The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

February 24, 2012

Lessons from The Lorax: Why Nagging Doesn’t Work

Hey kids.  Don’t be like the Lorax.  He’s a bad example.  I should know.  I used to be like him, and I still am sometimes.  I’ll explain what I mean, but first, let me back up a bit.

A couple of weeks ago, a representative from Universal Pictures invited me to write a compensated* post for the LESSONS FROM THE LORAX Blog Tour in support of Universal Pictures’ animated film DR. SEUSS’ THE LORAX, which will be in theaters March 2.  I had seen ads for the movie and was already looking forward to it, so I was happy to participate.  “Except,” I told the rep, “my blog is about plastic, and isn’t The Lorax about saving trees?  I don’t know if I can write a relevant post.”  Believe it or not, I had never actually read the book.  Somehow I missed it as a child, and then as an adult, I guess I’d heard so much about it, I never felt the need to actually pick it up and read it.  “Don’t worry,” she said, “Your post doesn’t have to be about trees but about any Lorax-inspired theme.”  So I agreed to do it and hurried down to the library to check out the book.

While The Lorax has been revered by environmentalists since it was written in the 70’s as a cautionary tale against rampant industrialization and overconsumption, I found myself seeing much more in it than a simple environmental tale.  Here’s the basic story, with my own interpretive spin on it.  (If you are also one of the few who hasn’t read the book and don’t want me to spoil it for you, then stop reading this post now and come back to it after you’ve read the book or seen the movie.)

The Story of the Lorax

(Note: This is the plot of the book, which is pretty short.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I understand there are a lot more elements added to make a feature-length film.)

We begin on the Street of the Lifted Lorax, in a landscape that is bleak and desolate.  No trees.  The sky is overcast with smog.  The water is polluted.  There’s not really much life of any kind.   All that is left from where the Lorax once stood is a pile of stones.  To find out what happened to the Lorax, we must ask The Once-ler, a mysterious green being whose face we never see.  After some bribery, the Once-ler begins his sad tale.

As he describes it, a long time ago, he was traveling in his wagon and came upon a beautiful place teeming with life: Swomee-swans, Brown Bar-ba-loots, Humming-Fish, and of course the amazing, colorful, silken Truffula Trees.  The Once-ler says:

I felt a great leaping
of joy in my heart.
I knew just what I’d do!
I unloaded my cart.

Immediately, he sets to work. He builds a little shop, chops down one of those beautiful trees, and with the silken tufts, knits a Thneed.  He’s pretty tickled with himself. But the instant he finishes, the Lorax appears out of the tree stump to burst his bubble and gives him holy heck.  Here’s how the Once-ler describes him:

He was shortish. And oldish.
And brownish. And mossy.
And he spoke with a voice
that was sharpish and bossy.

The Lorax is steaming mad. He wags his finger:

“I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
And I’m asking you sir, at the top of my lungs” —
he was very upset as he shouted and puffed —
“What’s that THING you’ve made out of my truffula tuft?”

Not such a good first meeting, right? But the Once-ler tries to calm him down and explains that he only chopped down one tree, and that the thing he made, the Thneed, is really cool because you can use it for a million different purposes, and everyone is going to need one. But the Lorax isn’t convinced. He calls the Once-ler “crazy with greed” and tells him his Thneed is foolish and no one will want to buy it.

Well, that just sounds like a challenge to the Once-ler, who laughs in the Lorax’s face when someone comes along and actually does buy his Thneed. Encouraged by his first sale, he calls all his relatives and invites them to come help him. Then, he builds a bigger shop and a machine that can cut down four Truffula Trees at a time. He’s going along great guns and having a swell time, when the Lorax shows up at his door with the Brown Bar-ba-loots.

It turns out, Truffula Fruits are what they eat, and now there are not enough left to feed all of them. They are hungry and sad and must leave the Truffula forest to find food somewhere else. The Once-ler tells us that he felt sad about the Bar-ba-loots, and that he meant no harm, but that business is business, and he had to grow bigger to meet the demand.

A while later, the Lorax comes back and chides him for smogging up the air so that the Swomee Swans can’t sing and must leave like the Bar-ba-loots. And he snaps at the Once-ler for glumping up the pond with his Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp (chemicals) so that the fish must leave too. The Lorax snaps:

And what do you do with this leftover goo?…
I’ll show you. You dirty old Once-ler man, you!

