03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Avatar : No Fantasy

...Is Avatar stupid? The standard rap is that James Cameron's movie turns the complex relationships between civilization and nature into a black-and-white, heroes-and-villains battle. It caricatures corporations (and, more generally, capitalism and Western civilization) as rapacious. Nature and indigenous populations, meanwhile, are treated with dewy sentimentalism that discounts the achievements of civilization and the rapaciousness of nature itself.

David Brooks is the latest to take a shot, identifying some implicit racism in Avatar's plot, in which a white guy becomes the hero of blue people. (At least he's handicapped.)

All good points! But there's something seriously off-base about these critiques.

Here's what I'd ask the critics: It may be cliched; it may not be even-handed. But does Avatar (in which a corporation and and its army of mercenaries attempt to kill members of an indigenous tribe and destroy their jungle home in order to mine a rare element) get the basic man vs. nature theme wrong?

Capitalism has achieved ever-improving living standards for many around the world. But the cost to the earth's biosphere -- measured, say, in lost biodiversity -- has been incalculable, and is ongoing, its ultimate blowback to mankind unknown. Historically speaking, ecological damage is usually assessed after it's too late. Now science tells us mankind has so altered the earth's climatic system that it will likely lead to a series of cascading environmental disasters unless we do something Big, Fast. Compared to that, what goes down in Avatar -- (spoiler alert!) the destruction of one giant tree and the attempted destruction of another, ecologically essential one -- is small potatoes.

Second, unchecked capitalism is environmentally rapacious. Corporations around the world need land and/or natural resources; most don't consider protecting the environment their top priority, especially if it gets in the way of that. Many (but of course not all) fight government or community attempts to protect nature that get in their way. All the better for them if it's in the developing world, where such legal protections are weak.

Third, nature, in reality as in the movie, is more complex and precious than corporations -- or most of us -- give it credit for.

Blasting at a mountaintop removal project, West VirginiaTake a look at a real-world situation that tracks Avatar's concerns rather closely: mountaintop removal coal mining. This week, a group of scientists published a paper in Science outlining the extensive damage that this form of mining -- in the U.S., practiced mainly in Central Appalachia -- does to the environment, particularly mountain streams that are obliterated by so-called "valley fills." They also take a step into the policy arena, arguing that the federal government should ban MTR outright.

I've interviewed many of these scientists in the course of writing several pieces about MTR. I've visited mining sites, talked with people who live around them. The scale of destruction is astonishing. (There is, coincidentally or not, a cutaway scene at the start of Avatar that looks like an MTR site.)

The attitude of the coal industry isn't far removed from that of the unobtanium-extraction operation on Pandora: We need to get that coal. You need us to get that coal to keep your electricity flowing. We have the technology to do it and employ thousands. Stop whining about nature and let us do our jobs. (In Appalachia's business community, where coal has long ruled the roost, there are few of the formal niceties about respecting the environment and accommodating local "stakeholders" that you hear from corporate types in DC or elsewhere.)

Avatar is set on an alien moon, so there are (apparently) no government checks on corporate activity. In Appalachia, there's a breakdown of basic government responsibility. The radical practice of decapitating mountains isn't even specifically addressed in the weak and erratically-enforced patchwork of laws and regulations that govern "surface mining." There are crazy overlapping jurisdictions between agencies including the EPA, the Interior Department and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

That's why this week's scientific report is important. It's an attempt to assemble the scientific knowledge that has emerged over the past decade about the effects of MTR -- with the hope of cutting through the huge amount of bureaucratic and political BS around this issue. Among other things, the participating scientists outline the rich complexity of mountain ecosystems, particularly streams in forested high mountain valleys. Destroy them and the effects are felt for miles around, and far downstream. As with Avatar's clever biosphere "nervous system" idea, these ecosystems are complex and intertwined, having evolved over millions of years. Obliterate them and they're gone forever.

The pro-coal Bush administration did what it could to ease regulations on MTR. The Obama response has been better, but still measured. No matter how outrageous mountaintop removal is, officials have said, we can't ban it. We may be able to compromise, make it less bad. But can you really make wholesale destruction (which is typically followed by inadequate and, some scientists argue, futile attempts at restoration) "less bad"?

It sounds absurd, but that's how government works. The scientists are saying the emperor has no clothes, that there's is no middle ground here: compromises will only slow irreversible demolition of mountains and the life and biodiversity on them; if you want to preserve mountain ecosystems, you have no choice but to stop mountaintop removal.

This is why the criticisms of Avatar's cliches ring hollow. (Okay, maybe not the "enlightened white man" critique. Point Brooks!) Cinematic plot devices and stereotypes are often misleading or tendentious. But the issues Cameron raises are genuine.

This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.