Being a tad under the weather in unusual Portland weather (the “snowpocalypse” is here), I’ve been more-or-less housebound for a few days. Idle hands led to searching for ways to keep my brain occupied, and the most logical way to do so (apparently) was the mostly-unproductive pastime of watching the old cartoons based off of Dr. Seuss books. The good ones. You know, the ones that he actually wrote the teleplays for, and so they actually are true to the spirit of the books. It’s really nice to see something from my childhood that I still think is really cleverly made. For one thing, the artists/art directors did a

Our friendly friend the Lorax at the Dr. Seuss Memorial in MA

Our friendly friend the Lorax at the Dr. Seuss Memorial in MA

fantastic job making Seuss’ winsome illustrations move (the machines in The Sneetches are particularly great, as are the Grinch’s myriad ways of stealing holiday ornaments in his famous robbery of Christmas). The lyrics to the songs, usually written by Seuss himself, are fun. And the stories, well, we know they’re good.

But really, I’m here to talk about our good friend, the Lorax. I’m assuming you grew up with the tale too, and if you didn’t, get ye to a children’s bookstore. Watching the movie again reminded me just why I’ve always loved The Lorax so much. It may seem like a simplistic environmental cautionary tale (not that there’s anything wrong with simplistic environmental cautionary tales), but it’s got so much going for it in terms of social commentary that even extends beyond the now-popular reading of Truffula trees as fossil fuel. Really, The Lorax teaches us the danger of single-mindedness, of thinking with one variable. Our culture suffered from this when Seuss first wrote the book in 1971, and we suffer from it now. And, to use the Lorax’s favorite word, unless we broaden our brains and get creative, we’re in trouble.

“But, Steph,” you may protest, “The Lorax is explicitly an environmental story!” And you’d be right: Seuss has said that he wrote the book out of frustration with the increasing development of the San Diego Coastline. He claimed that The Lorax was “one of the few things [he] ever set out to do that was straight propaganda” (in Judith Morgan, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel pg. 209) (I’m actually very puzzled by this quote of his. He published Yertle the Turtle and The Sneetches before it; how are those not propaganda of some sort?).

Still, even with an explaination from Mr. Geisel himself, I think it does a disservice to the book to simply say that the central message here is “Don’t chop down trees!” So many gray areas surround the idea of “progress” in American culture; Seuss knew this and recognized it. Despite being the “bad guy” the Once-ler is actually fairly sympathetic; he’s more tragic and misguided than evil. This becomes even clearer in his screenplay: the Once-ler speaks like one of the great capitalists of yore, a Henry Ford or a Rockefeller. In a scene not in the book, fans of the Once-ler surround him, singing of how he had risen above his humble origins through his industry and good fortune. He’s lived the American Dream, but at what cost?

Indeed, in The Lorax, why does the American Dream fail so terribly? Why does everything slip through the Once-ler’s fingers? Is it just because he chopped down a bunch of trees? Yes and no. It’s because he single-mindedly focused on “biggering.” All other aspects of his business plan–the resources, the environment, the product itself–get lost in the biggering.

Our way of doing things tends to focus on a single variable: money. How can we do this most efficiently? How can we save labor costs? But if you look at any situation through the tiny lens of a single variable you get terribly skewed results, results we cannot sustain. For example, from a monetary perspective, it makes perfect sense to feed cows and sheep discarded parts of their dead comrades; it’s an efficient way of dealing with the waste. You don’t have to pay to get rid of it, and you don’t have to pay for extra feed. The problem is, of course, that if you do that you’re ignoring the health of the cow (if you don’t care about the health of the cow, then please consider the health of the people who eat the cow.). Cows are herbivores, first and foremost, and also science has taught us that feeding something the tissue of another member of its species produces corrupt proteins known as prions. Viola! Mad Cow Disease! You cannot predict Mad Cow by merely considering monetary growth. From a monetary growth perspective, there’s nothing wrong with this practice, but in reality you have to deal with environmental issues, issues of sustainability. Mad Cow disease was a reality check, a dangerous wake-up call from nature saying, “You can’t keep this up! You can’t cheat reality just to make a buck! It’s going to catch up with you!” Like the Once-ler, we seem to feel that our reality check, if it’s coming, has such a delayed arrival that it shouldn’t bother us.