At that point, after all the Lorax’s nagging and name calling and snapping, the Once-ler loses his cool:

I yelled at the Lorax, “Now listen here, Dad!
All you do is yap-yap and say, ‘Bad! Bad! Bad! Bad!”

He tells the Lorax that not only is he going to continue doing what he was doing, but he’s going to get even bigger and bigger and bigger!

Um… the Lorax’s strategy isn’t really working, is it?

Then suddenly, they hear the sound of the very last Truffula Tree falling to the ground. It’s all over. The place is in ruins. The relatives leave. The factory is empty. And the Lorax lifts himself up and steals himself away leaving behind only a pile of stones with the word UNLESS.

For years since that day, the Once-ler has sat in his tower worrying with all his heart about the damage he has done. He’s sorry, but he doesn’t know what to do. Until the day a boy comes to hear the story. And then, the Once-ler understands and says what are probably the most quoted words from the book:

“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.”

The Once-ler tosses the boy the very last Truffula seed, and entrusts him with the task of growing and protecting a new Truffula forest. Then, maybe the Lorax and all his friends will come back.

The Lessons I Learned from the Lorax

That’s the story.  It has a wonderful environmental message for both adults and children.  But as I sat in bed reading it, I discovered another message–perhaps unintended–as well.  I found myself not only frustrated with the Once-ler, but yelling at the Lorax: Don’t call the Once-ler names!  Don’t snap at him!  Don’t tell him he’s crazy!  All you’re going to do is piss him off and make him want to do it even more!  Sure, maybe the guy is totally inconsiderate and greedy and blind to his environmental impact.  But approaching him in a confrontational manner right from the beginning is not the way to get what you want.

How many of us have used just this “strategy” when communicating with companies that pollute our air and water or add toxic chemicals to the products we buy?  How many of us have wagged our fingers and chided people we saw littering or using plastic bags or driving big gas guzzling cars?  Sometimes it can feel momentarily good to vent our frustrations at those we see as doing harm.  I sure have my fair share of those moments and have been known to rant about stupid plastic crap.  But by behaving that way, are we really creating the kind of change we want to see in the world?

So, what are some positive ways we can spread our environmental messages without creating enemies?  What I take from the story of The Lorax is that the Once-ler is actually a good person at heart.  He just gets carried away and doesn’t understand the impact of his actions.  In fact, he tells us that he felt really sad about the Bar-ba-loots.  I’m wondering if there is a way in which the Lorax could have met him at that level and found some common ground from which to build a dialogue.  And what would have happened if the Lorax had not berated and belittled the Once-ler from the very start?  How would that have changed the story?

Another thing I notice is that the Lorax is a lone voice.  He says he speaks for the trees, but really, he speaks against the Once-ler. What if he had gone out and garnered support from like-minded people and built a coalition to convince the Once-ler to change or even to pass laws regulating how much the Once-ler could cut down and pollute? What if he asked people to think about whether they really needed to buy Thneeds in the first place?  Wouldn’t that be more effective than standing alone and ranting at the Once-ler?

Back in 2008, when I started the Take Back the Filter campaign to convince Clorox to take back and recycle its Brita water filter cartridges, I never felt that we were fighting Clorox or that we were enemies.  Instead, I had found an issue that had a lot of support from Brita’s customers, and I felt that it was simply my job to bring all of our collective voices together to help Brita see what its customers wanted.  Like a character in another Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hears a Who.

So, what are your ideas?  What are some ways we can spread environmental awareness and create systemic change without igniting division with inflammatory language?  What are the best ways to speak to children?  To other adults?  To heads of companies? Or to legislators? I would love to hear your ideas about what approaches you think are the most effective.

The book does end on a hopeful note.  My hope is that the boy will employ a different strategy from the Lorax and actually be able to protect the trees.  And I also hope that Danny DeVito’s Lorax in the movie will at least be funny because honestly, the Lorax in the book makes me want to go out and pollute, just to show him.  But then, I never really grew up past age 17.  You guys are probably way more mature.

*Disclosure: I received a small amount of compensation from Universal for participating in the blog tour. However, the only requirements were that I mention the movie and the blog tour and display a photo from the film.  The topic and point of view are 100% my own ideas, and I was excited to share my thoughts about The Lorax!

