A child of the 80’s, I grew up on Seuss’s books… absorbing Seuss’s lessons. The amply familiar Horton Hears a Who?, for example, teaches a deep respect for life, no matter how small or different than our own. To this day, (though most find me ridiculous), I can be seen carrying the occasional insect outside in a glass, placing it gently on the porch or in the garden, rather than hearing that dreadful “crunch” under a shoe or paper towel. Killing anything (or causing anything intentional pain), no matter what it may be, has always seemed so terrible to me. This may just be an innate something-I-was-born-with… or maybe we should blame the elephant and his speck of dust.
Seuss’s lessons are abundant. The story of The Sneeches depicts a fight against prejudice and labeling. A more novel idea, that of trying something out before you decide you don’t like it, winds through the pages of Green Eggs N Ham (without this lesson, I’m not sure I’d be aware that I like eel or the misleadingly named “Sweetbreads”). Though rhyming, colorful, elementary and humorous, Seuss’s work has a meaning beyond the fun and folly.
Perhaps the most important Seuss moral of them all, one which shows the foresight of this man beyond his years, is found in The Lorax. My absolute favorite book as a child, I must admit that the tale had become buried in the back of my mind for quite some time. But when the Lorax’s face greeted me on the side of a bus in San Francisco a couple months back, I found myself eager to see the film, the child inside wanting me to be reminded of why the story’d meant so much.
This weekend I made my way to the movies. And with a certain sadness, great excitement and a renewal of certain dreams, I left the theater reenlightened by all The Lorax had taught me years ago… and has taught me, again, now.
At the heart of The Lorax is The Once-ler, a man who, seeking success and purpose in his life, sets out to build a most-remarkable invention. The Once-ler has dreamed up a “Thneed”: a combination cleaning cloth, hat, shirt, scarf thing-a-ma-jig, but has had no way of producing it, unable to find a material that will suit all of his requirements. Until he comes upon a forest of Truffula trees…
The Once-ler is able to recognize, briefly, the beauty of the forest, and he befriends all of its adorable creatures. But when the desire for fame, wealth and success overwhelm him, he cuts down a Truffula tree and uses it’s tuft to create the first Thneed. It is at the destruction of this first Truffula tree that, grief-stricken and angry, The Lorax appears.
“I am The Lorax. I speak for the trees…”.
The Lorax confronts The Once-ler and pleads for the well-being of the forest and its wildlife residents. And this works, briefly. The Once-ler agrees to not cut down any more trees and focuses on the sale of his single Thneed.
However, once the nearby townspeople embrace the Thneed as their latest “must-have”, The Once-ler breaks his word to The Lorax and begins chopping down trees at an inconceivable rate, paying no mind to the devastation his quest for profit and fortune causes to those around him. As the trees deplete, the air becomes thick with pollution, the water becomes unsafe for the fish to live in and the precious Barbaloot Bears are driven from their homes, sick and distraught.
It isn’t until the final tree is gone that The Once-ler finally realizes the toll his actions have taken on the world around him. By then, it is nearly too late to repair the damage. The Lorax returns to the now-barren land for what appears to be the last time and leaves The Once-ler with a stone, the inscription upon it reading the simple word: “Unless”.
The Once-ler ponders this word for years, unsure of what it means, saddened by what he has done to the world around him. But, upon telling his story to a young boy who wants to plant a tree, The Once-ler reaches this conclusion:
“Unless Someone Like You Cares a Whole Awful Lot, Nothing is Going to Get Better. It’s Not.”
And the quest begins to rebuild.
The parallels of this story to our own world are a bit too obvious for me to point out. But one of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the impact it can have on someone, especially when they encounter it as a child. I’ve gone through life a fiend for recycling, donating money to save the rainforest and endangered species, planting trees as gifts for friends on holidays through the Arbor Day Foundation and, once I learned of them, using non-toxic products from Method or Seventh Generation to clean my home. And I think it’s deeply important to teach our children about these things, as we all have a very deep responsibility to share this planet and take care of it responsibly. To care.
But in addition to these day to day “small-steps”, I believe in taking that responsibility further. We do need to behave responsibly in with our basic, everyday actions. But we can take additional steps: donate our time to help clean up nature, help wildlife or educate others on how to do so. We need to work and build responsibly. Buy responsibly. Vote responsibly.
There are many reasons people give for destroying the land and life around them. But none of them have any validity. Look into what you can do to help the environment. Then do it. Because unless…