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

I have recently fallen victim to a new mental illness: Post-Avatar Ecological Depressive Disorder (PAEDD). Don’t try to look for it in the DSM-IV; that book is full of imaginary pathologies. This one is real. My symptoms include hissing at cars, wishing I were twelve feet tall and blue, feeling a painfully nostalgic yearning to “return” to the magical world of Pandora depicted in James Cameron’s latest film Avatar, and simply wanting to die as I watch Planet Earth perish all around me. I feel a bit better with each passing day, but climbing out of a sadness like this can be a daunting, arduous process.

I realize that this may seem like a strange, somewhat juvenile affliction, but before telling me to “get a life” and reminding me that Avatar is “just a movie,” I’d like to try to explain how this terrible sickness befell me, how I have managed to cope with it thus far, and, seeing as how I’m not the only one suffering in this manner, I’d like to address what I believe to be the implications of PAEDD for society at large.

For those predisposed to the disorder, PAEDD is triggered by two directly related, yet violently dissonant events: 1) Watching the movie Avatar and 2) leaving the theater. Below is a realistic dramatization of how this disease might typically seize hold of a person.

You enter the theater, Avatar begins, and you are catapulted with an almost entheogenic force into the world of Pandora, a verdant moon throbbing with transcendent beauty. Pandora is inhabited by a species of sapient humanoids known as the Na’vi. The Na’vi—twelve feet tall, big-eyed, blue-skinned, beautiful—move through their forested biosphere like dolphins cutting through open ocean. Their home is alive; the entire ecosystem of Pandora is permeated by the sacred energy of Eywa, a silent, Gaia-like deity who is as ethereal as she is organic. All beings on Pandora commune with Eywa, and each other, by physically plugging themselves into the interconnected web of life that encompasses the entire moon. When you hug the trees, the trees hug you back. Although most everything seems to be trying to kill you on Pandora, the exhilaration of survival is so pure that you begin to wonder how true human freedom is possible without it. Through the power of James Cameron’s special-effects sorcery, you lose yourself in the hypnotic colors and cadences of this majestic new world, ego subsumed in bioluminescent wonder, sense of self humbled and transformed by an enchanting, nurturing, all-encompassing immanence.

Then the lights turn on in the theater, and you find that your sneakers are sealed fast to a Pepsi-sticky floor. You exit the building, and step out not onto pure soil, but filthy, ungodly concrete, littered with cigarette butts and plastered with rotten splotches of discarded chewing gum. Fumes from arrogant cars fill your lungs, and the snow on the ground is leprous with oil and other toxins from off the street. Metal is everywhere, you’re standing in a strip mall, and tomorrow, you recall, you will have to go sit in a gray cubicle for eight hours, withering under the stuttering rays of fluorescent lights. The Earth is vile, human beings are worse still, and Eywa is nowhere to be found. Suddenly, the heart-wrenching words of Jake, Avatar’s narrator and male lead, echo in your ears: “Look at the world we come from. There is no green there. They killed their Mother, and they’re going to do the same thing here.” In that instant, you realize that something is horribly wrong with everything.

Epiphany and counter-epiphany collide in your mind: the film has inspired you to believe that somewhere in your spirit you, like the Na’vi, have a “port” that is intended to connect with nature, but as you frantically search your surrounding environment, you simply don’t know where to plug this port in. You long to commune with a holy, green, transpersonal home, but you realize that you are destroying the closest thing you’ve got to that. It’s time to get back to the garden, your spirit whispers to you, but there is no garden, it appears, to get back to, and, what’s worse, it’s all your fault.

As symptoms of PAEDD intensify, 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.

