Daily Breakthrough: Avatar, Eco-Paranoia, and Technology

January 8, 2010 | Yael Borofsky,

UPDATE: Alternet and Buffalo Beast have both corrected their posts about Roger Pielke Jr. and Breakthrough and apologized for the error. Score one for responsible journalism - an increasingly endangered species in today's brave new media world.


Conservatives and liberals are duking it out over the blockbuster Avatar's portrayal of American humans as violent corporate imperialists, and of the giant blue Na'vi as humanoids who live at one with nature, blissfully free of science and technology. Old story, old debate.

The strangest and most interesting thing that both sides have overlooked is that Na'vi have both science and technology -- which they use (gasp!) to dominate nature.

Top of the Food Chain: Though they are portrayed as being one with Nature, the Na'vi use their own form of technology to subordinate nature to suit their needs.


In fact, they plug their fiber-optic braids into animals, allowing them to control them, and into trees, allowing them to get all sorts of information, Matrix-like, from Nature.

What James Cameron offers in Avatar are heroes with all of the cool technologies and domination of large mammals that we enjoy here on earth, and none of the eco-guilt from having had, as one angry Na'vi says in Avator, "killed their mother."

If Avatar was looking to popularize other ridiculous myths about technology, it could have shown some lone Na'vi scientist toiling away in his tree house laboratory inventing swell technologies -- with no help, thank you very much, from the government! -- all while spouting libertarian gobbley-gook from the Na'vi equivalent of Ayn Rand.
 

The White Messiah: David Brooks points out that Avatar is a white messiah fantasy -- but libertarian conservatives like Ayn Rand have made businessmen into their mystical saviors.


Back here on Earth, Obama continues to warn against America losing the clean energy industry to the Chinese, saying today, "I don't want the technology that will transform the way we use energy to be invented abroad."

All this even though Obama hasn't to date lifted a finger to make sure that the $150 billion for energy R&D he promised be included in his budget or cap and trade.

Happily, high tech elders like Justin Rattner of Intel are speaking out for this investment, telling CBS "You don't save your way out of a recession, you invest your way out." Rattner and Intel have the credibility -- they're building $4 billion worth of new factories to make semiconductors in the Southwest.

Intel is proof that the Chinese don't have to eat our lunch. The difference between microchips and solar panels is that America invested serious money in microchips while China's investing serious money into solar. Obama can talk all he wants but he, unlike Rattner and Intel, so far isn't putting his money where his mouth is.

Does anybody even need to hear the economic argument for these kinds of investments anymore? Aren't they, by now obvious?
 

Slipping in Science: Compared with their cohort around the world, American 15-year-olds ranked 21st and 25th in science and math, respectively. That's surprisingly low for a country that insists it is a world leader in the sciences.


Maybe to Breakthrough readers, but not to most people inside the beltway, where despite having just seen an $800 billion stimulus, folks in Washington still insist that new public investments in technology to create jobs and competitiveness are politically impossible.

For that reason it came as shock and awe to see WaPo business columnist Steven Pearlstein make the strong case for productive investments "for infrastructure, basic research, clean-energy development and expanded public higher education."

That column is a welcome shift from his incoherent column on Waxman Markey, which argued that the government shouldn't "pick winning and losing technologies."

If the government had followed Pearlstein's advice on that issue then we wouldn't have radios, computers, fax machines, WiFi, solar panels, the Internet, wind turbines, or cell phones. And the Na'vi wouldn't have neurotransmitter braids.
 

The Great Tech Exodus: Shi Yigong was recently lured back to Beijing from Princeton. And while only 1 in 4 who leave ever return, the numbers are slowly tilting towards Asia's benefit.


One of the oft-heard claims of the "we shouldn't pick tech winners" crowd is that even if America cedes all manufacturing to China it doesn't matter because we remain strong on basic science.

But that shibboleth, too, might be coming to end. The Gray Lady reported yesterday that China persuaded Shi Yigong, an apparently brilliant cutting-edge molecular biologist, to emigrate back across the Pacific. Yigong must have been offered some serious ka-ching and suction in China since taking the Dragon's offer required that he turn down $10 million dollar research grant he was recently awarded from the Sleeping Giant.

"Bright greens" talk a big (and boring) game about the need for tech, but they are mostly interested in technology of limits (read: green buildings, mass transit, etc etc) -- a position consistent with the larger eco-politics of limits, which sees Nature as harmonious, fragile and constantly on the verge of collapse due to the evil greed of rapacious humans.

Apocalypse fatigue notwithstanding, apocalypse mongering is still everywhere, from the opening film of Copenhagen, with a little girl running from global warming earthquakes to continuing McCarthyite attacks on Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. by bloggers like these.

Breakthrough asked Alternet to correct the post, which claimed that Pielke, Jr. was industry-funded and a global warming denier -- smears consistent with those Ted and Michael documented against Roger. Alternet editors took down the section mentioning Roger. But the rest of the post is still up, and it's still creepy, openly fantasizing about the death of people with whom the authors disagree. The authors try to dress it up as comedy; it's about as funny as frat guys making rape jokes.

Avatar, for all of its green nostalgia, at least offered uplift, inspiration, and excitement about being alive -- something that can hardly be said about what passes for the ecological left these days.