- Rethinking Human Need:Seuss's The Lorax
In a 1992 New York Times Book Review article, Janet Maslin railed against what she termed the "scare factor" in children's environmental literature. Citing examples from recent books, Maslin complained that "today's didactic children's literature" neither entertains nor soothes its young audience. Particularly troubling to Maslin was an excerpt from Where Does Our Garbage Go? that reads, "Of the 5,499 landfills operating today, 4,265 of them will close in just 18 years. What will we do then?" Writing rhetorically, Maslin asked, "Is it helpful to present this as a problem for children?" (19). A more revealing question might be, who is protected by evading this problem? Is it children's sensibilities we are trying to shield, or is it something deeper, more fundamental—an overriding and at times unconscious protection of the dominant consumer ethos?
Historically, violence, profanity, sexuality, and the portrayal of authority have constituted the borders of the unthinkable in children's literature. These borders, like the contemporary electronic fences used to control animals, remain invisible until violated. In the late nineteenth century, for example, angry editorials, book banning, and the publication of approved book lists by various "denominational and professional groups" were used to counter the effects of dime novels and questionable children's magazines (Kelly 96). Nearly 100 years later, in 1989, the "unthinkable" expanded to include a Dr. Seuss title as parents in Laytonville, California, angered by The Lorax's "anti-logging" message, protested its inclusion on the second-grade reading list.1 Although the school board ultimately voted to retain the book, the controversy revealed the tensions underlying middle-class environmentalism and the resulting complexities for children's environmental education. By placing The Lorax within the context of a growing consumer culture, I plan to show the inevitable conflict between a consumer ethos and a land ethic and to note the ways in which The Lorax attempts to bring this conflict into the range of ideas.
Although The Lorax did not sell as well as many of his other books, Seuss maintained that it was his "personal favorite" (MacDonald 148). "The Lorax," he once explained, "came out of my being angry. The ecology books I'd read were dull. . . . In The Lorax I was out to attack what I think are evil things and let the chips fall where they might" (qtd. in Cott 30). A cautionary tale about the "Once-ler," a greedy pioneer who discovers how to manufacture "thneeds" from the tufts of native truffula trees and devastates an entire Edenic community in the process, The Lorax is Seuss's "most thinly veiled . . . allegory" (MacDonald 148). Ironically, as Ruth MacDonald points out, it "was made into a television special for the CBS network, which necessitated some toning down of the criticism of big business in the book, in order not to offend the program's commercial sponsors" (148).2 Nature's spokesman—and, consequently, the Once-ler's environmentalist foe—is the Lorax, a mustachioed two-legged creature who speaks for the land's flora and fauna: truffula trees, bar-ba-loots, humming fish, and swomee swans. In condemning the Once-ler and speaking for the trees, Seuss's Lorax offers a biocentric defense in which nonhuman nature has as much right to existence as humanity. This challenge to the Once-ler's anthropocentrism informs the book's typically playful anapestic tetrameter with a "land ethic" that may be the source of greatest concern to adult readers.
For Aldo Leopold, a true land ethic entails an extension of moral rights to all living beings. Actions should be judged not for their ability to yield individual profit or pleasure but rather in terms of their effects on the entire community: " [a] thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (qtd. in Cheney 125). The Once-ler's thneed manufacture and his consumers' thneed buying destroy their fictional biotic community, and the Lorax's confrontational "rudeness," as MacDonald observes, "indicates the stridency that Dr. Seuss permits the reader to use in opposing polluters...