Lorax… eco warrior or defeatist?

He was shortish. And oldish.
And brownish. And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.
“Mister!” he said with a sawdusty sneeze,
“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.”

On the ISA booth at the ISA trade show in Milwaukee I was looking at a copy of the Lorax by Dr. Seuss – a book I have known and loved for as long as I can think.

Dr. Seuss – or Theodor Geisel, as he was actually called – had a quirky and often psychedelic view of the world that affected me a lot as a child. Hell, affects me today, come to that. His is a biography worth reading, as an artist he had a much wider scope than he is remembered for today. In recent years his widow, Audrey, has gone to extensive efforts to publish some of his less well know work, such as the political cartoons, the sculptures or his abstract art.

One of his most memorable figures, apart from the Cat in the Hat, is without a doubt the Lorax (I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees). In many ways the story is a parable or commentary on our world, where a paradise inhabited by Swomee-Swans, the Brown Bar-Ba-Loots and the Humming-Fish – and most important of all, the Truffula Trees, is lost to the Once-ler who recognizes the potential that the Truffulas offer by turning them into Thneeds (today, I suppose that would be an iThneed) and, with his clan, manages to devastate the former paradise in a short period of time – until the very last Truffula is cut down.

Only then, when everyone has deserted him, does the Once-ler realize what he has destroyed. The Lorax lifts himself – by the seat of his pants – through the last speck of blue sky, never to be seen again. At the end of the story, the Once-ler hands a seed – the seed of the very last Truffula tree – to a boy who has come from town to visit him in his eyrie, with these words:

“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 his friends
may come back.”

Speaking about the Lorax, Theo Geissel says that he never intended it to be seen as a call to arms to defend nature, but of course, the story being written in 1972, he would have been affected by the zeitgeist of that time all the same. Since then, I can’t help but feel, the Lorax  has been instrumentalised as something it was not intended to be.

Apart from that, despite it being a timeless story, I am not at all clear that the message holds true, seen in an environmental context, as it could be read a that even when you have destroyed everything, there is always that last Truffula seed left that will make everything ok.

This message, whilst endearing, seems somewhat simplistic in a world that is beyond all reasonable doubt changing rapidly due to mankind’s activities over the past couple of millennia, with receding polar caps, droughts and flooding only representing part of a bigger shift in climate. In view of the decades of inactivity by global leaders in politics and business and the number of tipping points we have passed by – and ultimately our reluctance to modify our lifestyles to prevent our world from turning into a Dystopia such as Hollywood seems so enamored with, judging a plethora of recent film releases, it seems very optimistic to believe that somewhere there is a Once-ler with a Truffula seed up his Snuvv, his strange secret hole in his gruvvulous glove, that will undo all this damage.

The Truffula seed, again, drawing the parallel to today’s world would be the technical fixes to the pickle we find ourselves in, such as giant sun shades in orbit, seeding the oceans with iron and all the other geo-engineering schemes being put forth.

Really, what we need today is an updated version of the Lorax, maybe crossed with a dash of Sea Sheperd or Earth First! And, even more importantly, the insight that it is our responsibility to take charge of our planet.

As I have said before, part of the answer lies with each one of us, and here I think Dr. Seuss’ message still hold true. In a sense, the future has overtaken Dr. Seuss’ narration, a bit like the development of the internet overtook William Gibson’s Neuromancerwhen he writes:

“Sir! You are crazy with greed.
There is no one on earth
who would buy that fool Thneed!”

Ho-hum… yes, indeed, imagine how it would be if we surrounded ourselves with useless gadgets! Perish the thought!

It is essential that we question what we need, and whether we really need it, to reduce our carbon footprint where possible, maybe by consuming less meat, by flying less (yes, your honor, guilty as charged!) or by simply getting on your bike.

Pretty ineffectual in the big picture? Maybe so, but on the other hand, it could be that the sum of each of our individual actions is like a small Truffula seed of hope… which is the hope that I chose to hold on to.

So that leaves us with the question, what is the Lorax? Eco warrior or defeatist? And I feel that the answer is neither the one nor the other, or both: He is fallible, angry and irate, he is indignant in the face of blatant greed and at the same time resigned. In many ways, he behaves the way we do. Except that we cannot lift ourselves through that patch of blue sky by the seat of our pants at the end of our story, so we need to make sure we get this one right.