The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss

With the Lorax movie still in theaters and fresh from both its strong box office showing and really bad reviews, let us take the time to again consider the book for its own sake.

The Lorax is an iconic children’s book. Along with such notables as The Butter Battle Book, it is one of Dr. Seuss’ excellent efforts at social commentary, while also being charming enough to stand on its own without its message.  In brief, it is the tale of the Once-ler, a shadowy figure illustrated only as a pair of Muppet-like green arms, who finds a beautiful grove of cottony truffula trees, which he uses to create do-dads (called “thneeds”) for sale. The book proceeds as a debate between the Lorax, who does not want the trees cut down, and the Once-ler, who proceeds to cut down all of them. In the end, not only is the land ugly, polluted, and ruined, but the Once-ler is left with no way to make a living because all the trees are gone. Only one truffula seed is left; there is the possibility of regrowth–if someone cares enough to plant, tend, and protect it.

Lorax eBook

Lorax eBook

There is, of course, the obvious message here; it’s a morality tale, whose moral is to protect forest ecosystems. But The Lorax has other meanings, too, as the best stories always do. The Lorax is a fully realized model of real environmental issues. Its bright and charming pictures and its simple rhymes actually contain nearly all of the complexity that real environmentalists and industrialists face.

To begin with, let’s say that you are not an environmentalist, and you actually want to make sure that natural resources are used efficiently so that the economy can grow and so that individuals can get things they want and need. Fine; did you notice that by the end of the book the Once-ler is broke and alone? He didn’t win at the expense of the truffula trees, he lost! From a purely business standpoint, the Once-ler was stupid. Had he used the trees at a slower, sustainable rate, and kept with his original non-polluting production methods, he might have kept making thneeds indefinitely.

Ok, let’s move on to the Lorax himself; he failed, too! Why? As other authors have pointed out before, the Lorax was rude and demanding, and showed no interest whatever in speaking to the Once-ler in terms that would be meaningful to him. People who act like the Lorax in the real world tend to fail. It’s bad practice.

Of course, arguably, the Lorax isn’t actually an environmentalist; since he appears magically out of the stump of a cut truffula, he is probably some kind of forest spirit. He isn’t really a politically aware advocate, he is simply the land crying “OUCH!” But he is an example of what not to do when speaking for trees.

Yes, it’s a children’s book, but like the best children’s books it’s designed to be thought about as the child grows up. And the children have grown up. The Lorax was first published in 1971, a year after the first Earth Day. The children who first encountered it are in their forties, now. Since the Lorax first issued his warning, environmentalists have won a lot of battles–but they are losing the war. And so are industrialists losing. Like the Once-ler, they just don’t know it, yet.

So, now that a (generally un-recommendable) movie has moved The Lorax back into national consciousness, perhaps it’s time for the adults who used to be children reading Dr. Seuss books to crack them open again. Re-read The Lorax, not as an exercise in nostalgia or moralism but as real food for thought.

The Lorax is also now available as an eBook app for iPhones and iPads, which also has both narrated and slide-show options.
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