Rethinking ‘The Lorax’

By Bill Bigelow

On March 2nd, Universal Pictures is releasing the 3-D animated film, The Lorax, based on Dr. Seuss’s classic “environmental” book of the same name. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) recently sent out a “Save the Lorax” alert about the incredibly inappropriate marketing partnerships timed to coincide with the release of the film.

Despite the book’s lament about environmental ruin, CCFC reports that corporations are rushing to link their products with the film. For example, the Mazda CX-5 SUV now sports the “Truffula Seal of Approval.” IHOP child menus will offer choices such as Rooty Tooty Bar-Ba-Looty Blueberry Cone Cakes and Truffula Chip Pancakes. And companies like Comcast Xfinity TV, Target, IHOP, and HP will feature online Lorax games and sweepstakes for kids. Save the earth, kids: Buy more stuff!

As CCFC points out, the corporate rush to tie products to a book with a non-consumerist message is “cynical and hypocritical.”

But at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old so-and-so, let me also point out that The Lorax is not without its problems. For example, the book reduces the causes of environmental ruin to individual greed, which does not help children think clearly about the roots of today’s ecological crises. This narrow single-greedy-bad-guy focus does not help readers think about the much scarier prospect of an entire society organized around the quest for profit. And the chief environmental exploiter, the Once-ler, hires all his brothers, uncles, and aunts as workers, which makes it appear that the interests of workers and owners are identical, and that they are all inherently part of the problem. Again, this is not a helpful message for children. Instead of allowing his Swomee-Swans and the Bar-ba-loots to fight for themselves and for their environment, the only opposition comes from the Lorax—who advocates for, but actually disempowers other creatures by sending them off. Finally, in the end, the Once-ler repents, suggesting that there is hope for today’s rapacious Once-lers of the world—if only we can make them see the light.

These problems notwithstanding — or perhaps because of them — The Lorax makes a fine teaching resource. At the Zinn Education Project website, we’ve posted an article of mine that Rethinking Schools published in the early 90s, The Lorax: Revisited and Revised,” and which was reprinted in our 1995 book Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change.  In the article, I describe using The Lorax with an after-school class I taught for several years, Literature and Social Change. Students critiqued the book in class and then re-wrote it, in an attempt to re-imagine how we might present environmental problems and their possible solutions. The article also includes excerpts from a delightful and astute “alternative” Lorax, written by students Holly Allen, David Berkson, and Becky Willner — all of whom, many years later, are still doing important social justice work.

Stories like The Lorax are valuable resources to help children develop a critical literacy. Being able to evaluate both the strengths and the weaknesses of a piece of literature—or a political position, or a law, or almost anything else—is an important academic and life skill. And our students are going to need those skills in a world filled with IHOP Truffula Chip pancakes.

Related Resources

 Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, edited by Elizabeth Marshall and Özlem Sensoy. This anthology includes outstanding articles by elementary and secondary public school teachers, scholars, and activists who examine how and what popular toys, books, films, music, and other media “teach.” The essays offer strong conceptual critiques and practical pedagogical strategies for educators at every level to engage with the popular.

Cover, Rethinking Schools volume 23 issue 4 Rethinking Schools Special issue: Teaching for Environmental Justice, Volume 23 Issue 4 — Summer 2009

8 thoughts on “Rethinking ‘The Lorax’

  1. Great post, Bill. I always taught the Lorax, and I am dismayed to see that it has been co-opted by corporatye America. As usual, you made me look at how I taught in a different light. I do think though that exploring the human role is our environmental crisis is right. I think we all share in it, though definitely by varying degrees.

  2. Hey Bill,
    I’m a big fan of Rethinking Schools, but I’m going to push back on this post. This is actually the second time I’m offering a rethinking of a Rethinking article–because I think it’s important in critical discourse to emphasize the ability to have several different readings of a text simultaneously, not just one critical one that insists that the “problems” or “weaknesses” it reads into a text are unarguably there in the text, rather than in the interpretation of it. Also, the Lorax is one of my favorite books of all time, so I feel compelled to offer some defense. I speak for the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
    I hope you appreciate this rethinking and don’t take it personally, because I think it opens up a richer space for critical discussion. I certainly am trying to offer it with the most positive intentions!

