Emma Marris reflects on a classic children's fable that still has lessons for environmental policy 40 years on.
- Dr Seuss
Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr Seuss, wrote more than 40 children's books, beloved for their zany rhymes and sinuous illustrations. In August 1971 — the year after the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency and celebration of the first Earth Day — Seuss published a book that became a kind of Silent Spring for the playground set.
Thousands of children have learned about environmental destruction from the The Lorax, Seuss's tale of ecological ruin brought on by greed. The book still resonates: Universal Studios is due to release a feature-length animation of it next year. It packs in a lot of sophisticated concepts for a picture book, from the interconnectedness of ecosystems to the effects of industrial pollutants on freshwater systems. There is even a trophic cascade — a shift in top predators that triggers changes through a food chain. And what initially seems like a simplistic take on environmental policy — industry bad, activists good — turns out to be more subtle. The hero does not save the day; that task falls to the next generation. This downbeat, if realistic, plot arc makes me hesitant about introducing the book to my young daughter.
An ecologist might classify the book's lost paradise as a 'Truffula savannah'. The keystone species are the Truffula trees, which look like candy-coloured palms. In the story, every last one is chopped down by a faceless entity, the Once-ler, to provide the raw material for a multipurpose garment called a Thneed — anticipating Snuggies and Slankets by some four decades.
Clearing the Truffula trees sets off a chain reaction that demonstrates the interdependence of life. Without Truffula fruits, the ursine Brown Bar-ba-loots have nothing to eat. This being a children's book, they don't go extinct. Rather, they are packed off, with much lamentation, to points unknown by the creature who gives the book its title: the Lorax, a diminutive, grandly moustached character who acts as advocate for the ecosystem's species.
The Lorax also complains about the unregulated Thneed factory, which belches out smog and dumps into a pond an astonishing quantity of industrial by-products known as Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp. (According to the US National Resources Defense Council, textile factories pollute 200 tonnes of water per tonne of fabric produced.) The smog chases off the ecosystem's avian endemics, the Swomee Swans, and the polluted water gums the gills of the Humming Fish, which must traipse away in search of cleaner ponds. Eventually, the bright Truffula savannah is replaced by a lifeless wasteland.
Naturally, the Once-ler gets his comeuppance. By harvesting too many Truffula trees too quickly, he put himself out of business and retreats to his ruined factory to ruminate on the costs of not having a sustainable business plan.
The Lorax leaves in despair, and the Once-ler hands over the task of restoring the Truffula ecosystem by giving the world's last Truffula seed to a child.
The Lorax himself is a parody of a misanthropic ecologist: “He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy.” He hectors and pleads, he “speaks for the trees”, but the Once-ler pays no attention until it is too late, saying, “All you do is yap-yap and say, 'Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!'” That approach seems a little dated in this era of 'win–win' solutions. But Seuss understood, even back then, the limits of gloom and doom. The Lorax fails. Nevertheless, Seuss clearly had great affection for his impassioned little nag, as do the book's legions of fans.
Perhaps the source of its enduring appeal has less to do with Seuss's prescience about the futility of ecological doomsaying than with environmentalists' nostalgia for a time when such problems seemed more black and white. The Lorax portrays a world without the complexities of carbon trading, the pricing of ecosystem services, uncertainties over baseline states and the existence or not of pristine wilderness. For Seuss, wild nature is a paradise, industry is a malignant cancer and heroes take a stand.
Then again, that old narrative has not been entirely displaced by the bureaucrats who set green targets at international meetings. Diverse natural land is threatened by industries; smog chokes skies; Gluppity-Glupp fouls waterways; people use natural resources like there is no tomorrow. We still need heroes to speak for the trees.
Will I read my daughter The Lorax when she graduates from Pat the Bunny? I'm not sure. It captures the basics of why mismanagement and overexploitation of ecosystems are a bad idea in a way that children can understand. And because I believe that her generation's challenge will be to manage the planet consciously, perhaps it is not too early to teach those lessons. But this is a gloomy book. The final image — of the Truffula seed hurtling into a tiny pair of hands — puts a lot of responsibility on small shoulders. Perhaps it is more important for her to learn the pleasures and beauty of nature first. Afternoons spent poking in the mud, catching cicadas and mapping out squirrel routes may be more likely to turn her green than the spectre of a world without Truffula trees.
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Marris, E. In retrospect: The Lorax. Nature 476, 148–149 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/476148a