The Lorax: environmental warning still valuable after 50 years

Someone reading The Lorax-- 50th anniversary

B Rosen via Flickr

On April 22, 1970, Earth Day kicked off the environmental movement. The following year, Dr. Seuss published The Lorax. It featured the familiar whimsical drawings and rhymes, but in place of the usual humor, Dr. Seuss served up a dire warning about pollution and environmental degradation. 

Fifty years later, the book’s warning about environmental issues still stands. In many ways, the environment is in much better shape than it was before all the environmental legislation that came out of Earth Day. Unfortunately, deforestation continues its destructive course. Water pollution still kills fish. Small particulate matter in the air kills people all over the world. And air pollution contributes to global warming. 

How Dr Seuss came to write The Lorax

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, appreciated Earth Day and its emphasis on environmental issues. But he considered the rhetoric too “preachy and bossy.” After all, no one likes to be scolded.

Geisel’s studio in La Jolla, California gave him a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean, framed by towering eucalyptus trees. When developers wanted to chop the trees down to build a housing development, Geisel led the opposition to it. His group managed to save the trees. 

His campaign to save trees in La Jolla gave him the idea to express the environmental message for children, his favorite audience. (He once commented, “Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.”)

Writer’s block kept him from working on it until his wife suggested they go visit the Mount Kenya Safari Club. The sight of elephants in the mountains inspired him, and he finished most of The Lorax that same afternoon.

How much did Kenya influence Dr. Seuss’ drawings?

Patas monkey. the Lorax 50th anniversary
Patas monkey / David Ellis via Flickr

When Geisel saw the trees on Kenya’s Laikipia plateau, they looked like his own drawings of trees. He exclaimed, “Look at that tree. They have stolen my trees.” He surely would have also seen patas monkeys.

Patas monkeys depend on the whistling thorn acacia tree for about 83% of their diet, specifically acacia gum. Yet the monkeys don’t harm the trees at all. It’s a kind of ecological interaction called commensalism. 

The Lorax looks like a patas monkey. Its voice also sounds like a patas monkey. But it also looks like an orange biped in Seuss’ earlier The Foot Book. Geisel never said anything about the inspiration for his creatures. 

Nathaniel J. Dominy of Dartmouth University’s Department of Anthropology and Biological Sciences led a team that compared the Lorax with this earlier character and various monkeys. Using facial recognition software, they found that the Lorax more closely resembles two species of monkeys than any Seussian character: the blue monkey and the patas monkey. The software never connected it with any other species.

Geisel saw the patas monkey in Kenya, but not the blue monkey. It certainly appears that the patas monkey and the whistling thorn acacia directly inspired the appearance of Lorax and the Trufulla trees in the book, consciously or otherwise. 

The story of The Lorax

The story is told by the Once-ler to the reader, but we never see anything more than his green arms.

He chopped down one tree to knit a Thneed when the Lorax appeared for the first time to defend the trees. He popped out of the trunk of the dead Truffula. The Once-ler replied, “A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!”

Soon, there were not enough Truffula Fruits to feed the Brown Bar-ba-loots, so the Lorax had to send them away. Because of all the smog, the Swomee-Swans could no longer sing, so the Lorax had to send them away. The factory waste, Gluppity-Glup and Schloppity-Schlop, polluted the water. The Humming-Fish could no longer hum, so the Lorax had to send them away. 

The Lorax / Dr. Seuss

The Once-ler angrily told the Lorax that he intended to keep “turning Truffula Trees into Thneeds, which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs!” 

But right then, one of his machines chopped down the very last Truffula Tree. The Once-ler’s factory went out of business. The Lorax sadly “lifted himself by the seat of his pants” and left the Once-ler all alone. He left behind a sign that said, “UNLESS,” and the Once-ler had no idea what it meant. 

Years later, however, now that he had someone to tell the story to, he finally understood: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Then he throws down the last remaining Truffula seed to the reader, saying, “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds, and Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.”

The book, as gloomy as it is, therefore ends on a note of hope. A new Truffula forest might attract the Lorax and the other creatures back to the area.

