A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Like many native English speakers of my generation, I grew up with Dr. Seuss. The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Green Eggs and Ham were among the many books I knew by heart even before I could read properly. The silly characters, bright artwork and outrageous rhymes captivated my imagination and took me to new worlds. However, one book stood out among many as my all time favorite Dr. Seuss book: The Lorax. From the beginning, I was drawn into the flight of the brown barbaloots, swomee swans, hummingfish and their unlikely guardian, the Lorax himself. In the end, I even found myself pitying the Onceler. It could be argued that this book and the Onceler’s final words in particular, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lots, nothing is going to get better. It’s not,” helped to influence my career path as an ecologist/environmental educator. I’m not sure that I’d go that far, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
As a child, I saw nothing controversial about The Lorax. The thought of it being on any banned book list would have been laughable. (For those of you not familiar with its controversial history, The Lorax was challenged in the Laytonville, California school district in 1989 on the grounds that it “criminalises the forest industry”.) In fact, it still makes me chuckle a bit; however, I am old enough now to grasp the “grown-up” themes previously missed. Detractors may call this book left-wing environmentalist propaganda. Personally, I find it to be eerily prophetic.
First off, let’s put this into historical context. The book was copyrighted in 1971 (incidentally the same year Greenpeace was founded), not far from the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Only nine years prior, in 1962, Rachael Carson published ‘Silent Spring,’ her controversial investigation into pesticide use and the pollution of our environments which is often credited with helping to start the modern day environmental movement. Cloaked in bright colours and charming rhymes, The Lorax is a brilliant social commentary cleverly camouflaged as a children’s book.
Let’s break down the characters. The Onceler is most certainly a characterization of Big Business. He is a cunning, shrewd, faceless businessman willing to sell anything to anyone for a price. He feels he is doing the world a service as he boasts “I’m being quite useful. This thing is a Thneed. A Thneed is a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need.” The Lorax, well, his real-life counterpart seems just as obvious:
He was shortish. And Oldish
And brownish. And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
That was sharpish and bossy.
The Lorax is most certainly your typical environmentalist, seen as being a little odd, unkempt and eternally negative. “No, you must not cut down that tree. No, you can’t do that. No No No No NO!” (Here I would like to add that I feel this is an unfair stereotype. Today’s environmentalists come in all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life. But I digress. That is an argument for another day.) In the beginning of the story, the Lorax is portrayed as being too cautious, much like the charges leveled at early environmentalists (which are still sometimes leveled today – can anyone say global warming?). After all, the Onceler only chopped down one tree. Surely what harm could come from that? And thus, with the successful selling of one thneed, an empire was born. (*Cough*IndustrialRevolution*Cough*) Slowly the Lorax begins to send his forest friends away. First the brown bar-ba-loots lose their food source. And what should big business, er, the Onceler make of that? Well, “business is business! And business must grow.” And so it goes until the last truffula tree falls and the Lorax himself is lifted away while the Onceler is left by himself in a barren landscape. Here we have come to the moral of the story. UNLESS. Unless we do something, plant trees, clean up polluted water, implement sustainable development and logging practices, etc, “nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
It is now 2008 and I would love to say that we learned our lesson from this cautionary tale of a greedy, faceless businessman. In some respects, we have. We now have laws protecting endangered species (Endangered Species Act of 1973) and certain administrations have worked towards sustainable forestry practices (Clinton and the Roadless Area Rule) just to name a few. In spite of all this progress, I’m afraid we have not quite learned our lesson like Dr. Seuss intended. Not with large numbers of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen still fighting against environmental regulations on industry and vilifying environmentalists. Not when in the United States alone, there are ten times as many endangered species as are listed for protection. Not when preeminent biologists predict that 25% of all species on Earth could be exterminated within 50 years due primarily to habitat loss. Before we suffer the fate of the Onceler, we must stop to remember the brown-bar-ba-loots, swomme swans, hummingfish, truffula trees and the Lorax. We are all connected in the complicated web of nature. Losing one species may have little effect on you or I but could have (and has had) cascading negative affects in their ecosystems.
There are those who will dismiss my review as just another crazy environmentalist crying wolf and trying to stop us from our God-given right of using the Earth (His creation) however we feel. Even I must admit I do fit the typical environmentalist stereotype, and those who know me best affectionately call me a dirty treehugger. However, I would like to dispel one aspect of the environmentalist stereotype; that we want to stop all progress and have unreasonable demands. In the 1980s, the Forestry Service wrote a counterargument to The Lorax called Truax and distributed it to schools. The protagonist, Truax, is a logger who is doing his job one day when he gets harassed by the antagonist, a tree-like creature called Guardbark. Guardbark is negative and decries the logging of all trees. Truax argues with Guardbark until Guardbark sees the error of his ways and admits that logging really isn’t so bad after all. I could write another whole review on all the wrongs in this book (just ask Kirsty, she had to listen to me rant), but above all this book reinforces the stereotype that environmentalists have unreasonable demands. In Truax the title character asks, “Do we ever consider just how it would be If we could NEVER, EVER again cut a tree?” I do not believe that this was the message Dr. Seuss intended, nor is it the message of the mainstream modern day environmental movement. I am not asking you to stop using any products that have been made from trees, plants, animals or anything that might negatively impact the environment. Nor do I believe that Dr. Seuss was asking that. I know that this is impossible and I myself struggle with where to draw the line. I believe most environmentalists struggle with the conflicting themes of necessary consumption and a desire to lead a low impact life. The fate of the Onceler was an exaggeration to show us what could happen…UNLESS. Unless we exercise restraint. Unless we realize that we are a part of, not apart from, nature and our surroundings. Unless we do something, anything other than sit by and watch the world crumble while feeling powerless, or even too apathetic, to stop it. So before you dismiss my argument out of hand as the rantings of another hippie treehugger, I beg you to stop and consider the words of Dr. Seuss.
That was long, long ago.
But each day since that day
I’ve sat here and worried
and worried away.
Through the years, while my buildings
have fallen apart,
I’ve worried about it
with all of my heart.
“But now,” says the Once-ler,
“Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Catch!” calls the Once-ler.
He lets something fall.
“It’s a Truffula Seed.
It’s the last one of all!
You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds.
And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.
Plant a new Truffula.Treat it with care.
Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.
Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack.
Then the Lorax
and all of his friends
may come back.”
Michelle Lewis is a treehugging dirt worshipper who spends her days trying to convince children that nature is cooler than video games.