As I did with previous texts like The Runaway Bunny and The Giving Tree, I am taking a stab at one of the most revered children’s book heroes of all time, Theodor Seuss Geisel, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss. I would almost venture to say that he may be the most revered author anywhere, as Jack London and William Shakespeare don’t get nearly as much love and repeated readings as the verse master Seuss. That said, Dr. Seuss, as respected and venerated as he may be, has courted controversy with the assertion of his social and political ideals into his children’s books. No book of his is more divisive and notorious than 1971 environmental chronicle of The Lorax.
For many of you the mere mention of The Lorax will elicit a warm wash of nostalgia and affection for the cautionary environmental tale, but for select few, the name is synonymous with tree hugging and a generalized knee jerk reaction to anything that involves cutting down a tree.
To provide a brief synopsis: The Lorax is a fable involving the Once-ler (the greedy and loutish capitalist set on cutting down truffula trees), The Lorax (the environmental Cassandra and representative) and an array of flora and fauna that are impudently destroyed in favor of the all mighty dollar. It is a fable about the destructive human imprint on the natural world, and the long-term cost of our nearsighted actions and unyielding greed. Effectively, it is an explicit incitement of market-driven environmental exploitation; a system aimed at short-term profits over long-term consequences.
The Lorax, as much as it was a critical success, very effectively annoyed those who support, or are supported by, the logging industry, leading to numerous proposed bans and boycotts of the book due to its anti-industry message. Many parents, who work in the logging industry, were alienated and vilified by their own children who saw them as destructive”Once-lers” bent on environmental ruin whatever the cost. The outrage among industrialist as well as the logging community was so acute, that a few people came together to create a playful rebuttal to The Lorax titled the Truax: A sort of inverse tale of a reactionary Lorax-type character who learns about the benign intent of the logging industry.
Still the book remains ever popular and just as relevant today as it was back in the early 1970s, despite the lasting controversy. The obvious message to take away from this cautionary tale is one of environmental stewardship, and the necessary balance between human need and the conservation of the natural world. On a socio-economic level, the Lorax parable could be seen as a simple need for an economic long view. The Once-ler, a creature so obsessed with greed and profit, is wholly unable to see the folly of his business plan and refuses to open his eyes to his own economic ruin as he hastens the decline of his own economic base and resource–the truffula trees. The Once-ler, like his customers (and the rest of us) is utterly blind to his developing or lasting impact because this is a culture obsessed with fervent materialism without ever clearly viewing the roots, and subsequent results, of our actions. The character of the Lorax is reminiscent of the drowned out Native-American voice of warning, speaking for the indigenous creatures of the land. Neither accommodating nor outright hostile, the Lorax is seemingly unaware of the concept of property rights, so by speaking for the trees, he is essentially asserting his claim to the land, at least as de-facto steward.
The story ends with a small glimmer of hope, in which a final remaining seed of the desecrated truffula trees is saved and passed to the open hands of a young boy who is saddled with the responsibility of repopulating this environmental dystopia, and undoing the blatant neglect with a purposeful stewardship of the land.
As for the intended audience for this cautionary fable, children will no doubt immediately glean the highly essential message of conservation and responsibility. However, I couldn’t help but wondering if this tale would hold its weight if it were not a story based in degradation and spoil, but one centered on the attainable benefits of preservation and nurture?
Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.