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Toddler Play Wild DIll

I only post ads for products I use myself. Your support helps to fund my plastic-free mission.

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I personally always love sharing your story. When people come to my apartment they are always admiring my decorative glassware and I say “oh its all from thrift stores” and they’re always amazed but then I get the opportunity to explain to them that I not only have a beautiful space but I was able to create beauty without creating waste by purchasing new things that were re-manufactured, etc. So I think that just writing this blog and sharing your story is changing people’s lives!

Angela N

Love your site, Beth! I linked to it in my last post as I… eek… bought plastic bags for the first time in months. I started a new, busy job and that’s what happened. Have you written about how to be plastic-free AND busy? I’d like to read about that :) I think the environmental message has to start with kids. Teach kids about plastic, about the environment, about HOW to life with less… kids love hands on things, so lots of interactive lessons would be great. Have them brainstorm about how to life environmentally. And talk to them over… Read more »


Oh I just love him, I don’t aspire to be him, but those grumpy greenies that shout it’s wrong and sneer at the fools have their place. Sometimes it’s good to have someone just point out your stupidity so you can put a quick stop to your silly habits (of which I have plenty). It will take all types to change people’s ways.

I am so impressed with your plastic freeness.

Marci Villanueva

Setting the best example possible is really the best way to influence others.


As a Mom, I greatly appreciate the work that Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood does. Of course they have something to say on this topic! They also have a pledge you can sign to not support the hypocritical merchandising of the Lorax:

[Original link no longer active.]

And here is something from Common Dreams:


Nice article… I find that instead of wagging the finger – offering solutions or the opportunity to partner can turn foes into friends :-)

Jennifer Taggart, TheSmartMama

Beth – I love your post. Lately, well, really, the last 2 years, I’ve been pondering the narratives we tend to use to motivate and advocate for environmental change. From an adult perspective, the Lorax in the book really comes off as a doom and gloom naysayer – and I don’t think that the tragedy narrative is effective. I don’t think it changes behavior. It may result in donations to a cause because of the tragedy – habit loss or species extinction. But I don’t think it results in long term behavioral change. What other narratives can we use? I… Read more »


I find the best way to change people’s mind, on an individual level (which is where i concentrate my efforts), is through example. When they come to my house and see the many ways I endevour to be more environmentally friendly in my everyday life, they often go away energized and determine to try one of them. Ripples in a pond, that’s my method. :) I know for a fact I’ve changed the habits of at least several households this way, and who knows who they have influenced!

Good Girl Gone Green

I love your post and I can’t believe people are nit-picking about what you wrote! You clearly care about the environment and will not go out and actually pollute!


I completely agree with you about the Lorax using ineffective and distasteful tactics (although, would the story have had such an impact on kids if he’d succeeded? The punch in the gut of the extinction and bleak landscape are pretty powerful…hmm, food for thought). I try really hard to share my simple, frugal lifestyle choices with people instead of soap-boxing (my sweet hubby gets all of that) because I have never run across someone who wasn’t ecstatic to find out baking soda gets marker off of walls and tables and generally will make the switch from ‘magic erasers’ to good… Read more »


Example, example, example. Do things that you think are important. Do them openly but without boasting. And then share them. “If you’d like to vermicompost, I’d be happy to help you set up a bin and give you some worms.” “I’m canning peaches this weekend, want to come and help?”

And call your government representatives. Laws are really important, too.

I agree, the Lorax has some good messages, but misses the point in some ways, too.

Cool giveaway!


Great post, Beth. I think a positive way to promote environmental awareness is not to nag, but to go out there and be an example. Show others how simple change can be incorporated in everyday life, most of which are not very intrusive at all. I think people think that they need to give up everything in their house that is bad all at once. It can be phased out a little at a time, and maybe if you have some “cool” way of showing it, that item can be a conversation piece. Then you can spread your message and… Read more »

celia kiewit

Wow, your fans have really gotten involved in this one! I agree with Karin. All we can do is lead by example. Early adapters lead the way and are often mocked. I am not an environmentalist for just the reasons addressed. They seem to preach and criticize while many of them are hypocritical in their own habits. At Charlie Moore’s foundation, the emphasis is on research and education. Personally, as a conservationist, that’s what I try to do: speak to the issues, provide the facts, and let the public make its own choices. And as a psychologist, I see this… Read more »


