Lessons from the Lorax

Article excerpt

In the late 1960s, Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) fretted that he had read too many "dull things on conservation, full of statistics and preachy."1 He began work on what has become a classic of children's literature and a standard text for Earth Day ceremonies. The Lorax, published in 1971, received immediate attention. Its original drawings joined moon rocks as focal points at the opening of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library. Since that auspicious beginning, The Lorax has sold around 600,000 copies. Moreover, it has been adapted to video. A cartoon version, complete with catchy tunes, has "far exceeded expectations" of its distributor.2

Despite its continuing success, no one teaching about the environment should use this book as a text without some trepidation. It does raise important questions, but it suggests answers that, despite good intentions, are misleading, perhaps dangerously so. The central truth of this wonderfully written story, that no society can prosper by depleting its stock of renewable resources, is undeniable: The difficulties with the story are twofold: It contains internal contradictions and its prescriptions direct attention away from alternatives that can actually achieve the stated goals. The latter failure is due to a common view that people, not incentives, must be changed if we are to avoid the fate depicted in the tale.

Before addressing the content of each of our assertions we review the story and follow up with an interpretation that calls into question its internal consistency. Finally we offer a view of how free markets tend to avoid the tragedy depicted (and implicitly laid at the foot of free markets).

Summary: The Lorax - Who he was and why he left

As the story begins a young boy goes to the far end of town to hear the Lorax's story. There a grumpy old man, the Once-ler, living in a run down store, agrees to relate the story, but only if paid fifteen cents. It all began, the Once-ler reports, back when the land was wild and clean. Birds (Swomee-Swans), Bears (Bar-ba-loots), and Humming-fish played. Beautiful Truffula Trees, bearing colorful tufts, grew in profusion. The Once-ler rode into this paradise on a horse-drawn carriage and immediately proceeded to cut down a Truffula Tree and knit its tuft into a "thneed."

After knitting the first thneed, the Once-ler was accosted by the Lorax, a short, old, "mossy" man-thing. This creature, the Lorax, claimed to speak for the trees, demanding to know "What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"

Unfortunately for the Lorax and the trees, thneeds sold extremely well. The Once-ler's business grew so fast that he soon called on his family to help. Before long, Once-lers were building factories and cutting down trees as fast as possible, developing a complicated technical apparatus for cutting, assembling, and shipping the ever-popular thneeds.

In the midst of this prosperity, the Lorax reappeared, bringing bad news. The Bar-ba-loots, who eat Truffula fruit, did not have enough trees left. They were being forced to leave. The Once-ler sympathized, if only briefly, but dismisses the Lorax's concern with the refrain, "... business is business! And business must grow ...."

The business did grow. In doing so, it polluted the air and poisons the water. The Lorax again denounced the Once-ler, but the Once-ler was not contrite: "Well, I have my rights, sir, and I'm telling jou/I intend to go on doing just what I do!" At precisely the moment the Once-ler offered this defiant retort, the last Truffula Tree falls. The Once-ler is out of business, and the Lorax floated away in disgust.

The story closes with the young boy listening to the Once-ler tell his story. The Once-ler tells the boy that only changed hearts can save the Truffula trees: "UNLESS someone like you/cares a whole awful lot/nothing is going to get better. /It's not." With this entreaty, the Once-ler gives the boy the last remaining Truffula seed. …