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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Equitable Environmentalism

“The Lorax,” by Doctor Seuss, is a less appreciated work by the author more known for “Cat in the Hat” and the like. But the message in this book about protecting the environment is not so preachy that it doesn’t acknowledge the value of commerce and capitalism in the form of the “antagonist” character, the Once-ler. Even the energy crises we experienced as early as the 70s were foreseen in a sense by the children’s book that speaks about over harvesting fictional trees for a fictional product. Unlike the recent film adaptation, which was preceded by commercials advertising products like cars and waffles associated with the short furry orange main character, the book is simple in its message and doesn’t complicate things with a stock corporate shark antagonist to put the Once-ler in a median position, which isn’t necessary when you consider the whole of the book has the Once-ler speaking in hindsight about his mistake. The message of the book remains important even today with potential new issues, like the limited stock of oil we have, including those veins we haven’t found or harvested yet. In the context of the book, it spoke about our need to be considerate about the environment and taking care not to abuse our relationship with it. If we are expected in any perspective, religious or otherwise, to be stewards of the earth, then it behooves us to not take it for granted and be conscious of our effects upon it. This is not limited to corporate investments that involve nature directly with deforestation or potential pollution through new methods of obtaining coal or oil. The influence of introducing new species into ecosystems unfamiliar with them is also a problem we’ve experienced with kudzu, for just one example. But no one should try to present “The Lorax” as a gloom and doom sort of environmentalism where we are condemned for even trying to utilize nature in new and novel ways that can benefit the human race, as well as all living things in one way or another. There’s research into plants from the Amazon rainforest that could potentially aid in discovering cures for diseases. Environmental consciousness and consideration are not incompatible with industry and development in a free market capitalist system such as ours.

First off, we should talk about the Lorax himself. In the book, he speaks to the Once-ler about how his progressive industrialization and over harvesting of the Truffula trees, from which he makes a Thneed, an all purpose item developed from the tufts of the tree, is a potential problem. At first, it’s harmless enough, but as his family comes in to help him make bigger factories to mass produce the Thneeds, smog makes it difficult for birds in the area to fly and sludge in the water makes it hard on the fish. And cutting down so many trees creates a food shortage of sorts for the local wildlife. Each of these members of the ecosystem is progressively guided out of the area to a new place somewhere else by the Lorax. Eventually, every Truffula tree has been cut down and the Lorax leaves, despondent and disappointed at the rampant greed that came about from the Once-ler’s desire to increase profits. He literally pulls himself by the proverbial seat of his pants and floating into the sky, never to be seen again. There is a stone left behind with a single word carved into it, “unless”, which I’ll talk about soon. At first glance, this does strike people as a bit too preachy in trying to save the trees and the environment. But the Lorax is merely doing what comes naturally to him, being a sort of manifestation of nature given a voice. Nature admittedly doesn’t always consider human ambitions and even those that are moderated by a conscientious effort to preserve and sustain the greatness of the trees, the sky and the water. There is a strong retort by the Once-ler that I’ll speak about post haste, but I don’t want to seem as if I’m picking sides here. Both perspectives are valid here, but both perspectives can only be so in moderation of each other. The Lorax as depicted in the movie, from what I understand, is a bit more forceful and even tries to put the Once-ler in the middle of a lake to sabotage any further attempts to cut down the Truffula. In this sense, the Lorax is out of character from what he was in the book. He didn’t directly intervene, he merely advises the Once-ler to think about what he’s doing.  To become a vigilante environmentalist is to play into the stereotype and send the wrong message to people who might otherwise understand.

The Once-ler represents capitalism and industry in one form or another and thus is portrayed in an initially negative light. He wants to help people at first and, in spite of the Lorax’s skepticism that his product will be popular, it is. This drives him to expand his horizons and make more of them than before. Of course, this sort of practice starts to affect the ecosystem and the animals in it, but the Once-ler doesn’t care, or at the very least, is focusing on profits over process. He does argue in the book that he has a right to start a business and advance his capital as well, but this is not so simple when the business involves the use of resources that are renewable in a limited capacity. Trees don’t renew themselves so quickly, especially with human technology that can cut them down much faster than they can recover. If he exercised some restraint and harvested the trees in a sustainable manner, which he tries to do in the recent film, it might not have been difficult to maintain coexistence with the Lorax. But either through pressure from his family, as in the film, or general desire for more gains in relation to his entrepreneurial goals, the Once-ler ignores the call for self control and continues to expand the business. Eventually, every tree has been cut down and the business collapses, the factory left empty and the Once-ler without any resources. The Lorax leaves and the Once-ler secludes himself at the top of a tower where he contemplates the error of his ways. And he tells the child that asked him about the Lorax and the Truffula trees that the significance of the word carved into the stone left by the Lorax, “unless” relates to the child and their responsibility to take the last Truffula seed, plant it, and keep it safe. As said in the book, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not,”

The book’s call for responsibility and vigilance for any potential risk we might pose in our almost natural tendency towards excess that could threaten nature’s balance is something still very important today, especially as our capacity for destruction has grown. In just over 50 years since “The Lorax” was published, we’ve seen and investigated what we observed and have found that there is some blame we should take in our craving for more than we need and how that affects the only planet we have any chance of surviving on with things as they are in space travel. I don’t want to sound like that stereotypical environmentalist who wants us to sacrifice all the progress we’ve made to save the planet. Earth Day affected me in my desire to be good to the planet, as did Arbor Day, which I’m guilty of not seriously practicing in planting a tree, but the sentiments behind these special days and those that are taught in school even today, I imagine, still remain with me and my desire to both advance humanity and not sacrifice our bond to nature that we still share, separated as we tend to be from it especially these days. We can still develop technology, stimulate our global economy and also preserve the beauty of nature at the same time. The only explicit conflict that would exist is a belief that this world is going to be remade after some sort of end times. If you believe that, why even bother saving the world, since God will just fix everything after the fact? There’s no evidence and no reason to think that our planet and this world is anything more than finite, and that should be motivation enough to keep it from plummeting into disaster any further. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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