Vulpes Libris

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.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

loraxArticle by Michelle Lewis

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.
It’s not.

“SO…
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.

13 comments on “The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

  1. rosyb
    November 14, 2008

    I knew nothing about The Lorax and found that all very educational. Particularly the bit about the rival book and the Truax *shakes head in disbelief*. It’s making me think of that penguin book there was all that fuss about. Why can’t children be exposed to ideas in books?

    Mind you, my bfriend is a dirt-worshipping tree-hugger who plays computer games, so sometimes it can go together…

    Thanks for that, Michelle.

  2. Michael
    November 14, 2008

    I grew up with Dr. Seuss books (‘The Butter Battle’ being my favourite book) and it amazes me that someone could have written something as awful as the ‘Truax’ to counter ‘The Lorax’. I read ‘The Truax’ out of curiosity and, aside from the atrocious attempt at wit and humour, it seemed to be a complete misunderstanding of what Dr. Seuss was attempting (but these are my feelings).

    I enjoyed the message of ‘The Lorax’ in that the warning is there to not sit idly by (as you point out). Even as a self-confessed non-treehugger, I can appreciate the poignancy of Seuss’ message. Thank you.

  3. Michelle
    November 15, 2008

    Thanks Michael and rosyb for your kind words. Rosy, if you really want to read awful, google ‘Truax’ and read it. It’s enough to make your head explode. And obviously children can’t be exposed to ideas in books because then they might actually start to think for themselves and what a travesty that would be!

  4. kirstyjane
    November 15, 2008

    Thank you for a lovely review, Michelle. My old English teacher always said she could tell which kids grew up reading Dr Seuss – they had more fun playing with language. I love how Seuss manages to bring in fairly complex themes all while being silly and above all making these fabulous rhymes!

  5. Jackie
    November 15, 2008

    If Americans would think of environmentalism as a way of life, a beneficial habit, instead of a fad, we would all be better off. President Carter had all sorts of environmental organizations and practices that were beginning to become mainstream, albeit slowly. Then when Ray-gun took office, he cut off funding for most of the organizations, such as the ones researching solar power & decided better mileage wasn’t really needed by American cars, so it all faded away, as if it was some sort of trendy clothes that had gone out of fashion. Now we are dealing with the repercussions. Had we followed through on the original intent of the environmental movement, we wouldn’t be dealing with it all once again.
    I look at the Lorax as a way to introduce children & others to a preservation mindset in a lighthearted way. There’s a serious message under the rhymes, but it’s not beating people over the head with it. I think The Lorax is Dr.Suess’s most important book, it’s a junior Silent Spring, if you will.
    Thanks for the good review, and thanks also for choosing the career you did and helping get the message out. Maybe we can save something before it’s too late.

  6. Michelle
    November 21, 2008

    Jackie,

    I agree with most of what you say, although I’d like to add that I don’t think Americans are the only ones who need to change their thoughts/actions. I used American examples because that is what I am most familiar with, but this is a global problem. I hope The Lorax is translated into as many languages as possible and that it is as poignant translated as it is in its native English.

  7. Ashleigh
    November 27, 2008

    The fact that this ghastly alternative to the ever-educational ‘The Lorax’ has been created is a disgrace! When I was younger I absolutely loved ‘The Lorax’, ‘The Sneetches & Other Stories’ and so on. Dr. Seuss was an intelligent man with a brilliant mind, and the fact that his audience were children was an amazing idea. Through the medium of bright colours and silly furry characters and the best, most imaginative rhymes I’ve ever come across, children are given the chance to form ideas on issues, and challenged to think and act. We need to educate our children on matters such as these so that we can preserve all that needs preserving as opposed to brushing it off with selfishness. Best of all, it’s done in a manner and using vocabulary that children can relate to, without having to go into the depth of things. When I was younger I read these books religiously, and even now (at age 17) I’m an avid fan and read Dr. Seuss books more often than more kids, I’m sure. I think that if the subliminal messages in these books are noticed (and not banned from the shelves of schools), finally justice will be served, and such a legend of a man can rest in peace, and rest assured.
    Thank you very much Michelle.

  8. TricDoc
    December 8, 2008

    man that brings me back to my childhood. great book with great pictures.

  9. Stacey
    February 17, 2010

    I feel that this is such horrid nonsense, though it may be hard for some to comprehend, i, along with others, are just as old as the trees. I feel these trees are a part of me, it is shameful to even publish such work as the truax, they should bury them self in a hole and never resurface with such embarrassment, ancient trees are so vast, I would love for this woman, Terri Birkett to stand beside a 200 year old tree, and tell it, her elder, that is no longer doing an effective job and must go. Awful, just awful. I pray to god that all of these books will one day be burnt, (better yet recycled) and to make it even more symbolic they can take those wretched pages and re-print the Lorax upon them. I feel that this woman has no respect for life, she sees a large pay check, and a nice bonus for this book, (maybe she will use it to buy a log cabin to go with her wood floors) I have the torches, who has the matches?

  10. Adam
    April 4, 2010

    this was such a wonderful book… it is a bit sickening to see books like the truax. especially with the entire lack of imagination in the name “truax”….”truth lorax”…….. anyway….while i do agree that its disgusting i would like to direct mostly at stacey that we have no reason to censor their books either. we cant stoop to that level and fall to censoring THEIR views. that will achieve only a negative response. we must instead (TRY TO) show them the RIGHT answer while making OUR opinions known to the kids reading the books as well Censorship. no matter what is being censored is the wrong answer. taking POSITIVE action is what will bring about change. negative action brings about only more destruction…

    my apologies for the melodrama ^^;;
    ~Tunnelingcat

  11. dan bender
    April 11, 2010

    When I read the Lorax, I not only think of the effect the story’s moral has on the habitat and animals within it, but I also look at the bigger picture and its effect on people. We so readily forget that humans are animals too, and are affected by ecological and environmental changes. When we destroy a part of nature, such as in the story, we in part hurt ourselves, because life on earth works concurrently. The food chain, living space, etc..are all balanced systems shared by organisms on earth. If an equilibrium cannot be found, the problem the Lorax presented (with the destruction of its forests and impact on the homes of animals living there) may eventually be a danger on a much bigger scale.

  12. emma
    May 6, 2010

    i’ve never seen a better story.that is my favroit story.

    i did a play at my school jubilee.
    the play was on earth day it was the best play i have ever done.
    and luckaly it was the ever and last play i did at that school jubilee.
    i think a bot how good it was to do the play the lorax.
    i watch it alot like evry day.

    2010

  13. treewhispers
    March 4, 2019

    Reblogged this on Treewhispers.

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2008 by in Non-fiction: environment, Poetry: children's and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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