The Lorax Has Been Lifted
Image copyrighted by @ Dr. Seuss Enterprises, I.P.
Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, The Lorax, inspired me as a kid. If you haven’t read it and are interested - and if you have a child, you should most definitely consider the book for your library.
What implicit and overt lessons can we draw from this book, written in 1971? Are they accurate lessons - or have the underlying facts and our understanding of the problems changed in 47 years? What are the underlying assumptions that these lessons are based on, and are those assumptions accurate?
1. Overconsumption and Development vs. Sustainability
In the story, the Once-ler invents a garment with multiple uses from the tufts of truffala trees. Arguably it has no real utility, but the Once-ler builds an entire business on the thneed. I feel like there are a lot of modern examples of this kind of a product. Video-games, cell-phones, fast food, and designer clothes come to mind. Each has negative impacts on the environment during different life-cycle phases. Our use of these products tends towards vast overconsumption. The Lorax doesn’t address what happens to all the thneeds after they’re used, nor to the abandoned factories after the resources are all used up.
In the story, greed causes the (almost) extinction of the lovely truffala trees. The Once-ler is clearly driven by greed in the beginning of the story when he calls his whole family to “get over here fast” for a chance for the Once-lers to get rich. There are no regulations or rules requiring the Once-ler to take the environment into consideration. He quickly builds factories and chops down forests of truffala trees with his Super-Axe-Hacker. The Once-ler feels pressured to “bigger” his business – and so he “biggers” his factory, roads, and his wagons. Later, he yells at the Lorax that he will keep on “BIGGERING” despite all costs, ignoring the Lorax’s plea. In this way, “biggering” is an insult and an attack on the Lorax and all those he speaks for.
At no point did the Once-ler ask any of the locals what they wanted, what they valued, or for input regarding how he ran his business. The Once-ler didn’t even have a plan for his business to be sustainable in the long term. Instead he essentially swooped in and destroyed an entire place by squeezing every dime he could out of its natural resources, at which point his business dried up. Not a super-savvy business move if you really want to succeed and make money in the long term.
2. Capitalism Requires Checks and Balances
Folks have commented and criticized that the Lorax is anti-capitalistic, or at least, a critique against unchecked capitalism. I don’t think the story can be accurately summarized as a clash between capitalism and the environment, but rather, Seuss sends a more nuanced message that we should not allow the rampant production of goods to occur at the expense of thriving ecosystems. We should ask ourselves: “at what cost?” before taking action.
Oil companies are an obvious example of this business M.O. in real life. Ever seen Gasland? (Hint: you can watch it in entirety for free on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MqVPLbL_Y-E).
Even if you are a person that doesn’t see value in wild, natural ecosystems – perhaps you’d be just as happy living in a paved over city, or perhaps you think that industry and/or financial wealth simply hold more intrinsic value than nature – there are several problems caused by unchecked capitalism that you might care about. They spring from the tragedy of the commons: if someone comes in and uses up or contaminates all the shared resources in an area, like air, water, or land, everyone else is screwed.
You might think industry and wealth are more important than natural places or animals. However, what if an industry pollutes the air you breathe with the result that your, and your family’s, life expectancy is reduced by 15 years, and your community becomes prone to asthma, lung and other cancers? Or what if an industry comes in and uses up an entire resource – like a Lake - that others might have wanted to use and/or profit off of? In these instances, you might be more likely to agree that businesses should be subject to limitations and rules governing what they do so that their actions don’t harm the community.
But then: this assertion rests on an underlying assumption that we live in a society that agrees that things should be FAIR. That all people have a right to have a say in the type of place they live in, how resources get used, and to not be harmed by others’ actions. But do we really? Do all folks agree that our systems should be built with fairness as an underlying value? Do you?
Things might have turned out better for the Lorax if his forest had protective land use, zoning, and environmental laws in place. But then again, maybe not. When everybody doesn’t value “fairness,” those that don’t will build in and take advantage of regulatory loopholes and gaps that will benefit them at the expense of others. Case in point, our current justice and legal systems.
3. Who’s Responsibility is it, and Who Are We Protecting the Environment For?
It doesn’t sit well with me that the Once-ler gets to absolve himself of his bad actions. He avoids taking any responsibility for the place he’s destroyed. Instead, he hands off the last truffala seed to the young reader of the book, bestowing upon the next generation a duty to clean up an inherited mess. This situation accurately represents what happened in the 70’s in the United States, but is this just, or fair? Is this really the message that we want to give to youth? That an irresponsible older generation made mistakes and now our children most atone for them?
Arguably, social responsibility does rely on individual responsibility for the environment – but I think each and every member of the society must act. There is danger in expecting someone else to clean up our messes. Namely, the danger that each generation will keep kicking the can down the road until the demise of our species.
I also find it interesting that the iconic Lorax is a lecturing and bitter eco-policeman whom readers might not relate to. He is emblematic of an old, wizened, whiskered, white looking little man. He does not seem emotionally connected to what’s happening; he gets angry instead of sad. These characteristics are those of the dominant white male patriarchal society. And instead of sticking it out, at the end of the day the Lorax lifts himself up and away from the problem. In this way, much like the Once-ler who hands the problem off to a young boy to fix, the Lorax has thrown up his hands and refused to participate.
Image copyrighted by @ Dr. Seuss Enterprises, I.P.
In a way, sadly, Seuss may be perpetuating a negative view of the environmental community, which is often stigmatized. Environmental groups are accused by industry of engaging in unethical tactics like using laws to gum up business projects without real basis, and improperly filing frivolous lawsuits. Environmentalists are sometimes called extremists and eco-terrorists. Activists are accused of irrational behavior, and of skewing facts and science to benefit animals at man’s expense. Name-calling allows society to ignore otherwise logical and accurate warnings by questioning motives, assigning bad intentions, and character assassination.
Another aspect of environmental protection largely ignored by Seuss is the question of “who’s environment is this,” and “who are we protecting it for?” The Lorax purports to speak for the trees, as well as the Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, and the Humming Fish – but just where did the Lorax come from? Just when did the critters give him their permission to advocate for them? And what about PEOPLE in or near the area that must have become impacted by the smoke, smog, and water pollution caused by the factory?
As we know, people of color are much more likely to live in industrial or polluted areas and are much more likely to suffer the harms and health impacts of toxic pollution and resource degradation. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/14/us-people-of-color-still-more-likely-to-be-exposed-to-pollution-than-white-people.
In the Lorax, Seuss ignored the harms caused to people and made the problem all about the degradation of nature, natural resources, and harm to animals. In so doing, he ignores the fact that in reality, in America, there are people who would be harmed by the Once-lers activities, and those people would most likely be people of color. Ignoring this reality is symptomatic of the historical, racist flavor of environmental protectionism produced by our white supremacy culture and only recently called into account by some contemporary environmental advocates. https://www.outsideonline.com/2142326/environmentalism-must-confront-its-social-justice-sins.
Historically, environmentalists were white and focused on preserving nature for “nature’s sake,” meaning in code and action that we preserved nature so that historically dominant groups (white, wealthy, educated, middle aged, hetero, CIS, males) could use and enjoy natural places while excluding others (people of color, low income communities, indigenous communities, etc.). See, e.g., https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/environmentalisms-racist-history
And so the child in me still feels that the Lorax is a beautifully written kids tale, from the perspective that it might instill in children a sense of responsibility, urgency, and agency to make positive change. But the adult me sees now that it is a skewed tale that ignores certain realities that historically have been, and still are, often intentionally overlooked, and its messengers exhibit outdated and not-so-effective lines of thinking regarding responsibility and activism.