    So, in rethinking the rethinking:

    1. I don’t think the conclusion that the Lorax “reduces the causes of environmental ruin to individual greed” is the only way to read this book. The Lorax does call the Once-ler “greedy,” but on the other hand, the Once-ler insists early on–not entirely without merit, considering what he has created–that he is “being quite useful.” His one Thneed can simultaneously function as a shirt, a sock, a glove, a hat, a carpet, a pillow, a sheet, a curtain, AND a bicycle seat cover. If Truffula trees could be harvested sustainably–as is done with bamboo (with quite a bit of environmentalist fanfare) to construct everything from bicycles to hardwood floors–this invention could conceivably supplant many destructive industrial processes in the modern world. The problem in the Lorax, as we might then read it, is about the manner in which the Once-ler assumes his “business must grow.” In terms of the environmental destruction detailed in the book, we might see the greed as being a secondary problem to the embedded assumptions about industrial development, and the fact that the Once-ler never thinks to question them.

    And what sets the Once-ler off on his industrial rampage? A consumer comes along and buys the Thneed right away! One can thus easily read this another way: the capitalist system, and consumer demand, drive this environmental destruction. (I love your point about the irony of the Lorax being used to cross-market with the Mazda SUV). The Once-ler can be seen as a typical enterprising entrepreneur working within an economic system that puts no inherent value on preserving natural resources (think: McKibben’s Deep Economy). 
    I find it hard to even support the “narrow single-greedy-bad-guy focus” interpretation, considering that the entire Once-ler family gets involved right away, and presumably many others as the Once-ler “biggers” his factory and increases his loads.  The image of the factory and the trucks driving “to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North!” seems to perfectly illustrate (literally) the point you are making about systemic issues in capitalist environmental destruction. In fact, the text on that page strongly supports your point as well. Rather than a greedy bad guy, the Once-ler insists that he “meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.” This seems a clear reference to the expansionist market forces of capitalism and their pernicious influence on individual amoral decision-making within the system. 

    And there is, I think, a very important point being made quite cleverly by Geisel in the contrasting the Once-ler’s initial pitch of a “wonderful chance for the whole Once-ler Family to get mighty rich” with his later explanation that “I biggered my money, which everyone needs.” There are several layers working here:
    a) “which everyone needs” obviously is a clever allusion to the slogan of the Once-ler’s Thneed company, and thus is to be suspected as a false and self-serving marketing statement, and b) is something wealthy people say to justify their pursuit of wealth (“gotta pay the mortgage,” which Geisel can be interpreted as asking us to question) but c) is also a true statement for all of us inside of capitalism, as we are forced to need money, and d) is an internal concern that actually does drive even wealthy people, as they are made to feel insecure about having enough money to cover the expanding costs of their high-class lifestyle (think: Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities).

    2. I also don’t think that the conclusion that the Lorax “makes it appear that the interests of workers and owners are identical, and that they are all inherently part of the problem” is the only way to read the book. While the Once-ler only makes reference to the initial recruiting of his family members, a close reading does not suggest that these are the only workers in the company. Also, family-run businesses are not unusual, so the early arrival of the Once-ler’s family members in the business need not be taken to mean anything in terms of what The Lorax is representing about labor and class relations (the second result in a Google search gave me this from a Business Week article: “from University of Southern Maine’s Institute for Family-Owned Business: Some 35% of Fortune 500 companies are family-controlled. Family businesses account for 50% of U.S. gross domestic product. They generate 60% of the country’s employment and 78% of all new job creation.” http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/feb2006/sb20060210_476491.htm).  In fact, the very absence of any reference by the Once-ler to the other workers that presumably must be hired as his business expands can be read as a statement by Geisel about how industrial owners don’t consider the interests of their workers in their singleminded focus on the business (if one chooses to read it that way). 
    Also, I would argue that workers in clear-cutting or other environmentally devastating businesses are inherently responsible, and I would agree with Geisel’s message that we all must take individual responsibility. If the Swomee-Swans and the Bar-ba-loots are expected to take up the struggle against the Once-ler, why not the workers in the factory?

