How, even today, the Dr. Seuss classic can be a difference maker on environmental issues

Josh Chetwynd
Jun 3 · 5 min read
While sales were not as brisk as other Dr. Seuss books when it was first released, “The Lorax” has shown durable staying power with its important message. (Photo credit: Miller Chetwynd)

Nearly 50 years ago, Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) unveiled “The Lorax.” While he was known for his whimsically rhyming children’s stories, the author had a clear — and slightly different — vision in mind for this volume. “It’s one of the few things I set out to do that was straight propaganda,” he said about the 1971 parable of corporate greed and its impact on the environment.

The good literary doctor had witnessed aggressive building ruining his beloved San Diego coastline and decided he needed to use his greatest skills — writing and illustration — to combat anti-environmental activity. He weaved the tale of a businessman named the Once-ler, who cuts down fantastic Truffula trees to make a product called a Thneed, which nobody really needs. The Lorax (a stubby creature that may have actually had a real-life antecedent) implores the Once-ler on behalf of the trees and local wildlife to stop his damaging ways. (The Lorax’s famous line in the book is “I speak for the trees.”) Tragically, the Once-ler presses forward in the name of the free market until there is nothing left but a blighted landscape.

To emphasize the seriousness of the topic, Dr. Seuss opted for dark colors in telling this story.

“He loved the atmosphere in this book,” Seuss’ wife Audrey Geisel told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “The color work — all the shades of gray and deep purples and blues. It was a complete change, and he rather enjoyed it.”

What Seuss, who died in 1991, would not enjoy today is that threats to the environment are outpacing progress. Audrey Geisel pointed out more than a decade ago that “globally speaking, it’s not good, and it’s getting less good all the time. We didn’t learn from ‘The Lorax.’ We’re paying the price, and we don’t seem to know it.”

Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) had a special place in his heart for “The Lorax.” (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Since then, there has certainly been some momentum in the right direction, but climate change has only grown as a problem, and other pressing environmental issues, including plastic waste, have gotten worse.

And, yet, there is still hope that the Lorax will be heard.

The book remains, to this day, an environmental classic. And while numerous other books explain the need for action to children, none has penetrated the cultural bloodstream like “The Lorax.”

For instance, in 2015, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron named “The Lorax” his all-time favorite children’s book. He described the volume as “funny, moving, creative and with a powerful message … The big picture is simple: If we spoil the environment, through pointless consumption and a disregard for how we produce things, we not only damage other creatures, we wreck our own lives and prospects and those of our children.”

Last year, a three-judge panel for the federal 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., referenced the book in an opinion. The court criticized the U.S. Forest Service for providing a special-use permit that allowed a pipeline to cross through two national forests. In reversing that decision, Judge Stephanie Thacker wrote in a unanimous ruling that the Forest Service acted inappropriately because, in part, it should have been trusted to “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.”

Of course, not everybody has embraced the message of “The Lorax.” It was banned at one point by a California school district and members of the timber industry once underwrote a book called “The Truax” that featured a tree-cutting protagonist, according to USA Today.

For those adults who shun “The Lorax,” new research shows why getting the book into the hands of students may be more essential than ever for environmental causes.

Last month, a North Carolina State University team of social scientists and ecologists released a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, indicating that children are extremely effective at increasing their parents’ level of concern about global warming. The data showed that parents “really do care what their children think, even on socially charged issues like climate change or sexual orientation,” Scientific American reported. The paper found that fathers and parents with conservative leanings were particularly affected by their children’s position on climate change. Daughters were also better than sons at changing their parents’ views.

“This model of intergenerational learning provides a dual benefit,” the study’s lead author Danielle Lawson told Scientific American. “[It prepares] kids for the future since they’re going to deal with the brunt of climate change’s impact. And it empowers them to help make a difference on the issue now by providing them a structure to have conversations with older generations to bring us together to work on climate change.”

Research shows that children — particularly daughters — can have a meaningful impact on their parents’ climate change views. (Photo credit: Pixabay)

Knowing the impact that children can have is only valuable if kids are inspired to engage their parents on the topic.

Enter the Lorax.

While the North Carolina State report looked at 10-to-14-year-olds, having kids engage with these issues earlier via “The Lorax,” which is marketed for 4-to 9-year-olds, is vital. Kids can become familiar with environmental dangers in a less-threatening fictional way, and then graduate to immersing themselves in the real-world evidence. By the time they are ready to talk to their parents about climate action, they will be armed with the emotion of “The Lorax” and the facts of the environmental problems confronting both theirs and their parents’ generations.

If the Lorax cannot speak for today’s kids, let’s hope they will speak for themselves, with a little help from Dr. Seuss.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done.

Josh Chetwynd

Written by

Communications for The Public Interest Network, Environment America and U.S. PIRG; book author: ; avid curler/ex-baseball player

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done.

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