The Sustainability Message Imbedded in Avatar

It’s the biggest entertainment juggernaut of the year: $505 million in U.S.

It’s the biggest entertainment juggernaut of the year: $505 million in U.S. box office receipts as of last week, and over $1 billion in box office globally.  It’s “Avatar,” James Cameron’s movie that won the Golden Globe for best drama this weekend.  By now, everyone probably knows the story: humans arrive on a distant planet; they try to destroy the native population; the natives fight back; the humans leave said planet with their tails between their legs.


Interestingly, people have interpreted Avatar in all kinds of ways. Some have seen it as a retelling of the Pocahontas story in space. Some see anti-feminist leanings. Others see pro-feminism. China has weighed in, as has the Vatican. It’s one of those pop culture moments when folks who are looking for an agenda see theirs in the story of blue people and their trees.

I have been surprised there’s been little examination of the sustainability message in Avatar. In press interviews at the film’s launch, Cameron talked about climate change and dwindling biodiversity in addition to the usual quotes about the story, actors and technology. Clearly the Navi embrace the interconnectedness of themselves and their physical environment and are keenly aware of the impact of their actions on the world in which they live. One could consider both of these messages as core to a sustainable mindset. The enormous popularity of “Avatar,” on track to be the biggest movie of all time, got me thinking about the power of popular culture to change opinions and behavior in subtle, perhaps even subconscious ways.

How many folks first learned about the Holocaust from reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” in high school? Or first truly understood the implications of energy choices after seeing “An Inconvenient Truth”? For all the media and messages coming out of the recent climate change conference in Copenhagen, I can’t imagine they have had the same impression on the public as “Avatar.” It’s the classic (and to some infuriating) truth that popular culture is just that: popular.

Maybe like Mary Poppins’ “Spoonful of Sugar” (another pop culture teaching moment), the amazing visuals and compelling storytelling of “Avatar” is helping a whole new generation learn some important lessons about sustainability. Who knows how many of them in 10 years time will feel a deep connection with the world around them or be thoughtful about how their actions impact the greater world, but not be exactly sure where or when they developed those beliefs?


About the author

Russ is an expert on brands and sustainability, and currently serves as Global Director, Strategy and Insights for Siegel+Gale. Since becoming a marketing professional, Russ’s focus has been helping companies across the globe deliver remarkably clear and unexpectedly fresh brand experiences.