Interview | James Cameron Says ‘Avatar’ Can Inspire Environmental Change

The Oscar-winning director takes climate change so seriously that he changed his diet to help save the planet.

John Gaudiosiby John Gaudiosi

James Cameron remains committed to saving planet Earth, even as he focuses on the world of Pandora in pre-production on the three sequels to Avatar, which are slated to hit theaters in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Cameron recently spoke at the U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit in Los Angeles about the harm animal agriculture is causing to the planet. Four years ago he even went cold turkey – along with his family – and eliminated all meat and dairy from his diet in an effort to cut his global footprint in half. The Oscar-winner said he’s never felt better in his life.

That’s good news for fans of Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Cameron is entrenched in the world of Pandora – even working with Walt Disney Imagineers on Pandora: The Land of Avatar attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But he took some time to talk about climate change and how easy it is for anyone to help save the world – by going vegan – in this exclusive interview.

Crave: What’s the environmental issue when it comes to Food Systems?

James Cameron: By 2050 we’re going to have over 9 billion people on the planet and we’re going to increase our food production by 70 percent to feed this population. Animal agriculture occupies 30% of all the land on earth today and forest to farm to fork, producing animals for food generates 15% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. So those two things are moving in exactly the wrong direction. 

We have to get climate change under control, and ironically the second biggest way that we can control climate change is by reducing our reliance on meat and dairy. It’s a place where we can make an immediate difference. That’s true in the United States. It’s certainly true in China, where you have an emerging middle class. One of the biggest symptoms of that is that they equate meat and dairy consumption with wealth and affluence, and so the intake of meat and dairy is exploding in China.

Why did you and your family switch to a plant-based diet?

We didn’t switch for health reasons. We switched because of this environmental imperative, this issue of the carbon footprint of animal agriculture. I just felt like as an environmentalist you’ve got to walk the walk. And I challenge every environmentalist I talk to with, “If you’re not eating plant-based then you’re preaching out of both sides of your mouth.” 

“We have to get climate change under control, and ironically the second biggest way that we can control climate change is by reducing our reliance on meat and dairy.”

It’s easy for environmentalists to attack oil companies. It’s hard for them to make a change in their own lifestyle, which is why I think this issue has not been as prominent as it should be. Our big environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations) should have been shouting from the rooftops about this, but they knew that if they did they were personally going to have to change. They’ve been reluctant to do that, but they’re definitely getting onboard now.  

How did you go about eliminating meat and dairy in your own diet?

As I started to look into it, the only thing that held me back was that I wasn’t sure that it was actually possible to embrace either a fully plant-based diet, or a very heavily plant-based one. Once I did my nutritional research, I found out that not only is it possible but it’s actually highly recommended for health and energy and longevity and that sort of thing. 

So I thought, “Aha. This is a place where people can improve themselves, improve their life, make conscious decisive action without waiting around for the government to control and regulate and do a lot of things that they’re obviously reluctant, or held back, from doing by lobbying. This is something people can just do on their own, take charge, and know that they’re making a difference.” 

Then it occurred to us that the thing we needed to do was get really active about raising this linkage between climate change and animal agriculture to the general public because they’re pretty oblivious to it at present. They’re starting to wake up about it, but it’s the one area that is the big unknown for the average person.  

What does it take to go vegan?

The best way to switch to plant-based is to go cold turkey for 21 days, as a personal challenge, rather than a slow weaning, which I think is ineffective for two reasons – because humans are expert at negotiating with themselves, and because you never fully feel the ‘delta’ between the meat-based you and the plant-based you. But to do the challenge, you program yourself for victory, not defeat, by planning ahead – doing the research (all the books and on-line sources ), so you really believe in what you’re doing and know how to go about it, and then stocking up on (or figuring out access to) tasty well-prepared meals ahead of time.

How do you see this messaging tying into the current health craze in America?

People are very interested in their own health unless you’re 18. When you’re 18 or 25 you think you’re going to live forever. It’s people 30 years and older who are starting to think about their kids’ health when they become parents. And then later in life they start to think, “Hey, I really would like to live an extra five or 10 years,” and they start thinking about health. It’s different messages for different demographics.  

Avatar

20th Century Fox

What impact do you feel the bigger Avatar film franchise can have in getting this messaging out – not that you want to preach with the movie – through something people are familiar with?

Avatar at its highest and loftiest goal is to just make people stop for a moment and realize the beauty and the wonder of the awe and majesty of the natural world. If you have to look through the lens of a fantasy world to do that, I still think people take that feeling out of the theater that they’re connected to something bigger, that they feel the power of nature, that they feel the thing that we’re all missing in our lives as urban technical creatures, that we’re losing touch with nature, that we’re all suffering from nature deficit disorder. 

One of the big impacts of climate change and one of the big impacts of animal agriculture is that it destroys forests, it destroys biodiversity and habitat and all the other things. So nature is on the ropes. Nature has taken a beating. And nature in any form that we would want to enjoy, may not survive past the end of this century at the rate that we’re going. 

There’s something like 100,000 elephants in the world and they’re killing them at a rate of 15,000 per year. You do the math and this stuff is not going to last much longer. Some of the carbon going into the ocean as carbonic acid that’s changing the pH is going to be enough to take out all the coral reefs by mid-century. 

How can the Avatar films be a call to action?

I don’t think people are going to come out all riled up. It doesn’t tell you what to do. Hopefully, what the movies do is they give you a pause to reflect on the relationship between human beings and nature, and what nature offers us aesthetically and inspirationally and spiritually. Basically, how it keeps us alive, how we’re not separate from nature. We’ve had thousands of years of this idea of civilization and conquering nature and dominating nature. And really what we have to do is reconnect with nature and realize that we are of the fabric of nature and we’re not going to have a food system if we destroy the nature on which it relies.

You’re right, the films can’t be preachy. They can be inspirational and then people will need specific solutions. The specific solutions are going to be provided from other sources — and by the way some sources that I might be involved in — but I’m not going to try to make the Avatar films a call to arms or preach on specific topics or point fingers at specific wrong-doers. I don’t think that’s the point of those films because ultimately they’re entertainment first. But as we know entertainment is a great way to make people awaken and open up and think about things.

Top Photo Credit: Getty Images Entertainment