The Message of The Lorax: Conservation Versus Consumption

The Lorax helps spread awareness of environmental issues, but it oversimplifies its message.

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The Lorax has been topping box office charts since its release on March 2nd.  As most Dr. Seuss fans already know, The Lorax offers a valuable moral lesson in environmental conservation.  Since the initial publication of the book in 1971, at the heart of the first environmental revolution, the Lorax has served as the ardent defender of nature in children’s literature.  Similarly, the recent film is attracting a slew of companies including Mazda, Hilton Hotels and Whole Foods to partner with Universal Pictures to promote the film.  Business such as IHOP have been putting a spotlight on the film with special, limited time only green eggs and ham meals.  NBC's website recently went almost completely orange, the color of the Lorax himself, with giant banners and pop-ups. 

These partnerships are intended to engage consumers in environmentally friendly activities such as tree planting and conserving energy.  Universal’s President of Partnerships and Licensing has said that these brands “had to ring true to the Lorax story.” In other words, the message of the Lorax is being carried far and wide, but as most children’s stories are apt to do, it may be oversimplifying its message of conservation.
SPOILER ALERT:  if you have not yet read the book or seen the movie, you should bookmark this article until after you’ve had your share of the fun.
Being a children’s story, The Lorax simplifies its plot by pitting two extremes against each other: the industrial, colorful and artificial world of Thneedville, versus the barren, apocalyptic wasteland where the “truffula” trees once grew.  Thneedville is all plastic, metal and cement.  There are plenty of trees in all sorts of varieties, except for actually living, photosynthesizing trees.  In fact, because there is no photosynthesis happening anywhere near Thneedville, the tycoon O’Hair, in a deviation from the book, makes his fortune selling fresh bottled air.  It is in his best corporate interests to keep oxygen-producing trees from growing in the city, and he goes to extremes to keep the citizens of Thneedville blissfully ignorant about the wider world.
The young residents of Thneedville have never seen living trees before, and very few even spare a thought about their extinction.  But two who do drive the plot of the story, offering a means of confession for the hermit-like Once-ler, who’s ingenious invention, the “thneed,” a sweater/scarf/backpack/hat/etc. made from the fluffy tops of the truffula tree, is the explanation for the barren nature outside of the prison-like walls of Thneedville.  He has cut down every truffula tree to the last.
The lucky young man, Elliot, earning both the respect of the Once-ler and the heart of the girl of his dreams, receives the very last truffula seed and must plant it before the tycoon O’Hair stops him.   Now, this being a children’s movie, we can all assume a happy ending.  But, this is exactly the point where the fictional world of Dr. Seuss dramatically deviates from anywhere bound by the laws of nature and reality. One seed is not sufficient to regenerate an extinct species. 
Of course, the extreme lack of biodiversity (with the exception of humans and the Lorax, there is a whopping total of three animals: the Humming-Fish, the Swomee-Swans and the Brown Bar-ba-loots) already requires the suspension of disbelief.  But where most children can recognize that unrealistic aspect of the film for what its worth, they are unlikely to understand that for most species to reproduce, it takes two.  And, more importantly, that we can’t bring species back from extinction.
Still, conservation and sustainable lifestyle choices are important lessons for children to learn.  It was reported this week by New York Times opinions columnist, Thomas Friedman, that the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has released a study that maps the negative correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam and the total earning on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P of countries participating in PISA.  According to the study, in countries that had fewer natural resources, and therefore relied less on natural resource extraction as a major revenue stream, students performed the best.  For instance, students in Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Finland, nations with few natural resources, scored much higher than students in Qatar and Kazakhstan, two nations with the highest oil rents.
Despite what O’Hair believed, this study indicates that it would be in the best interest of Corporate America to promote natural resource conservation, and the Lorax is doing its part to spread awareness.  But it is equally important to be informed on the implications of over-consumption, including its impact on our nation’s ability to compete in an evolving world, as well as the permanence of extinction. 
Check showtimes for The Lorax at a theater near you.
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