Dr. Seuss as an Environmental Prophet
Some years ago I became acquainted with the concept of “fan fiction.” For those unfamiliar with it, fan fiction refers to writings by those whose love of particular characters and stories compels them to write their own works featuring the adored characters. Google “Harry Potter fan fiction,” and you will find a whole universe of stories. None are written by J. K. Rowling. All are written by Potter devotees. I myself once caught the fan fiction bug, but for me, it wasn’t for Potter. It was for The Lorax. I love The Lorax so much that I had to write a sequel to it. As a pastor, I once delivered it as a children’s sermon over the course of a couple of Sundays leading up to Earth Day.
Even Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel) was enamored with The Lorax and frequently called it his favorite book. The general public was slower to catch on. What is now the foremost environmental fable of popular culture was ahead of its time when it was published in 1971. While the environmental movement celebrated its first Earth Day a year earlier, the environmental consciousness of the nation as a whole was not yet ready for the greedy Once-ler’s destruction of the Truffula trees.
Dr. Seuss can rightly be considered a prophet, and we are still catching up with him. In an interview years after his death, his widow Audrey Geisel reflected upon the United States’ relationship to the larger world by saying, “We didn’t learn from ‘The Lorax.’ We’re paying a price, and we don’t seem to know it.”
As environmental injustices persist on a frightening global scale, the prophet’s message continues to hit home. While Dr. Seuss once referred to The Lorax as “propaganda,” a combination of humor, poignancy, and Seussian words allowed him to craft a penetrating polemic that today has almost universal appeal. No one complains as the book strikes at the capitalistic root causes of environmental wreckage with a portrayal of smoke-spewing factories devouring the landscape in search of profits.
The true power of the work, however, comes from the eco-spirituality and activism that is embodied by the Lorax himself and, ultimately, the remorseful Once-ler. While the Lorax realizes that the situation demands he “speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,” it is the Once-ler who voices the oft quoted lines near the end as he points to the heart of what motivates environmental action for so many:
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Dr. Seuss knew that what ultimately moves people to act on the environment is love. With his remarkable combination of outrage and whimsy, he continues to win fans—fans who want to continue the story—if not in writing, then in how they live their lives.
The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt is the Minister for Environmental Justice for the United Church of Christ. He writes a column called “For the Love of Children” that recently launched with The Letter Manifesto: Children and Climate.