers. If, as a member of the audience during Avatar, you could not endure the destruction of Eywa, how, as a human being, could you possibly tolerate the destruction of Gaia? You cheered the heroes of the film on to victory against the greedy and myopic mercenaries, only to discover that, in reality, you are among the evildoers. You don’t walk the Earth; you trample it. You are an eco-pathological rapist and murderer, and you are committing slow-motion suicide with every industrial movement you make...

It is easy to scoff at Avatar and those like me who were so affected by it, but it would be irresponsible to dismiss the cultural force behind the disorder that I only half-jokingly made up. Avatar is striking hard at a nerve, a nerve that is desperately straining to reconnect itself with the vanishing beauty of the natural world. There is tremendous energy inside the agony of our estrangement from nature. After the 3-D goggles come off, let us harness this energy; it is the most bountiful of renewable resources, and so long we are capable of imagining that which could be, it is also the most powerful.

People do scoff. One of his respondents writes

This nature worship naivete is a lovely vision of Eden which ignores the rigors of reality. Consider the US in summer: a furnace full of bugs, a carpet of poison ivy....

And I think, “Where the hell do you think your grandparents lived? Where do you think most of the world lives?”

Croken replies

Ah, but perhaps there can be no God without mosquito bites? Or poison ivy rashes. I think of John Muir, now, climbing to the top of the tree during a thunderstorm, ecstatic. All senses and emotions -- even fear --- should be open and activated, pleasant or otherwise. You can't fully breach the gap between yourself and nature by immunizing yourself to the hardships that we were evolutionarily intended to confront out there. There are tribes in the Amazon that deliberately inflict insect bites upon themselves. Exact opposite of bug spray.

As far as IMAX spirituality goes, I would suggest that movies like "avatar" can remind us of --- but not replace entirely --- an immersive interconnection with the natural world, which is why some viewers experience a kind of "culture shock," so to speak, after exiting the theater.

We are a long way off from Brave-New-Worldian "feelies," and even if this hyperreality could be perfected, I think that, for most people, the fundamental dissatisfaction experienced by Huxley's main character would persist.

I worry about his last line here.  The frightening, depressing thing for me when I read Brave New World, was how John was so alone in his horror of the world.  Even as a teenager, I got that. How many of us, really, are as alienated John?  And how many of us simply take a few more pills of materialism, and watch another escapist move?

Monbiot wrote (above) that the battle lines are drawn between expanders and restrainers.  The expanders, if they win, will take us to a world like that of Peter Watts, where the rifters extract electricity from undersea volcanoes as the ecosystem collapses.  As James Nicoll says on Watts’ webpage, “"Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts." It's not only a smart line, but scarily true, if you read Watts.

Mere restraint will not be enough. At some level we must passionate rediscover what Avatar presents in part; a connection to Earth.  We are part of Earth, not independent of it. At present, beyond sentimental attachment to romantic nature desktops from Microsoft, or the manicured artificiality of city parks and Jamie Durie garden rooms, far too many of us in the west are not part of earth. We are separate. We have not only lost the capacity to sweat, we are not fully alive.  We do not know themselves as animal, and earthly. We do Prius piety without repentance.  Read Croken's article >>>>

Andrew Prior


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