James Cameron is apparently working on a series of sequels to his movie, Avatar. The original poses some interesting questions: Is mankind obliged to die out if denied a mineral called Unobtanium? Or, does some sort of Manifest Destiny give us the right to fight for it?
The original movie was set in the year 2124 on a moon called Pandora orbiting a much larger planet in a distant star system. Presumably, something like a warp drive had been invented by then, so getting to distant planets was no longer a problem.
In the Avatar script, humankind has a particular need for a mineral called Unobtanium, without which it cannot survive. This need has taken humans to Pandora in search of the mineral. There they encounter an indigenous species called the Na’vi. Through some combination of desperation and simple greed, the humans intend to push the Na’vi aside in their quest for the mineral.
For intelligence-gathering the humans have developed artificial creatures called Avatars. These are copies of Na’vi bodies inhabited by Human operators through some arcane technology. Strictly speaking, the avatar bodies are not alive until indwelled by their human operators. The Avatars allow human operators to function in the noxious Pandora atmosphere unencumbered by space suits or space craft.
In the ensuing war, Na’vi from all over Pandora push back and, aided by a turncoat Avatar named Jake Sully, succeed in defeating the humans. But for a small scientific community, the humans are forced to leave Pandora. Through some sort of local magic, Jake is permanently ensconced in his avatar body and becomes one of the Na’vi.
At face value the movie is simply a tale told by one of Shakespeare’s fools (i.e., story-tellers): full of sound and fury, signifying nothing – something made to make a buck. It could also be a bunch of Canadians taking their neighbors to task for their treatment of the American Indian. I do note, however, that Canadians have been happy to let their Native brothers have the wild lands in Northern Ontario or Manitoba. Otherwise, Canada looks a lot like the U.S.
Avatar does make an important point: Humans cannot simply move in and take what they want. But then, are we obliged to die out as a species if our natural world turns against us and we are denied what we need for survival? Or, would some overriding principle justify extraordinary measures needed to save ourselves – like invading a planet like Pandora.
Throughout the 19th century, Americans operated according to a principle called Manifest Destiny. Under this principle Americans were obligated to occupy and develop the lands of the American continent, pushing aside indigenous peoples as necessary.
We haven’t been the only ones. Prior to World War II the Japanese promoted their Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere to justify Japanese Imperial domination of East Asian countries. Their idea was that subjugated peoples would derive significant economic and social benefits from Japanese domination. In reality, however, it was the Japanese who would gain the most from their imperialism. It was American refusal to ratify a treaty giving Japan a free hand in the Far East that led to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II.
In that same era Adolf Hitler promoted his lebensraum idea, which allowed him to overrun most of his European neighbors and invade Soviet Russia.
Ultimately, World War II settled one fundamental issue in relations between nations: Countries cannot take territory or resources from their neighbors by force for their own enrichment. That’s also why we fought the wars in Korea and Viet Nam.
In the Star Wars and Star Trek movies humans have spread throughout the galaxy, taken over planets, and established empires. Star Trek depicts mankind in the next 500 years or so. Star Wars might be us 40,000 years in the future. They are science fiction of course, but science fiction has had an uncanny record of predicting future science reality.
Avatar proposes a different reality. Mankind eventually will use up Earth’s resources and must launch out into the galaxy to survive. We must develop the means to travel between planets if we are to survive as a species.
Eventually, we will run up against a show-stopper: the need for a resource found only in a very few places, which will take us to a planet like Pandora in search of our Unobtanium.
Would we then be justified in adopting a principle like Manifest Destiny in order to survive as a species?