Call it fate or an unfortunate coincidence that Dr. Seuss' The Lorax celebrates its 50th anniversary the same week the United Nations releases an urgent report on the dire consequences of human-induced climate change. The conflict between the industrious, polluting Once-ler and the feisty Lorax, who "speaks for the trees," feels more prescient than ever.
"Once-ler!" he cried with a cruffulous croak.
"Once-ler! You're making such smogulous smoke!
My poor Swomee-Swans...why, they can't sing a note!
No one can sing who has smog in his throat.
"He wanted a book that captured the effects of pollution on ecosystems and I would say it was really ahead of its time," says anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Nathaniel Dominy, who teaches at Dartmouth. "The different species disappear from the narrative in succession," he notes. "The Bar-ba-loots leave because they run out of food. The Swomee-Swans leave because the air is polluted. The humming fish leave because the water's polluted. He's describing what we would now call a 'trophic cascade,' and for me, as a scientist, I just find that genius that he anticipated that concept by a decade or more."
While it might be a children's book, The Lorax's ominous message of what happens when you harvest nature to death made it an icon of the environmental movement, spawning movie and stage adaptations not to mention a gazillion school projects.
With its mostly gray, scrappy, barren images, the story stood in sharp contrast to other books by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) such as The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham.
The environmental movement takes root
Geisel began writing The Lorax at a time of growing concern about the environment. Images of an oil-slicked river in Cleveland catching fire in 1969, the first Earth Day in 1970 and other events helped build the movement and put it front and center. According to Geisel biographer Donald Pease, the author believed in the movement but didn't care for its rhetoric. He thought it was "preachy and bossy," says Pease.
Geisel was also furious about construction going on in his La Jolla, Calif., neighborhood. "They were destroying quite beautiful eucalyptus trees, and he wanted to do something about this, and he had to find a way to transform what he understood to be a propaganda-oriented perspective on these matters into a fable that even children could understand." But, Pease explains, "he also was confronted with writer's block."
Inspiration strikes during a trip to Kenya
His wife, Audrey Geisel, suggested they go on a trip to the Mount Kenya Safari Club. While they were there, "he caught a view in the mountains of elephants crossing," says Pease. "He said afterward 'the logjam broke' and he was able to write 90% of The Lorax that afternoon."
"It is built on one of the most beautiful landscapes with a spectacular view of Mount Kenya so I'm not surprised Dr. Seuss was inspired by that," says Wanjira Mathai, vice president and regional director for Africa at The World Resources Institute.
What can happen to that beauty is made vividly clear by the end of the story. The greedy Once-ler ravages the land by chopping down Truffula Trees. He needs them to make his "thneed" garment.
The Lorax is apoplectic.
"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?"
Spoiler alert: the land where once upon a time, "the grass was still green and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean" is destroyed by the Once-ler's insatiable appetite to sell more "thneeds."
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot ..."
The parallels with this week's U.N. climate report are stark. "The report paints a very sobering picture of the unforgiving, unimaginable world we have in store if our addiction to burning fossil fuels and destroying forests continues," says Mathai. She says Dr. Seuss' eco-parable is a "powerful depiction" of this point, despite being written so many years ago. "The Thneed — read fossil fuels — is something 'everyone needs.' And sadly with the Lorax, the damage was done and the environment that was bustling with life, destroyed."
The Lorax ends with a kind of challenge.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing's going to get better.
"He kind of says 'I told you so,' like, I told you this was going to be bad and now it's bad," says Mark Gozonsky, a writer and high school English teacher in Los Angeles whose students have analyzed The Lorax in the context of global warming. Like Mathai, Gozonsky is struck by the parallels with this week's report. "The book ends on a question mark ... 'Well, what are you going to do about it?' And that's the very question mark that we land on today," he says. So many years later scientists are still warning, "You've got ... a couple of years to make a difference ... Time, as we all know, is ticking away."
Finding hope in the last seed left
Mathai still believes it's important to be hopeful. Her mother was a little like the Lorax of Kenya, the very place that so inspired Geisel's story. Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai founded The Green Belt movement, which is credited with planting more than 51 million trees across the country, part of a campaign to end poverty.
"My mother ... always talked about trees as a symbol of hope and so The Lorax in many ways was that and remains that for me. That each of us can be such a potent agent of change. We can be custodians of hope."
Just as she read The Lorax when she was a girl, Mathai reads it to her two daughters today.
"The Once-ler saved that one seed and waited for someone who cared to come along. It will take each of us doing our part to reverse what is coming. The latest report indicates we have even less time to turn things around," she says. Mathai takes heart that "we have a number of 'Loraxes' spreading the word and sounding the alarm."