Lessons from The Lorax

I’m writing this piece as my children sleep in the next room.

They’re smart, curious, pleasant kids — both with a deep love for books. Lately, my daughter has taken to The Lorax, requesting the Dr. Seuss book for her bedtime story a couple of nights in a row. This makes me happy, both because The Lorax was my favorite book as a kid, and because it’s a book which has a great message.

Nathan J. Robinson, the editor of Current Affairs — which happens to be my favorite magazine — is also the author of several parody children’s books. I once read a question from him that I found poignant:

All children’s books are a kind of benevolent brainwashing. But some of them are less benevolent than others. Which ones teach children worthwhile lessons, and which turn them into the servile functionaries of the corporate state?

One of the reasons Dr. Seuss has endured as a legendary children’s author is because of his ability to teach worthwhile lessons in a way that’s enjoyable for children. The Lorax is no exception.

The cover of the Seuss classic

Before my daughter took her nap, I showed her the Lorax animated film from the 1970s. When I was a kid, I made my dad rent this movie so often that it wore down the VHS. Looking at it now, after having read the book many times, I noticed some differences. Most were extensions to the narrative — the animated film was a TV special, so it had to fit into 30 minutes. So they added some songs to extend its play. But there were also subtle changes in presentation that create a different message.

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, I’ll summarize it. If you know it, feel free to skip ahead. A child narrator tells of a capitalist named the Once-ler, who happens upon an idyllic forest community with lush trees and ample wildlife and promptly begins chopping down the trees to make “thneeds.” He sells the thneeds at a profit, causing the business to grow to meet demand. In the end, he chops down all the trees and drives away the wildlife, leaving only a desolate wasteland behind as his business crumbles from lack of raw materials. Along the way, a creature called the Lorax warns the Once-ler of the damage he’s doing to the environment, but the Once-ler is unmoved by his pleas. The story is a cautionary tale about ecological catastrophe.

The first of the film’s changes is in how we perceive the thneed. In the book, the implication is that despite the Once-ler’s claims, thneeds are useless and rely on marketing gimmicks to sell. In the film, meanwhile, thneeds are actually pretty revolutionary — they seem to be the kind of thing that “everyone needs.”

Second, there’s a change in the Once-ler’s motto, from “Business is business, and business must grow” to “Progress is progress, and progress must grow.”

These changes paint the Once-ler in a more sympathetic light than the book. In the film, the Once-ler’s narrative seems much more defensible: After all, he’s giving people what they want! Thneeds are useful, and you can’t stop progress, after all! So sure, he should take more care of the environment, but this is still a good thing.

The cynical view here is to say that the cartoon undermined the book. But I’m not sure that’s the case — rather, they teach complementary lessons when taken together. The book shows how marketers can manipulate people into buying useless products, causing real harm in the process. The cartoon makes the case that even if the product is useful, the problem is with the process. After all, most everyone owns smartphones — great technology, but environmentally destructive and made in large part by exploited third-world labor.

The cartoon shows that even when the product is desirable, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the harm caused by destructive processes. And we shouldn’t equate production with progress . The harm comes from the nature of business and capitalistic modes of production and is not inherent in the invention of good things.

What I find to be the best lesson from The Lorax is the ending. In both the cartoon and the book, the Once-ler tosses the seed of a truffula tree to our child narrator and tells him to plant it. The admonition is to go out, rebuild the forest, and protect it from people like the Once-ler.

I find this ending refreshing because, in this era, the dominant ethos is a consumption-based “activism.” The solution in this framework is to buy products from ethical producers — ones who don’t do things like destroy the local ecosystem. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has discussed how this merger of charity and consumption has instilled in people a sense that they don’t need to take active stands, they only need to change their passive consumption habits and all will be well. If that’s the case, there’s no need to question the system.

Dr. Seuss has none of that in The Lorax — the solution, in this story, is not to buy thneeds from a more ethical producer. It is instead to counter the destruction: To plant a new forest and to protect it from those who would destroy it. These are the most valuable lessons found in The Lorax — the empowerment of our child narrator. Activism in The Lorax takes an active role — we cannot depend on producers to act ethically because at a certain scale those practices become either non-viable or non-affordable for the average consumer. Seuss, instead, encourages people to take direct action to counter these excesses. We must plant forests. We must come together and protect those forests from harm. We must stand up and demand a better system.

The Lorax, like many of Dr. Seuss’s books, does indeed function as a form of benign brainwashing. In this case, the message is that people can come together to reverse profoundly harmful practices. That’s a lesson that all children should learn.

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