I go about my daily life and answer questions as asked. I’ve been using cloth bags for 15+ years and some friends just started noticing a couple years ago. I have been making my own household cleaners for just under 15 years and my own skin care products for 5-10 years (depends on product). I’ve talked about it with certain groups of friends/family for 10+ years. In the last couple years I’ve been asked to teach others how to make them, etc. I have been teaching classes last year and this year. I don’t think we (today’s environmentalists) would be… Read more »

Betsy (Eco-novice)

I wonder if Seuss meant for the Lorax to come off as annoying or heroic. It is important to step back and ask what is the most effective (not just cathartic) method of voicing our concerns.


VERY well written……a lot of thoughtful options about creating empowerment.

I had forgotten about the story, so it is a good reminder.


I haven’t read this read since my kiddos were little. They are now 29 and 27. To positively communicate an environmental problem I would share an issue that the group can identify with or is interested in (like how plastics hurt sea animals). In a matter-of-fact way (but with cool technology), I’d present the facts of the issue and how it negatively impacts (the animals in this case). Then I’d invite discussion and ask for their ideas on how to solve the problem. The goal would be see which of the ideas presented are doable and help the group find… Read more »

Sarah Jones

Being a chemistry teacher, I give my students the basics about what plastics are and always see their faces drop when they start journaling about what they use/throw away. Instead of nagging (which I still tend to do), I EDUCATE them. They figure it out on their own!


Hi, Beth! Let me first say that it was awesome to see you last weekend. :) I’ve always loved The Lorax – it was one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books as a kid. But then, all of Seuss’ books are awesome, so you don’t have to sell me on them. I’d still read them today if people didn’t think it was weird. (But then again, maybe I could use some more rhyming in my life, so I might take that up again. But I digress.) I never picked up on the overbearing-environmentalist message when I read the book as… Read more »


I recently borrowed the Lorax from our library to read to my 2 year old, and was so excited to reconnect with yet another fabulous Dr. Seuss book! Rereading his classics is so much fun as an adult, to remember his melodic writing, surreal artistry, and metaphorical masterism. Much like you, Beth, I found myself surprised at how irritating the Lorax was, how ineffective he was, after having admired the book in my adolescence. Certainly the nagging and lack of respect for the Once-ler himself, but also how he only showed up to chastise the industrialism AFTER he needed to… Read more »


Two things: 1) I actually work to change the structures and incentives to make it make sense for people to do the right thing environmentally (for most of us it actually makes sense for us to do the wrong thing environmentally because of how incentive structures are set up and the fact that environmental problems are externalities). So make it easier to do the right thing than the wrong thing. 2) I look for ways to celebrate good environmental things (we’re trying to create an institute for environment and sustainability at my college that focuses on the great things about… Read more »

Bernie Paquette

Contest entry: Here is an example of how I communicate an environmental message in a positive and effective way rather than nagging and scolding. I write a blog that tells Short stories,( ) essays, and even plays reflecting Green and Clean Vermont values-inspiring people to clean up their communities. I post pictures of (single piece) of litter with (hopefully funny) captions, followed by my anti litter campaign statement “Litter is an all season sport. Drop a piece you lose a point; pick up a piece you gain a point.” See example @ While pointing out the problem, I… Read more »

Bernie Paquette

Beth, about your comment “And I feel very strongly that as long as we, as environmentalists, approach others in a confrontational, aggressive style, all we’ll achieve is making ourselves feel right. But not the planetary results we seek.” I agree. The world needs more tolerance, more understanding, cooperation, collaboration, and good listeners. I hope people who read my blog find it mostly encouraging, and my method one of seeking collaboration. Complex problems often have many shareholders, each with their own agenda. I think it is important to listen to each, and to focus on the end mutually satisfying goals rather… Read more »


Nagging (it could be called pestering as well) may or may not work depending on the situation. Martin Luther King Jr nagged and nagged and nagged – he wouldn’t shut up. He enraged his opponents but he kept coming back in their faces putting his own life at risk and finally losing it for the cause. Through his constant nagging, he revealed the hatred and bigotry that was under the surface of the most friendly and polite people you could hope to meet, his fellow Americans of the 1950’s and 60’s. Throughout his campaign the call was always for him… Read more »

Sandi Ratch

I have a hard time not berating people about their environmental stance (or lack thereof), but I find it I admit to my own weaknesses, am really honest about my actions and not just my convictions (because I am less than perfect), it helps to buffer the conversation.


