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Speaking for the Trees: Environmental Ethics in the Rhetoric and Production of Picture Books
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Children's Literature Association Quarterly 30.3 (2005) 265-287

Environmental Ethics in the Rhetoric and Production of Picture Books

Nathalie op de Beeck

As industrialism encroaches on the forests of Dr. Seuss's 1971 The Lorax, the title character warns of environmental devastation. "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees," he shrills as a manufacturer named the Once-ler chops down Truffula Trees. Heedless of the Lorax, the Once-ler knits Truffula Tree fibers into sweater-like objects called Thneeds and, under the marketing slogan "You Need a Thneed," sells them for $3.98 a pop (a man in a business suit buys the first one, implying the Once-ler's clientele). The Once-ler doesn't quit until the last Truffula Tree is axed, the woodland habitat spoiled, and the birds, animals, and Lorax long gone (although the word "extinct" never comes up). The Lorax ends with the greedy Once-ler living as a hermit and admitting the error of his ways to a boy who visits his lonely home: "'But now,' said the Once-ler,/ 'Now that you're here,/ the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear./ UNLESS someone like you/ cares a whole awful lot,/ Nothing is going to get better./ It's not." The Once-ler tosses the last Truffula Tree seed to the boy with instructions to "Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack./ Then the Lorax/ and all of his friends/ may come back."

The Lorax is the automatic go-to text for pro-wilderness writers on children's literature: "the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear." But while the Lorax (and other pro-tree picture book characters) take it upon themselves to speak for the trees rhetorically, do the picture book format and the children's publishing industry hold to that standard in the picture book's material construction? The Lorax's environmentalist stance, ostensibly upheld by picture book creators, editors, and readers, seldom finds its corollary in children's publishing practices. Publishing houses, after all, are Once-lers by trade, regardless of the sentiments of individual employees or the arguments stated in select books. The Lorax first appears on a Truffula stump, and cultural producers too make stump speeches, crowing an ecological warning from within the space they have a role in destroying. Production demands a split subjectivity, simultaneously aware of destruction and of the necessity to stay in business by creating ever more goods or services. A rhetorical concern for ecological sustainability, so common in the words and pictures shared with children, is swept aside as a children's publishing industry strives for inexpensive and hasty production. Ecology-minded book creators, concerned with having their books published and reaching a maximum number of readers, feel obliged to look the other way when a major company's production values do not equate with their personal environmental ethics. Young consumers internalize that split too, because they habitually use products without being able to imagine the transformation of raw materials into those items, nor the regrowth of natural resources to make more.

This paradox also informs Seuss's book. Many writers cite The Lorax for its green voice, yet have a tough time reckoning with its ambiguous conclusion. In the end, the Lorax can do nothing but leave his home space, and the Once-ler runs out of resources before passing the last Truffula seed to somebody else. Notably, the Once-ler (who only knows how to use things Once) does not bother cultivating the seed himself. He entrusts the seed to one member of the next generation, with a few words of advice. An "intergenerational equity for the resources, the Truffula tree habitat, is not a part of the Once-ler's ethos; it is left for the next generation to resolve, with no guidance from the generation that used the resources," write Bob Henderson, Merle Kennedy, and Chuck Chamberlin (139). Lisa Lebduska, another writer on The Lorax, says, "The planting of a seed or a solitary tree must be presented for the symbolic gesture that it is, an effort that without substantial changes will lapse into empty rhetoric." Despite Lebduska's sense that The Lorax...



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