    3. Speaking of which, the point about the Swomee-Swans and the Bar-ba-loots just seems a little silly to me. The Bar-ba-loots look like bears or dogs, and the Swomee-Swans look like birds. There’s no indication that they can talk, or that they are supposed to allegorically represent anything more than animals driven out of habitats. Are we supposed to organize animals in resistance to environmental destruction? It might be an inspired idea, but it’s hardly worth criticizing Geisel for not advocating this position. Who knows what the Lorax is, but he has a mustache, stands on two legs, and talks, so he has clearly been humanized, unlike the others. While you may have preferred that Geisel write an inspiring book about environmental organizing, he chose instead to write a cautionary tale about environmental destruction, and it is a great and beloved one. I don’t think this creative decision really merits criticism.

    Not only that, if you want to, you can read the Lorax in such a way as to see Geisel in support of your objection. The Lorax’s strategy of resistance is clearly unsuccessful, so it isn’t as if Geisel is holding him up as a beacon of great organizing strategy. We can just as well read it as a cautionary tale about ineffective organizing. Then what you read as a paternalistic strategy to protect the animals this isn’t a “problem” with the book, but a virtue, because Geisel clearly shows this doesn’t work.

    4. Reflecting on the final point that the Once-ler’s repentance suggests that “there is hope for today’s rapacious Once-lers of the world,” I offer a few observations: 1. The Once-ler’s situation at the time in which he is telling his story is hardly hopeful; 2. While the Once-ler has taken responsibility for his role in the environmental destruction, he is hardly portrayed as a redeemed hero in the book (he “lurks in his Lerkim,” “grunts” when he talks, with “his teeth sounding gray,” charges money to tell his story, and even “makes a most careful count to see if you’ve paid him the proper amount,” in a miserly way); 3. The Once-ler does nothing to save the day, giving that responsibility–with the seed–over to a young person, which I think is a great message; and, finally, 4. The other Seussian character to which the Once-ler bears most resemblance (though we never see Once-ler’s full visage), is the Grinch, who similarly repents, and is redeemed to a much greater extent. One would surely have to be a “grumpy so-and-so” to object to the Grinch’s transformation! When I watch his heart grow two sizes too big in the animated version, it almost brings tears to my eyes! This recurring theme of redemption in Geisel’s work is powerful–especially for children, who ought to be encouraged to acknowledge their errors and learn from them–and I disagree that it is worthy of criticism. If we commit to unrelenting scorn for all those responsible for the unethical activities of capitalism, even those that repent, we don’t make a very welcoming environment to encourage people to acknowledge their responsibility, change their ways, and join the cause of liberation. 
    I say there IS hope for today’s rapacious Once-lers of the world! What good does it do us to write them off entirely? I prefer to try to follow the example of Dr. King, who said he made it a custom to preach at least once a year on Jesus’s lesson of “Loving Your Enemies” (http://www.mlkonline.net/enemies.html):

    We can hear another choir singing:
    In Christ there is no East or West.
    In Him no North or South,
    But one great Fellowship of Love
    Throughout the whole wide world.

    And our civilization must discover that. Individuals must discover that as they deal with other individuals. There is a little tree planted on a little hill and on that tree hangs the most influential character that ever came in this world. But never feel that that tree is a meaningless drama that took place on the stages of history. Oh no, it is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity, and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is the only way. It is an eternal reminder to a generation depending on nuclear and atomic energy, a generation depending on physical violence, that love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.

    So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the university of eternal life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

    Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems—the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race problem—let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.

  3. I’d be curious to know what guiding questions you use to get the discussion started on critiquing the Lorax.

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