Planet Earth, Live and In Color

But shame, outrage, and despair are not, in themselves, horrors sufficient enough to catalyze a full-blown case of PAEDD. To be truly out of your mind, you must be filled with an infinite love for something that you cannot touch. Fortuitously, as confronting hardship so often involves the magic of paradox, the way into the disease is also the way out from it. Pandora may seem like an exotic and impossible fantasy, but, save for the floating mountains and some far-out megafauna, it is modeled almost entirely after a vision of Planet Earth restored to its original beauty. The best hope people with PAEDD have for a long-term cure, then, is to actualize this vision in real life by taking the pathos and reverence they feel for the fictional Pandora and using that energy to actively participate in the restoration of the celestial body that miraculously sustains our existence right here on real, live 3-D Planet Earth.

In other words, if you want to heal yourself, start by healing the world. By striking at the root of the problem, not only can you alleviate your symptoms, you can reverse them, giving your life a newfound sense of vitality, gratitude, exuberance, meaning, and mission. In this sense, PAEDD can ultimately be a blessing both for you and everyone and everything around you.

As I said before, I am not alone in my struggle, and I am not the only one who has found healing and purpose in the eco-recovery treatment program prescribed above. The much-maligned fansite, avatar-forums.com, for example, is buzzing with suggestions on how to, in effect, bring about a kind of Pandora on Earth. One poster on this site suggested joining Greenpeace. Another announced that he would be writing angry letters to Wall Street and GM and all other corporations who are imperiling the delicate balance of life on this planet. People have quit smoking, littering, eating meat, playing video games, and watching television. Entire chat rooms are dedicated to sharing ideas about renewable technologies. One comment from “PandoraOnEarth,” whose moniker pretty much sums up her mission, succinctly highlights both the pain and the promise of PAEDD. In order to cope with her “homesickness” at losing Pandora, “PandoraOnEarth” felt it necessary to, in her words,

devise a plan for implementing Pandora on Earth; at least those parts of it that appeal to me and are probable… In this, I can have hope, instead of the hopelessness I felt just after the realisation that Pandora would never be real… As human beings, we have the power to sculpt our world as we see fit; for good or bad… The current social structure of city life and six degrees of separation are not working for us; we are coming apart at the seams.

I have read over a thousand Avatar-inspired eco-pledges, ranging from the practical to the fanatical (one zealous fellow claimed that he had traded his bed for a hammock, given up his car for a horse, and galloped about town trying to “liberate” the roots of trees from the sidewalk concrete above). One thing all these pledges, diverse as they are, have in common is that they all seem to emanate from a profound re-thinking of the relationship between human beings and nature. This is because Avatar, rather than simply telling people that they shouldn’t pollute because it is bad for the planet, shows people, on a visceral, instinctual, primordial level, that they are the planet. By humanizing nature, Avatar effectively ecologizes humans.

The Truth Will Break Your Heart

“Pandora on Earth,” then, is an unquestionably viable project, one that could transform an ailment into a movement. The energy of such a movement would surge up from the soul and crystallize intellectual anxieties over rising CO2 levels into an existential panic over the murder of Gaia. However extreme this form of motivation may seem, we are in dire need of exactly this type of radical spiritual ecology. Environmentalism is failing; we are failing to heal the planet. We have the intellect, but we lack something wild and pulsating at the core of our efforts, and this is where the pain of PAEDD could prove itself useful. Avatar provides what An Inconvenient Truth, for example, does not: wonder, communion, inspiration, romance, reverence, music, mysticism, love, hope, awe. The truth, however inconvenient it may be, simply does not matter unless it breaks one’s heart. 

This past Monday, Avatar surpassed Titanic’s longstanding international box office record, making Avatar the highest-grossing film of all time. For a movie with such a progressive environmental (not to mention anti-imperial and anti-corporate) message to achieve this kind of universal popularity is remarkable. Any explanation as to how a mainstream Hollywood mega-blockbuster could radicalize the eco-consciousnesses of scores of people who seem to have had little previous interest in the praxis of deep ecology or neo-tribalism must go beyond the observation the film was merely “visually interesting.” One could easily deconstruct Avatar to bits, but as our planet hums its own elegy beneath our feet, and as our failed politicians come home from climate summit after summit with empty hands, is this really how we want to talk about the most influential ecological parable of our time?

I hope not. 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.

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