The Lorax may claim to simply be speaking for the trees, but he’s actually got a better grasp on the big picture than the Once-ler. Contrary to popular belief, the Lorax is not single-minded. While the Once-ler sees dollar signs, the Lorax sees how the truffula trees fuel the ecosystem of the area. They sustain the birds, the bar-ba-loots, the fish. They make it a pleasant place to live. Furthermore, he sees Though the Once-ler’s crafty marketing claims that everyone needs a thneed, a thneed, we soon realize, is useless without a high standard of living to enjoy it in. A thneed is not a basic need, but truffula trees are, if only in the sense that they served as an anchor to the area.

One of my favorite additions to tv-version of The Lorax is the Once-ler’s clever marketing ploy to sell his first thneed. He places a sign by the roadside which declares, “Last Chance to buy a thneed for 100 miles.” At this point, no one really knows what a thneed is, but the shrewd wording entices the passersby. After all, a thneed must be important if you have to worry about not being able to buy one for 100 miles! The Once-ler has created an instant market niche for his product; he seems to be a crafty entrepreneur. The praise lavished on him throughout the film-let reminds me of how we tend to allow “but it’s profitable” as a reasonable excuse for most anything in our culture. It’s okay to have degrading advertising if it works (no need to think about what this advertising says about our culture); it’s okay to use non-sustainable agriculture because we need to make a profit off of food. And, really, I don’t want to sound like I’m criticizing people for wanting to make money–that’s fair. But don’t just make money–think about the big picture. When we get single-minded about money, we forget that we only have one earth that is fragile and bound by biological pathways. We forget that people are human beings with lives, families, health, and basic needs. In other words, we forget all the variables which make our businesses ethical and sustainable.

This is why the name “Once-ler” has so much power. Not only does he think with the number “one,” look out for number “one,” and only use materials that can be used “once,” but also he ultimately finds himself reduced to living in “once upon a time.” His glory days have passed and will stay in the past. As the Once-ler learns, what good is his money when his unsustainable business practices lead to a world which is so dirty, polluted, and lonely that he cannot enjoy it? I’m reminded of Phoney Bone in Jeff Smith’s charming comic/graphic novel series Bone, who is dismayed to learn that his hard-earned currency, the money that he was willing to get himself kicked out of his own home-town to get, is worth nothing in a village where people barter goods. Once the richest man in town, he is now a pauper, forced to wash dishes to pay for his meals. I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir here, but it’s worth remembering that money is only helpful if you can use it. To me, this makes it a rather suspicious variable to focus on at the cost of all others.

I love The Lorax because we live in a culture that spends way too much time once-lering. Our medical supplies are crafted in China, shipped to Mexico, and are assembled there before arriving at their final destination in the US (air travel pollution, aside, what are we going to do if we get cut off from the rest of the world for whatever reason?) because the cost of labor is cheaper. We tire out the soil using huge monoculture plots and feed livestock growth hormones (why is it a good idea to throw about willy-nilly the chemical regulators that control everything from the way we digest food, to our development, to our sex drive?). I’m tempted to take the metaphor out of the environmental and into the artistic (after all, a lot of times record companies and book publisher will only publish which record or text they think will make them an easy buck instead of looking at quality), but for simplicity’s, and my poor, sick brain’s sake, I’ll leave it at that.

If Seuss were alive today, he’d be amazed. When he wrote The Lorax, the environmental movement was just beginning to materialize beyond twinkles in activist eyes. The book was actually banned in a school district in California, and dismissed by many as being unnecessarily preachy. Now, green is in, as anyone will tell you. You can even buy green movement tote bags at Target. But being green is not simple. Being green is not “don’t cut down trees.” Being green is being sustainable, and being sustainable is thinking about what you’re doing. Being sustainable is accepting that what you’re doing may only start to pay off in the long-term. But UNLESS we start thinking of the long term, we’re as good as “once.”

So go out and plant a truffula, mes amis!

*I apologize in advance for any extra-rambliness this post may contain. My brain is, as I mentioned at the beginning, currently full of snot.