I really enjoyed this book & sharing it with my daughter. I’m hoping the movie doesn’t end up losing the heart of the message. I think good ways to share your cause is try to remain super friendly while sharing about it. Small things like shirts sharing your message that people can ask you about, saying no to plastic straws and kindly explainng why, or sharing info nicely with people with no judgement or attacking. We can’t make everyone see things the way we do but we need to be able to remember we planted a seed & maybe the… Read more »

Rua Lupa

A great strategy is what ForestEthics does, Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, What WWF & Madagascar medicine people are doing – , and Green Heroes all are great examples

Jessica Lang | Cloth Diapering Mama

I can’t wait to see this movie with my eco-friendly 4 year old. Plastic is one our causes also, but the message here of green initiative with the” unless” is wonderful for this young more earth aware generation!


Thanks for your giveaway! I’ve never thought about the lorax that way. I guess in any situation (rather that saving trees or anything else) it is the way you go about approaching things. Its always nice to do it in a friendlier way. :)

Bernie Paquette

Give the Lorax and its readers a little more credit. I think readers took away the message about the value of trees and the harm in too much consumption, waste and overproduction. Values are what the Lorax preaches. The how is left to the reader. I read the book many times to my children. I won’t speak for them however I will offer that it greatly influenced me, and the values I cherish about nature and most dearly-trees. Read the obituary / memoriam about one of these friends of mine @ I hope the film spreads the same spirit… Read more »

Jessie C.

Thank you for the great giveaway! DDs would be thrilled to see this movie!


Beth, THIS was a great post for the blog tour! I TOTALLY agree with your interpretation of the story–I too can’t help but analyze the messages behind all our children’s books, and am always surprised that more parents don’t. We send our kids all kinds of weird and untruthful and even harmful messages too often because we don’t think about what that cute cartoon character is *really* saying. And to be honest, the fact that you aren’t just naturally on the Lorax’s bandwagon makes me like you so much more than I already do. : ) And I just now… Read more »

Micaela @MindfulMomma

Love your positive message Beth! It’s not about fighting against something but about banding together to raise awareness and create positive change!

celia kiewit

The Lorax makes you want to go out and pollute?! I loved him for speaking-up for what’s right against greed and conspicuous consumption and waste. I helped build an exhibit at the DM Fair years go… the whole story cleverly depicted in roughly a 20×20′ area with burned out stumps, veggie plot, pond with waterfall and fish, truffulas and a compost pile. It won the environmental award that year! Sorry, no more excuses. Thank you, my darling Lorax and Dr. Seuss! I hope people like Danny Devito & others will help groups like Algalita which is prohibited from advocating legislation,… Read more »


I think that your dislike of the Lorax is ALSO part of the point of Dr. Seuss’s book. Sometimes the most important and true things in this world are unpleasant and uncomfortable. I’ve always felt similar to you when reading the book (a favorite from childhood, for me) but also thought that was really the idea. The Lorax is old, ugly, unpleasant, and grumpy… but also RIGHT, and we need to learn to look past his demeanor and appearance to the core of the message.


Well… Beth. I never looked at it that way. But as I try to change the cigarette litter issue at my own beach… I see exactly what you’re saying! I’m not a lone voice and for that I am soooooo thankful because I know that TOGETHER we can do so much more!! :)

P.S…. I think you should totally help them write a follow up to the Lorax!!

Amy A.

Thank you for the giveaway and for your blog!

Brenna @ Almost All The Truth

I have always loved The Lorax and the old 70s movie. I never really thought much about The Lorax’s tone and style of speech when addressing The Once-ler. I always saw him as someone who was just simply so frustrated (and overwhelmed) by what he was seeing that he felt he had no alternative but to use his “strong voice” and fight. I don’t see anything wrong with a fight, but I can see how we do need to all work together, to develop strategies for change that are effective, and teach others the lessons we have learned. We also… Read more »

Tiffany (NatureMom)

Wonderful article Beth. We are excited to see The Lorax too!


Nice Post! Reminds me of WALLE and other kids movies that gets the adults to think as well as the kids!