You and I probably don’t think of ourselves as agriculturalists, but from an anthropological stance we are, and as such manifest a culture of new technology dating back to the start of the Holocene — the current warm interglacial period that started around 14,000 years ago with the end of the last ice age — and the Neolithic revolution when people first domesticated plants and animals on a large scale in different regions of the planet.
Today, two phenomena are emblematic of a modernity that separates us from our distant past, and nature. First, the melting of glaciers and ice caps worldwide signifies we are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the last ice age. Second, the disappearance of the last true hunter-gatherer societies in all but the world’s most remote and inaccessible regions (such as the Aeta people of the Philippines or Australia’s Pila Nguru) reveals our own domestication is nearly complete.
Our hominid ancestral past reaches back millions of years; our particular species of Homo sapiens has walked the earth for approximately 200,000 years, sharing certain regions with our Neanderthal cousins who eventually went extinct. You could take a person from two hundred millennia ago, bathe them and put them in modern costume and (other than perhaps being small) they’d fit in with the crowd on any subway platform.
For all but the past 12,000 years (and longer in many places) we Homo sapiens lived in small hunter-gatherer groups, our time as village-dwellers representing less than five per cent of our history. Though the pyramids seem old to us, what we call “ancient” civilizations such as Babylon, Assyria, Egypt are within minutes of midnight on our evolutionary clock.
We pastoralists love our sedentary lifestyles and the cultural artifacts and technology that surpluses of food and other commodities afford; the earliest granaries in the Indus Valley may be thought of as connected to the latest iPhone. We forget that writing was invented not for poetry, but to allow the lethal rulers of the first large hierarchical societies to record their stores of grain, honey, wine and (most importantly) weapons. The early agricultural societies quickly became imperialistic slave societies. (Some would argue nothing has changed.)
With the last hunter-gatherer tribes about to pass from existence, it’s worth noting what we will have lost. What such tribes lack in “book learning” they arguably make up for in “nature literacy” about animal behavior and the nutritional or healing properties of hundreds of plants. Those few semi-nomadic people who have thus far escaped colonialization enjoy extraordinary freedom, immediacy of life, and egalitarianism compared to many of their brethren toiling away under fluorescent lights in front of computer screens or machines.
This brings us to Avatar — the new computer-animated film available in some places in IMAX 3D — that recently (at half-a-billion dollars) surpassed James Cameron’s other blockbuster Titanic as the highest grossing movie of all time.
Avatar, as you probably know, takes the audience on an immersive cinematic journey into the world of the aliens on planet Pandora through the eyes of Jake Sully, a former Marine confined to a wheelchair. Corporations are mining a rare mineral on this distant planet that’s key to solving Earth’s energy crisis. Human “drivers” have their consciousness linked to a remotely-controlled biological body (an “avatar”) that can survive in Pandora’s toxic air. The avatars are copies of the rainforest natives of Pandora — the Na’vi — whose misfortune it is to live directly atop the most plentiful deposits of the valuable mineral, and must therefore be evacuated.
The storyline has been called Dances with Wolves in space, and has been criticized by some as a simplistic critique of U.S. forays into Iraq and elsewhere.
The personalities of the film’s main protagonists are sadly cartoonish. The supposed villains are irredeemably bad; the heroes are simplistically good. While the visual power of CG graphics is welcome, the whole premise of avatar-based video games has dumbed down the movie-making; the plot at times even seems to be about getting to “the next level.”
Despite these flaws, the film nevertheless tells a true and important story: the pushing by agriculturalists of indigenous hunter-gatherer people off of their lands, and the exploitation and destruction of wilderness to extract resources and support sedentary lifestyles, cut off from nature. This has been the dominant story not only of the recent so-called colonial period, but of the last 12,000 years.
It’s only now, with natural resources dwindling and whole ecosystems in danger of collapse, that we agriculturalists are reconsidering our actions and looking at “primitive” people, asking ourselves, “What are we doing?”
Recycling, composting, waste minimization and product stewardship are really the agriculturalists’ recognition of the Earth’s limited ability to support our sedentary lifestyle. With our environmental footprint growing, we know that new “cradle-to-cradle” closed-loop systems are needed for producing goods.
Unfortunately there are no avatars for sustainable development in the real world, no animated solution. The avatars are us.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com