The meaning of The Lorax

The Lorax on a placard. The Lorax 50th anniversary

Placard showing to Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, at the People’s Climate March 2017 in Washington DC. (cropped) / Wikimedia Commons

The Lorax describes a succession of species disappearing as a result of the disappearance of the trees. Ecologists have since named the phenomenon “trophic cascade.” Removal of one species from an ecosystem distorts the entire ecosystem and results in damage to other species. 

Perhaps the preachiness of so much environmental literature rubbed off on Dr. Seuss in spite of himself. The Lorax addresses the Once-ler with indignant rage. His scolding only makes the Once-ler more determined to build his business. 

Casual reading can give the impression that the Lorax regarded the Trufulla ecosystem as his own possession. On the other hand, he seems to be part of the harmony of the ecosystem and very correctly regards the Once-ler as an invader.

If the Lorax is truly modeled on the patas monkey, he’s no mere eco-policeman. He depends on the Trufulla trees for survival just as much as the Brown Bar-ba-loots do. 

On one level, The Lorax is a warning about the effects of environmental degradation. It also serves as a critique of the brand of capitalism that relies on aggressive advertising to persuade people to buy useless products. 

Controversy over The Lorax

Of all the books Dr. Seuss wrote, he declared The Lorax his favorite. It’s a favorite of teachers and children’s librarians, too. It appeared on top 100 lists of both the National Education Association and the School Library Journal.

But despite its popularity, The Lorax has inspired controversy. Parents in the Laytonville Unified School District in northern California took out a full-page advertisement in the local newspaper in 1989. 

The timber industry dominated the local economy and employed these parents. The last thing they wanted was for their children to join a “save the trees” crusade and oppose logging, spurred on by their second-grade literature. 

Sawmill manager Art Harwood echoed the same concern: 

Our industry is under attack . . . [environmentalists] are trying to hang the ozone and the rainforest on us, and it’s easy to take that Lorax and use it against us, too. It’s stressful on the child when he has to choose between Dr. Seuss and Daddy.

And so at least for a while, Laytonville’s school board banned The Lorax rather than risk having the children consider environmental issues.

The Lorax movie misses the point

The Lorax movie meet and greet area

Taken on February 9, 2012 at The Lorax Meet-And-Greet Area in the Upper Lot at Universal Studios (Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal City, CA) /
Loren Javier via Flickr

Universal Studios created many marketing tie-ins for its 2012 movie The Lorax. After one showing of the movie to elementary school children in Virginia, Mazda executives urged them to persuade their parents to try out a Mazda SUV. And so the studio and its sponsors used a character created as an environmental advocate to market gas guzzlers. 

The movie elicited a scathing review from Jonathan Lack:

Universal’s “The Lorax” is one of the worst children’s films ever made, for it ignores or mocks everything that mattered to Dr. Seuss.  Instead of a serious, down-to-earth fable, it is a broad, pandering comedy, filled wall-to-wall with terrible jokes, endless slapstick, pop culture references, horrifyingly awful musical numbers, and long, complicated car chases. . . 

As in the book, the conflict between the Lorax, voice of the trees, and the Once-ler, who chops down trees to make his popular Thneed products, is told through flashback, but the filmmakers treat this fable not as the focal point of the story, but as an annoying distraction that keeps them from animating car chases back in the present.  Whenever the Once-ler’s story starts getting interesting, we cut back to the present, Ted says something snarky, goes back home, and gets in some zany misadventure before coming back to hear the next part of the tale.

Quite apart from the movie, an article by Mitsubishi kept turning up in my search for sources for this post. They appealed to The Lorax to get people to consider their electric vehicles. 

So by all means read the book. Read it to your children. And make sure they understand the book’s message before you ever let them see the movie!

Shop related products:

Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtle / Philippe Cousteau and Deborah Hopkinson

Earth Ninja: A Children’s Book About Recycling, Reducing, and Reusing / Jelina Stupar

Before and After the First Earth Day, 1970: A History of Environmentalism, Its Successes and Failures, 2d ed / David M. Guion

Dr Seuss and the real Lorax / Nathaniel J. Dominy et al., Nature. July 23, 2018
Five interpretations of The Lorax / Daniel Nasaw and Kate Dailey. BBC News Magazine. March 3, 2012
Review: Wretched “The Lorax” is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood / Jonathan R. Lack, Fade to Lack. March 2, 2012
What about “The Lorax”—controversial banned book / E. Lombardi, A Book Geek. 

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