Two weeks ago, I read The Lorax to my 10-month-old daughter for the first time. We were sitting in my apartment, four short blocks from the Gowanus Canal, a waterway turned superfund site famous for its gonorrheaic flow. I live in the land the Lorax promised, where “the wind smells slow-and-sour when it blows.” But I don’t live at “the far end of town.” The ripe scent of befouled fluid wafts right into the canal-front Whole Foods selling organic vegetables. The Truffula-treeless future the Lorax foretells has arrived, but we’ve gone right on living, layering conveniences on top of poisoned soil. The Lorax may have been right about human greed, but he underestimated human adaptability. This makes The Lorax, a cautionary tale about relentless industrialization, a weird read in 2019. The mysterious and threatening Once-ler’s booming deforestation business is both recognizable as an irresponsible corporation and unrecognizable as the major threat to the environment. In sea-level Gowanus, as in much of America, environmental degradation is a reality. Instead, climate change is the threat.
When Dr. Seuss’s masterwork was first published nearly 50 years ago, the book’s central idea, that nature must be preserved even at the expense of industrialization, was countercultural. That idea has moved to the mainstream over the years, but also been so broadly ignored by domestic and foreign policy makers that the book now feels authored for children in a way it originally did not. Most adults are either disengaged from environmentalism or aware that the planet has reached a tipping point. Saving trees is no longer the goal. The goal of the reconfigured environmental movement is to save ourselves.
But we can’t turn back time, which means that my daughter is inheriting a despoiled world. And it’s likely to get worse. Under the current administration, Republican lawmakers have busily loosened environmental protections and opened wild spaces, including Bear Ears National Monument, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and Boundary Waters Canoe Area to mining and drilling. The Lorax would speak up against these actions, but in a modern context it probably doesn’t make sense for him to speak to the workers doing the mining and the drilling or the corporations pay them to do it. The trees need a voice on Capitol Hill and the Lorax’s stump speech, despite the admirable intentions of his creator, may be wanting.
With so much damage done, it’s unclear if The Lorax still represents the ideal way to introduce children to environmental ideas.
How We Got Here
The Lorax and the birth of the environmental movement
The Lorax arrived in 1971 as the modern environmentalist movement, which began in the 1960s with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, gained momentum. The first Earth Day celebration occurred in 1970 and the following three years brought change in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clear Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973). Like Woodsy the Owl, who was hatched by U.S. Forest Service in 1971 and taught adults and kids to “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute,” the Lorax was created for an increasingly aware public and the children of increasingly concerned citizens.
But progress was not consistent. Under President Ronald Reagan, Anne Gorsuch, mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, took over the EPA, cut its budget by 22 percent, all but ceased filing cases against polluters, and facilitated the use of previously restricted pesticides. Corporations lobbied successfully for the creation of loopholes and built pipelines through them. At the same time, conservation groups in the U.S. became very science-focused — abandoning some of the prior generation’s guerrilla tactics — which raised the bar for participation. Environmentalism suddenly required a very specific sort of education. Many children and potential allies for the movement, notably hunters, found themselves locked out.The backlash to the environmental movement made The Lorax an increasingly political book. In 1989, it was banned in a public school in Laytonville, California, because it was considered it to be anti-logging. Its critics argued that the book was naive and perhaps anti-capitalist. After all, the need to provide usurps the need for forests.
Until it doesn’t.
And the Lorax was granted an “I told you so” moment courtesy of a movie adaptation. When the Lorax arrived in movie theaters in 2012, some reviewers argued again that it was too political for our children. Critics panned it, but the Lorax still has fans. The movie netted $348.8 million worldwide on a $70 million budget. But for many of the children who saw the movie, the concept of a forest may have been nearly as foreign as the idea of taking a hike on a trail. Access to nature had ceased to be a given for American children, more of whom were being raised in urban environments and poorly zoned suburbs.
Today, the Lorax may find a more receptive audience, but the context is substantively different than intended. Because of the failures of the environmental movement and the crisis of human-driven climate change, the environmental movement young people may choose to participate in is less about reacting to external threats and more about advocating for proactive programs and policy solutions. The Lorax isn’t wrong. He just might not be strident enough.
