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  • Writer's pictureKate Marsh

Contemporary Review of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax

Despite being published 50 years ago, The Lorax’s message to protect the environment from capitalist greed reads as a contemporary tale, proving how this work of children’s fiction was ahead of its time when first published in 1971

The plot of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss follows the life of the Once-ler who becomes successful selling ‘thneeds’ from truffula trees but fails to heed the warning from the mythical Lorax to make his business more sustainable, consequently causing the destruction of an environmental 'Eden'.

In the process, habitats are destroyed, animals are endangered and natural resources

are polluted; an all too familiar vision of the fast-fashion industry’s impact on the environment today.

However, despite the inevitable sense of doom conjured up by the apocalyptic landscape the Once-ler now resides in, the narrative finishes with an opportunity

of redemption.

Through conversing with the next generation, the Once-ler finally seems to understand the wisdom the Lorax was trying to impart on him, giving the last remaining truffula seed to a young boy to plant and protect; leaving the reader with the promise

that the colourful 'Eden' Seuss conjured up in our imagination could one day be restored.

Nevertheless, although this concluding message of hope has been read by many young activists as a call to action, with the Once-ler’s revelation, "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better", upon further analysis it becomes evident that The Lorax may not end as happily as we would like it to.

Reading this children’s book through an adult’s eyes reveals that the Once-ler never truly redeems himself and the narrative’s focus on children as a cure to the climate crisis is problematic.

Seuss was inspired to write The Lorax after the forest he could see from his studio's window came under threat by a logging company.

Deforestation is the central action of the narrative as we watch the Once-ler’s felling of one tree turn into the decimation of an entire species of trees due to the incessant "biggering" and "biggering" of his business.

The Once-ler is so blind to the destruction he causes that he only registers the message of the Lorax (who "speaks for the trees") years later in his conversation with a young boy; not when the Lorax is standing in front of him and the last tree is being chopped down before his eyes.

The Once-ler then seemingly redeems himself by passing on the Lorax’s message to protect the environment onto the next generation and providing the boy with the means to do so.

Certainly, there is a poetic beauty in the narrative's circular nature, beginning with the decimation of one tree but ending with the possibility contained in one seed. However, although this redemption arc is tempting to buy into, one must question whether this antagonist ever changes at all.

Years on from his time at the height of industry, the Once-ler seems unable to forgo old patterns. For example, instead of shouting lessons learned from the rooftops, free for all to hear, he demands payment of "fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great great

great grandfather snail" from the young boy who seeks him out to listen to his story.

The exchange demonstrates that the Once-ler still cannot see the importance of the greater good beyond buying and selling whilst his choice of currency emphasises a commitment to the same frivolity which fuelled the creation and marketing of the useless ‘thneeds’.

Furthermore, we are told that the Once-ler still makes clothes from ‘miff-muffered moof’, suggesting that after depleting his source of trufula trees he has simply moved

onto depleting another raw material.

Additionally, even his greatest revelation is underpinned with a shirking of responsibility, since the declaration "UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot" puts emphasis on anyone but himself to solve the problem that he caused; the same apathetic attitude previously seen in his conversations with the Lorax.

Although he admits feeling sad that his actions have forced the barbaloots from their habitat, he simply replies "business is business".

Hence, although out of context the Once-ler’s revelation is used as a source of inspiration for many environmental activists, reading the famous quotation in context only serves as further evidence of the industrialist’s inability to absorb the Lorax’s message.

Interaction between different generations is one of the key dynamics in The Lorax. The narrative contains three main characters: the "oldish" Lorax, the adult Once-ler who in one instance refers to the Lorax as "dad" and the young boy who seeks the Once-ler out.

The importance of generational interaction reflects the didactic nature of the children’s fiction genre, since stories are often read by a parent to a child, who is in turn expected to carry the lessons learned from reading into their adult life and teach their own children.

Similarly, in the narrative, this dynamic is acted out when the Lorax teaches the Once-ler the importance of protecting the environment who in turn teaches the young boy.

Furthermore, this dynamic is also prevalent in the portrayal of the environmental movement today since Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, two climate crisis stars at opposite ends of the age spectrum, are given the most attention by the media.

However, it is strange that these two generations are so intently focused upon as the protagonists of change when they have the least amount of power. Hence, just like in The Lorax, one could argue that by positioning children as the agents of change in the environmental movement we are placing too much responsibility on young shoulders and failing to place responsibility on those who are in power now.

The argument that we should protect the environment for the next generation does more harm than good since it implies that it is the next generation’s problem, when in reality climate change is a problem in the here and now and should be dealt with as such.

Additionally, children inevitably reach adulthood, so if the responsibility to protect the earth is always centred upon children then we will never reach a position when adults of working age see it as their time to act in pursuit of change.

In The Lorax we are never given the closure of a happy ending, we never get to see if the truffula seed gets its chance to grow, we are only given the hope that it will.

If we’re being realistic, an adult reading the story knows that the chance of a child, in charge of a solitary seed, restoring an entire forest is very slim indeed.

Therefore, one can’t help but wonder how differently The Lorax would have ended if the Once-ler had learned his lesson whilst in a position of power, as a working adult, instead of being provoked into action by a child years later when the damage had already been done.

In conclusion, The Lorax still has many lessons to teach us fifty years on, however it is the adults, the Once-lers, not children, who should heed its warning. The children’s book serves as a reminder for the environmentally conscious to keep putting pressure on industries and not be fooled by sustainable rebranding which gives the appearance of a sinner redeemed.

Additionally, The Lorax demonstrates the importance of taking personal responsibility

for the environment around you and the consequences that occur when you do not.

In the story’s ambiguous ending we are left haunted by what could have happened if only the Once-ler had acted sooner, if only the Once-ler could have concluded "unless someone like ME cares a whole awful lot", instead of placing the burden of his mistakes on the next generation in a classic example of too little, too late.

By Kate Marsh ©

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