The new movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s classic “The Lorax” has been attracting some sharp criticism from those on the political Right. Most notably, Lou Dobbs has called the film “[more] insidious nonsense from Hollywood” and accused filmmakers of trying to indoctrinate children with President Obama’s agenda of “demonizing the 1 percent and espousing green energy policies.”
Calling “The Lorax” a piece of Democratic propaganda is about as empty-headed as thinking the movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” was a reference to 9/11. History does, in fact, run further back than the last election. But otherwise, Dobbs is right on in seeing Dr. Seuss’s seemingly innocent fable as a powerful threat to the political order of the 1 percent.
“The Lorax” wasn’t the only time Dr. Seuss took on controversial topics. “Yertle the Turtle” exposes the dependence of rulers on the support (literal in this case) of their subjects – a subversive notion if ever there was one. “The Sneetches” offers a blistering critique of racism and discrimination. Meanwhile, in “The Butter Battle Book” disagreement over how to butter toast properly spirals into a race toward mutually assured destruction, pointing up the patent insanity of Cold War politics. Due to its stance against the arms race, which obviously contradicted the stance of the U.S. government, the book was pulled from public libraries at one point.
In all these cases, rather than simply tell us that the arms race and racism are absurd, Seuss shows us through the power of fable. C.S. Lewis wrote that one of the chief attractions of fables and fairy-tales is their simplicity. For while they may introduce fantastical elements, they also strip a plot down to its essentials and give us a clear-eyed look at reality: “by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency … [and] thus steal past those watchful dragons [of worldly cynicism]?” Lewis’s own “Chronicles of Narnia” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” operate on this logic – as does “The Lorax.”
Beneath its whimsical exterior, “The Lorax” lays responsibility for environmental degradation firmly at the doorstep of a corporate culture that champions profit over ecological balance. If profit is the yardstick by which we measure success, then the future welfare of our planet is of little consequence. What matters is the individual’s desire for immediate gain. Of course, profit margins are not the only, or even the most important, measure of human needs satisfaction. After all, we all need clean air and water too. But unregulated markets provide little incentive to think about the future: momentary self-interest is the motive force
Nor is environmental destruction only a consequence of individual carelessness. Indeed, as the Once-ler watches the inhabitants of the Trufula forest, he feels pangs of remorse. “I meant no harm,” the Once-ler says. “I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.” That of course leaves the question unanswered: why exactly does the Once-ler’s business have to grow bigger? Well, says the Once-ler, “Business is business! And business must grow regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.”
The only way for a business to make “money, which everyone needs,” is to grow, and the only way to grow large enough to compete is to focus on short-term benefits and ignore long-term consequences. If you want to be a part of the 1 percent, in other words, you’d better be prepared to cut down a few Trufula Trees.
The logic of the system forces even those with individual moral qualms to participate in their own destruction: for after last Trufula Tree has been felled, the Once-ler’s enterprise collapses for lack of an environment. Only too late does he realize that he depends on his environment every bit as much as the Bar-ba-loots and Swomee Swans.
Seuss doesn’t spell all this out explicitly in “The Lorax,” of course – the tale would have been hopelessly po-faced and didactic had he done so. But the connections are there, just beneath the surface. That’s what makes it so powerful: it works both as story and as morality play.
And critics like Lou Dobbs know it. “The Lorax” is not a story about the 1 percent per se. But underneath its environmental message it offers a scathing critique of the very system that empowers the 1 percent and allows them to wreak havoc on the natural world. If children, and adults too, leave the theater believing that we need to protect the natural world from corporate greed with tighter regulation and green energy initiatives, so much the better. They’ll be absolutely right.