Act: Inspiration

Avatar The Last Airbender and Critical Self Reflections Towards Climate Justice 

July 29, 2020

I want to preface this with an assumption/affirmation, that all art offers its viewers whatever it is they need.[1]

Avatar the Last Airbender


The TV series Avatar The Last Airbender centers around Aang, an Airbender who must learn how to master the other three elements in order to restore balance to the world. He makes friends along the way who are central to his destiny and play unique and critical roles in the ultimate defeat of Fire Lord Ozai and the Fire Nation. Aside from being an incredible show, it catalyzed a process of self-reflection, ultimately, highlighting key tools for actualizing climate justice.

The notion of restoring balance is what initially sparked my interest; it’s a concept the climate justice movement could learn from the series. As of right now, climate justice does not have a unified definition. Its meaning changes depending on who is using it so let me make my vision very clear. Climate justice is collective liberation[2] by another name. It is the ultimate unification of all justice struggles – like the mastering of all elements- to unbind our world from the root evil and tentacle transformations of racialized imperial capitalism.

The system in which we are operating has brought our world out of balance. Our planet is constantly at war, not only because of the military industrialized complex, prison industrial complex, or the plethora of genocidal outcomes from structural poverty and racism, but also from capitalism’s exploitation of non-human animals and our ecosystems. Ecologically the Earth is on the precipice of collapse. Technically the earth will be fine, but the conditions in which we are accustomed to living are shifting and shifting fast.

The war is not limited to the physical realm (at least for me it isn’t). Racialised imperial capitalism has entered my subconscious (which already has its own demons) and it is a battle every moment to combat both of their teachings to free my imagination, values, and lifestyle from their grips. Through each character’s journey, Avatar helped me understand when justice loving and seeking people confront their unique internal battles, it supports their transformation and strengthens them to wage the external struggle.

It’s always important to contextualize thinking and this reflection is taking place during the first wave of Covid-19. Even in this f….d up context, Avatar offered me so much hope. Arundhati Roy notes the pandemic is a portal, an unveiling of capitalism’s limitations that presents an opportunity to transform our planet to one that serves all. However, like in Avatar, Lord Ozai of the Fire Nation (or this system of neoliberalism) will not give up easily. In fact, Naomi Klein’s research in The Shock Doctrine makes clear that it will move quickly to leverage the crises and establish the exact opposite of what we need[3]. Understanding exactly what we’re up against is scary and I get the feeling we’re running out of time.

But Aang slept for a 100 YEARS before waking up to the war. With little time to prepare, and a limited window to defeat evil, Aang had enough spaciousness to learn what he needed and successfully SHUT DOWN Lord Ozai and the Fire Nation, thus affirming everything happens with divine timing. Every member of the Avatar crew joined the mission and met their master/teacher exactly when they needed to. And no matter how long it took, they flexed their skills and supported the team in the win.



Racialized imperial capitalism has gone unchecked for what feels like forever (not discrediting the work of our elders). Conditions aren’t and haven’t looked too great for a lot of communities in a long time. If you’ve been awake for a while or are just opening your eyes to the true evils of our world, I think we still have enough time to defeat this condition. Yes, we have present battles that we will win or lose but ultimately, we (individually and collectively) have everything we need to be successful in balancing our internal and external worlds. To do this, Avatar made clear that our individual selves and the movements we engage must have a decisive commitment to and understanding of our goal, train and strengthen our gift/skills with discipline, have the courage to confront what limits us, and center love (of self and others) so we can work together in our journey towards liberation.

Each element and the character represented by it offered me something different. There is so much depth to all the characters including the ones I don’t get to mention in this piece. I’ve found it to be a really great experiment identifying what these characters mean to me and I 10/10 suggest it as an exercise.

Air bending is Aang’s innate gift and I like to think it’s his ache, or natural flex. We all must grasp what comes easy to us and embrace our unique skill – for me, it’s my voice. It’s my ability to communicate ideas (or damn near anything) in ways that spark fires in others.

Water bending is Katara’s domain and it highlights our emotional world. It speaks to the need for healing wounds and leveraging our sensitivity to help heal others. I actually struggle greatly with putting my ideas out in the world. Most of my struggles come from fears of judgement but I have come to realize that all those fears are limiting my truest form. Katara/Water invited me to heal those limitations by letting go. Part of that process has been writing this. Letting go of fear and embracing restoration through action.

Earth bending is mastered by Toph Bei Fung and speaks to how we use accessible resources to our benefit. She is the only character with a last name and brought to mind my middle-class or more accurately, upper middle-class privilege. My ability to navigate capitalism’s tortuous landscape (because of my familial lineage) is an irrefutable invitation to recognize and utilize my privilege. Like Toph prior to her personal transformation, I (and many of us in the petty bourgeoisie) pseudo join the team. We use our privileges in crisis but we still think and operate day to day individualistically – a pillar of capitalism. Toph invited me to consider what it really means to be part of the team beyond ideological alignment.[4] She affirmed that in addition to material support, wielding my learnings/voice can also be useful if done in ways that work in the right relationship with others.

Lastly, Fire speaks to actions. Zuko’s journey shows us the impacts our inner battles have on others. Fire is the only element that is dangerous off the bat, signaling whatever we choose to do in a given moment will always have implications.  I’ve been that toxic b*tch. I’ve lied about so many things in my life it’s honestly (lol) exhausting. Although it’s easier to navigate life in this low vibrational state for ego’s sake, for comfort’s sake, for whatever – it will never bring about actions that manifest liberation. Liberation for me is the ultimate truth, so how could a liar help bring that about? Zuko shows that integrity is really all we have and like him, when I shaped my life decisions, and self worth on others’ opinions, understanding, and approval, my inner world lost balance. When you lose your personal compass or integrity you lose your innate power and responsibility to embrace your destiny and manifest your skill-sets. However, If you’re compassionate enough with yourself to move beyond guilt and shame you’re empowered to own it, apologize for it, and do better. With this strategy/frame, every time you win an inner battle you take a step in the transformation and actualization of the BAD B*TCH YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE. That transformation is liberating. Your power is no longer dependent on others and it is ever flowing to support what you know to be true.

Although we can all identify with different characters’ journeys more than others, like I am Zuko,[5] I think it’s an interesting lens to view all of us in movements for justice as the Avatar. I noticed in all my Netflix bingeing that the stories we share tend to involve a hero that comes and saves us, a unifying leader with a special power. We even do this with historical memory, and raise individual leaders to an almost godly status. I think this moment in history, with the exponential compounding of crisis from Covid, state sanctioned violence, to climate change makes clear that we’re all needed. We all have to balance ourselves in order to reach our avatar state and ultimately, help balance the world.

Climate Justice march

Source: Markus Spiske on Unsplash


[1] Shout out to 2 Kaur for putting me on. Forever grateful.

[2] It means a world where we all (human, nonhuman animals, and plants) have exactly what we need to thrive using the resources we have been given. It means restoration, communication, and cooperation amongst diverse communities. Probably best understood as an eco-socialist community rooted in indigenous sovereignty. There is no need for you to adopt this understanding, it’s just so you understand my perspective.

[3] The Shock Doctrine pinpoints the strategy of neoliberalism to use shocks, as opportunities to privatise public goods.

[4] This understanding came from a conversation with Anumita Kaur.

[5] Shout out to Truly.


Teaser photo credit:

Nia Aisha

Nia Aisha is an MSc Climate Justice student at Glasgow Caledonian University.

Tags: art as social change, climate justice