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I spent New Year’s 2008 with my cousin from L.A. and we talked a lot about our respective jobs. He works for 20th Century Fox, so his was pretty straightforward: cool Hollywood movie guy. My job was a bit harder to explain — working to improve the sustainability of hydropower through eco-regional planning, dam siting and strategic mitigation … what? Pass the egg nog, please.

Last week I received a thick envelope in the mail, from my cousin. Inside was a movie script and a cryptic note… "Here’s my proposed alternate ending to Avatar … Cameron wasn’t wild about it … went with action sequence instead … do you have any job openings at The Nature Conservancy?”

Shocked, but also intrigued, I flipped through the script…


Interior: Pandora operations center of RDA Corporation:  The center’s video monitors are all filled with images of the Na’vis’ “Hometree.”

ADMINISTRATOR PARKER SELFRIDGE: We’ve given them enough time … we need to get on with this. Colonel, you may proceed with the operation. (Aside to Assistant): It’s not my fault they put their holy friggin’ tree right above the biggest deposit of unobtanium within 200 clicks of here.

Interior: Inside gunship hovering above Hometree.

COLONEL QUARITCH: Copy that. Sec-ops, let’s get rolling. Prepare the missiles. We’re gonna clear out that termite nest.

Gunners flip series of switches, lower bombing sites over their eyes.

GUNNER #1: Lock and load, baby!

Exterior: Rain forest in front of Hometree. Jake Sulley (in Na’vi avatar body) stands before the assembled Na’vi. The gunship looms menacingly above Hometree.

JAKE SULLEY: You must leave Hometree! RUN TO THE FOREST! You can’t imagine what’s about to happen!

EYUTAKAN (in full warrior garb): Never! The Na’vi will never leave Hometree. This is our land, our mother, our home! We will never leave, Jakesully.

Eyutakan raises his fist toward the gunship and shouts defiantly. The Na’vi raise their fists and shout in response.

JAKE: You don’t know … these people, they don’t understand Hometree. They can’t comprehend what it is. But they will not stop! I tried, I tried to stop this …

NEYTERI (registering shock): What are you saying, Jake? You knew this would happen? You KNEW! Jake, I TRUSTED you! You will NEVER be one of the PEOPLE!

Interior: RDA operations center

SELFRIDGE (head tilted forward, rubbing his temples): We tried. We tried everything we could. I can’t wait any longer — each day that they won’t leave costs our shareholders millions.

ASSISTANT RITA (entering rapidly and waving a document): Sir, I’ve got that report the Environmental Compliance committee requested last year. I know it’s about six months late, but you should take a look at …

SELFRIDGE (furious): Are you kidding me? Do you see what’s going on here? Do you know what I’m going through? A report?

RITA: You could read just the Executive Summary!

Interior: Gunship

QUARITCH: Alright, let’s get this done. Give me the incendiary rounds, right in the front door. You may fire when ready.

Interior: RDA operations center

RITA: Just give me a chance to explain, you don’t have to do this!

SELFRIDGE: Rita … what the what?!

RITA: Don’t you understand? We completed a Strategic Environmental Assessment — it analyzes a whole range of options beyond just this one site and compares their benefits and impacts. You’ve got alternatives! Can’t you see what that means … you’ve got a better choice!!

SELFRIDGE: I do? But this is clearly the best site to mine!

RITA: Well, it may have the most unobtanium at the right depth … but there are three sites that collectively equal or exceed it! And they have a much smaller impact — you won’t need to force the Na’vi to move. Do you really want this? It’s gonna look awful to the press, maybe even to the shareholders too! Once you consider the impacts, it’s clearly not the best site!

SELFRIDGE: I don’t know … we’re all set to go. Do you know how hard it is to turn this thing around?

RITA: And do you know how bad it’s gonna look if you go forward without at least considering other options? Just give it some time to think, that’s all I’m asking.

SELFRIDGE: Quaritch! Call it off! Pull back!

QUARITCH: Don’t go limp on me now! We’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em!

SELFRIDGE: Colonel! You work for me, or have you forgotten? Pull back NOW!

Exterior: Rain forest. Gunship backs up, hovers, then flies away from Hometree. The Na’vi raise their arms in the air and shout triumphantly.

In the margins was a scribbled note, “James — if the story ends here you’ll save about $80 million in production costs. How much 3-D do people really need?”

I put my cousin’s script down. “He gets it,” I thought, a single tear streaming down my check. “He gets … me.”

OK, although my cousin does work in Hollywood he didn’t try to tinker with the Avatar script or lose his job. But I saw Avatar two weeks ago, and amidst its copious cultural references — imperialism vs. nature, 9/11, Dances with Wolves, the Battle of Endor (can I give a shout-out to those Eewoks?!) — I naturally saw the movie as an allegory for sustainable hydropower. And yes, I did find myself pondering “Strategic Environmental Assessment” during the movie (I know what you’re thinking right about now, “Man, I want to party with that guy!”).

But Avatar does make the case — albeit in simplified, fairy-tale form — for the need for broader thinking when it comes to implementing new major projects, such as hydropower dams.

The displacement of people from their homes has always been one of the most wrenching impacts of dam development — from the flooding of four towns in the Swift River Valley in the 1940s for Boston’s water-supply reservoir to the hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of people displaced by some of today’s mega-dams.

In Avatar, the RDA Corporation insists they have no choice but to remove the Na’vi from their homes and holy site (Hometree) because it sits above a major deposit of an extremely valuable mineral. I found myself wondering, “Didn’t RDA consider any other options? Couldn’t they have found some alternative sites that didn’t have this terrible impact?”

This is the essence of Strategic Environmental Assessment and other new frameworks that promote a more comprehensive approach to dam development, such as was described in the landmark report from the World Commission on Dams.

These frameworks emphasize that dam planning — and the assessment of impacts and alternatives — should encompass large geographic scales, such as a river basin or whole region, rather than assessing the impacts of single dams, one-by-one.

Evaluating each dam on its own misses the cumulative impacts arising from multiple projects and, in practice, even if such environmental review reveals that a dam will have major impacts, these impacts are generally only tweaked and not avoided. Strategic, large-scale approaches can potentially guide new dams away from the sites with the worst impacts and toward those sites with lower impacts.

I don’t want to make this sound simple. No matter the frame of reference, difficult choices will abound. But this comprehensive approach is the only way to move toward more sustainable outcomes.

The hydropower industry is beginning to see the value in this approach, understanding that it can offer greater certainty, less controversy and ultimately better dam projects. The Nature Conservancy is working to improve the sustainability of hydropower  in projects across the globe, from the Penobscot River in Maine to the Yangtze River in China and in policy arenas around the world.

When it comes to massive projects with far-reaching consequences — such as the proposal to build 11 hydropower dams across the Mekong River — shouldn’t we listen to Rita, the heroic bureaucrat of Avatar’s alternative ending, and at least take the time to weigh all the possible options?

The lessons of 'Avatar' for sustainable hydropower
Nature Conservancy scientist Jeff Opperman discovers a new ending to the script of 'Avatar' -- and wonders if the Battle for Hometree even needed to be fought.