Avatar takes on a non-fiction afterlife: the meaning for mining and oil companies

Avatar had already succeeded beyond Hollywood’s wildest fantasies last month, becoming the highest-grossing film of all time and winning nine Oscar nominations including “best feature film”. Since then it has taken on an impressive afterlife, inspiring oppressed peoples and their supporters to draw links between the blue-faced aliens and the real world.

James Cameron was working with old formulas. But he may not have appreciated how effectively the story would stir so many popular beliefs and prejudices. One belief: resources companies are up to no good.

The world of the future, Avatar claims somewhat plausibly, needs a wonder-metal called “unobtainium” and will do just about anything to get it.

Viewers are never told what unobtainium is used for. They see a large mining company has priced it at “twenty million dollars a kilo”, yielding profits high enough to pay for a mercenary army on the mine site – not to mention weapons well-engineered to destroy troublesome natives and their habitat.

Avatar’s plot chimes with everyday news stories about our quest for resources, which is pushing mining and oil companies into ever-remoter areas from the Amazon to the Arctic, often upsetting native societies.

Avatar also gratifies our desire to vilify multinational corporations. Hollywood has done a good job recently at playing on our worst suspicions about multinationals – suspicions we glean from stories of oil spills, price-fixing, the encouragement of carcinogens – and making them appear believable.

Films tell us that rapacity, corruption, and double-dealing are the values of multinational resources companies fixated only on profit (Avatar for mining, Syriana for oil). In fact the same values extend to multinational pharmaceutical companies (The Constant Gardener), big tobacco (The Insider), banks (The International), agribusiness (Michael Clayton), military contractors (State of Play), and – further back – power utilities (Erin Brockovitch).

Hollywood has spun evil-big-business stories since the China Syndrome appeared in 1979. But in the past decade they have become more pointed, often alluding to specific corporations in all but name.

Helping this trend is the expansion of the multinational corporation itself. No matter how many public relations staff they hire, it is hard for them to shake off an image of vast, faceless power. Their resources are larger and more sophisticated than many small states. Their failure – speaking of recent news items – is politically impossible for many large states. Often their vague shadowiness is captured in a meaningless name like RDA, the mining company in Avatar.

Part of the joy of Avatar is its decision not to make a sermonising allusion to the misdeeds of one corporation or industry. It employs a familiar theme – evil power threatens noble savages – in such a generalised way that one forgets that a mining company is the story’s agent of evil.

That has not stopped real-world analogies being drawn.

“Like the Na’vi of ‘Avatar’, the world’s last-remaining tribal peoples – from the Amazon to Siberia – are also at risk of extinction, as their lands are appropriated by powerful forces for profit-making reasons such as colonisation, logging and mining,” said Stephen Curry, director of Survival International, in an article written by the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) last month.

Survival has been linking Avatar to the real-life controversy surrounding the Dongria Kondh, a mountain people in India, and Vedanta Resources, the multinational mining company. Survival, according to the Guardian, has gone so far as to take an advert in Variety magazine that includes the line, “Appeal to James Cameron. Avatar is fantasy … and real”.

The Dongria Kondh story, as told by the NGOs, is indeed eerily similar to the film. They are a small tribe in India’s Orissa state. They live on a mountain they find sacred. But mining giant Vedanta plans to mine a valuable deposit of bauxite on their mountain. In ripping the mountain up Vedanta will wreck the tribe’s home and livelihood but also disrupt the source of its spirituality.

That is the story told by NGOs. Vedanta’s huge investment in a poverty-stricken area of India will bring jobs and development, says MS Mehta, chief executive. Mining will be relatively low-impact and spread piecemeal over a large area. Moreover the tribe does not worship a single mountain, per se, but finds a whole Niyamgiri mountain range to have spiritual properties, meaning that no ‘god’ is destroyed in the process. In any case, Vedanta says, its right to mine has been ratified by the Indian government.

Despite being one of the world’s fastest-growing industrial groups, Vedanta seldom enters the western press except in connection with the Dongria Kondh story. Joanna Lumley is the latest celebrity to take up the cause on behalf of the tribe. The popularity of the story has overwhelmed serious attempts at investigating the truth.

The success of Avatar may be rooted in more than special effects. It carries a story line that more and more people want to believe. Many respond to the casting of multinationals as omnipotent and ruthless. Others have latched on to its depiction of the world’s least-developed places holding values untouched by greed, yet vulnerable to corruption. There is also the story’s general message of resisting oppression of any kind. Pro-Palestinian activists in Israel this week dressed up as blue Na’vi creatures to drive home their point.

Avatar struck a chord with Evo Morales, the socialist president of mineral-rich Bolivia. The state news agency quoted him praising Avatar for its “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defense of nature.”

Bolivia holds some of the world’s richest deposits of lithium. Lithium is needed to power electric cars, which could well be the automobiles of the future. Suddenly, it is not so hard to imagine what the unobtainium of the 22nd century may be.

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