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.
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!