The Influence of ‘The Lorax’
One thing is certain, today’s heavyweights of environmental thinking all read it.
“I saw the book as having the potential to plant that seed of knowledge in places it might not otherwise have existed,” says environmentalist Brooke Williams, who first encountered the Lorax in college. Brooke and his wife Terry Tempest Williams are two of the most influential environmental thinkers of the last 50 years. They see The Lorax as a tool for parents to translate the complex ideas about finite natural resources and conservation into a memorable bedtime story.
Cristina Mittermeier, revered conservationist, photographer, and co-founder of SeaLegacy, agrees. “This book was a staple of nightly readings for my kids — all of them are rabid environmentalists, it was hugely influential in their lives,” Mittermeier says.
In a sense, the Lorax is accorded a similar level of respect to the environmental activists who have long trumpeted the value of the book. And the book has, like many environmental activists, retained relevance by building a larger and larger audience. Some 1.2 million copies of The Lorax have been sold to date and they tend to be in high circulation in public libraries, where Dr. Seuss still holds sway. But the Lorax also stand out in the children’s section. It is not a happy book. It’s a book for young activists and it is, in a sense, a rather scary story. “The Lorax represents everything that is wrong with our planet today, from climate change to ocean plastic,” says Mittermeier. “If anything I would add a more urgent call to action.”
The Lorax in the era of climate change
The gloom and doom around climate change and environmental degradation has led to a phenomenon called ecophobia. Kids introduced to the environment by way of depressing environmentalist messaging wind up not wanting to think about it, much less go for a hike. Disengagement ensues. This is why environmentalist Bill McKibben, co-founder of grassroot climate change initiative 350.org, believes raising modern-day environmentalists involves a different strategy. “I always thought my job as a parent was to get my daughter to fall in love with the natural world, on the theory that she would then be likely to defend it,”says McKibben. “And it’s hard to fall in love with something you think is doomed.”
McKibben is far from alone, which is why more and more parents are sending their children to Forest Schools. These schools are built on the Scandinavian notion that access to nature offers children the chance to gain confidence and decision-making skills through unstructured activities. This way, the child develops a relationship with nature before being thrust into a traditional education and before reading The Lorax.
“I do like the message about taking action, but in our current era we have real life stories (e.g. Greta Thunberg) that may get the same message across even more powerfully!” McKibben adds.
Modern stories about real environmental heroes, including Thunberg, are generally not about those who fight to let nature be, but about those who fight to help nature in bigger, more proactive ways. A recent study has suggested that trees themselves are the cheapest, most effective way to fight climate change. Is planting a trillion trees feasible? Apparently yes. But it’s harder than merely protesting their destruction — especially because generating enthusiasm around the project requires recognizing real loss, which is no fun at all.
“The difference between now and when it was written is that with global warming there is nowhere to go to escape the damage” says Williams. “A modern-day Lorax would address climate change — and grief.”
A more pure form of environmental messaging.
Quibbling with the Lorax may not present a solution to the difficulty of introducing children to environmental ideas. When our children look back, they may just see the book’s messaging as a marketing ploy gone wrong. Why read a fictional book, after all, when you can talk to an actual tree.
In the book, the Lorax repeatedly says, “I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.” Today, scientists are unlocking how trees actually speak for themselves, at least to other trees. Down in their root system using a symbiotic relationship with fungi, trees send messages to others trees. Sometimes it’s an older tree, or hub tree, nurturing a younger tree or a tree that’s been invaded sending a warning signal to other trees. One hub tree can be connected to 47 other trees. Their communication makes them stronger and more resilient. This information exchange is referred to as the “Wood Wide Web.”
“I imagine that the more we learn about all organisms, we will better learn how they communicate. And what they communicate is all focused on their ability to survive changing conditions,” says Williams. So perhaps in a future version of The Lorax, the Truffula Trees — and the Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, and Humming-Fish — would speak for themselves. Perhaps my daughter will hear what they have to say. And perhaps, having heard it, she’ll take action. Perhaps we don’t need the Lorax to return because our children will take his place.