The Electric Commentary

Monday, August 01, 2005

Interpreting the Lorax

There is an interesting discussion going on at The Commons regarding the Dr. Seuss classic, The Lorax.

Dr. Seuss' story of the Lorax is an environmental classic (as is the television version that I've just seen). The conventional interpretation is that it's a tale of market-driven environmental ruin. The greedy Once-ler ignores the Lorax's warnings of environmental ruin as he turns truffula trees into thneeds (for a thneed, after all, is a thing that everyone needs!). As the truffula trees disappear the animals run off in fear, smog fills up the air yet the Once-ler doesn't care. Eventually the Once-ler cuts the last truffula down, and his entire corporate empire folds up and leaves town.

I remember reading The Lorax when I was a kid. To a typical child or typical environmentalist the message is pretty simple: trees are good, industry is bad. Johnathon H. Adler notes that Paul Feine of the Institute for Humane Studies has a different theory about the story's meaning.

Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn't cut them down someone else will. He's responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different -- and he would likely have acted accordingly -- even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax's environmental concerns.

The story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image -- the ring of stones labeled with the word "unless" -- could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.

So is The Lorax really about property rights? Even if that wasn't the good doctor's intention, the theory seems to fit.

(Hat tip Paul Brewer)


  • For people interested in Ted Geisel's views on politics, I highly recommend "Dr. Seuss Goes to War." It's a great collection of the political cartoons that he drew during World War II. He was a liberal and way ahead of his time on many issues, especially racial integration.

    By Blogger MDS, at 4:18 PM  

  • Here's the link, for the curious.

    Visitors will also see, however, that the good doctor wasn't ahead of his time when it came to stereotyping the Japanese.

    By Blogger PRB, at 9:30 PM  

  • PRB, could you be more specific about what you find objectionable in those cartoons?

    By Blogger MDS, at 9:03 AM  

  • Certainly.

    Even during wartime, I think that it's important to draw a distinction between promoting the war effort and demonizing a people (and it's not just me--the U.S. Office of War Information discouraged the latter during WWII).

    My impression is that when it came to the Germans, Dr. Seuss primarily criticized German leaders and policies. When it came to the Japanese, however, he relied on crude racial caricatures--the slant eyes, the buck teeth, and so forth. Compare his Hitler and his Tojo, for example.

    To be sure, Dr. Seuss was hardly alone in this--movies and even animated shorts of the day did the same. As Phillip Gianos writes in Politics and Politicians in American Film (p.119):

    "The Japanese were presented as monolithically evil, with little differentiation between one individual and another or between leaders and followers...The representation of Germany, while hardly a model of subtlety, was nonetheless the most differentiated and complex that films would provide."

    He adds: "Much of this naturally followed from market considerations. There were many more U.S. citizens with ties to Germany..."

    By Blogger PRB, at 9:32 AM  

  • An addendum: If I had to pick out the worst offender, it might be the one labeled "Waiting for the signal from home" (with the "Honorable 5th Column" sign). That's the mindset that led to the internment of Japanese-American citizens.

    I do agree, though, that the good doctor was way ahead of his time on race and Jim Crow (compare what he did on the topic to, say, Song of the South.)

    By Blogger PRB, at 9:45 AM  

  • I agree with you that it's important to draw a line between supporting a war and demonizing people. And I, too, at first found his caricatures of the Japanese a bit unsettling.

    Frankly, I'm not knowledgeable enough about Japanese-Americans of the 1940s to know whether the "Waiting for the signal from home" cartoon was unfair to them. If Seuss was trying to portray a specific group of Japanese-Americans who supported the Japanese effort, it would seem to me he was doing nothing wrong. If he was implying that all people of Japanese ethnicity deserved to be treated as enemies, he was clearly wrong. I guess it's my own ignorance of the time that stops me from being able to determine exactly what his message was.

    By Blogger MDS, at 11:30 AM  

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