This week I watched smoke clouds rise up from the Sepulveda Pass in large black and white billowing plumes as one of a number of wildfires in California consumed the hillside of Bel Air, on the west side of Los Angeles. Later I would have to explain to my children why the air outside our apartment smelled like a campfire and why they would miss three days of school because of concerns about how the fires were affecting air quality. These conversations are becoming all too common. We are now facing a rapidly encroaching ecological and climatological catastrophe of global warming, pollution, and the ever-increasing scarcity of resources. This is a fact that is not changed but exacerbated by our government’s attack on climate science, support for fossil fuels, and reversal of environmental protections. It is increasingly clear that my children will grow up in a world rushing headlong into a dangerously uncertain future.
Because my kids have learned a lot of what they know about the world from the hundreds of children’s books that line our bookshelves, I have been thinking about how these books shape my daughters’ understanding of environmental issues. One book in particular has continued to haunt me, as it has for several generations of parents and children: Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. My children love this book, as did I when I was their age, and invocations of the Lorax are common around the apartment when talking to my kids about why they shouldn’t let the water run in the sink or why they ought not waste food.
Since its publication in 1972, readers of The Lorax have seen in its brightly-colored pages a message of environmental conservation and the dangers of unfettered corporate greed. After years of reading this story to my kids, I have begun to see that The Lorax can be read not just as a simple allegory about environmental conservation, but as a complex diagnosis of the flows of desire that animate neoliberal capitalism and the failure of environmentalist politics to grapple seriously with this libidinal economy, to borrow a phrase from Jean François Lyotard. In this essay, I offer a perverse reading of The Lorax, following the lead of Slavoj Žižek’s forays into cinematic voyeurism, in which I explore not what The Lorax says about the environment, but what it says about us.
The Lorax and Environmental Conservation
The traditional reading of The Lorax, into which I was inducted as a child, is that of a cautionary tale about the necessity of environmental conservation. The story opens on a desolate landscape, full of smoggy, dark skies and bereft of vegetation and life. A narrator speaks to a young male character who journeys outside of town to find the Once-ler to hear the story of the Lorax. After a complex ritual payment is offered, the Once-ler takes over as the story’s narrator. The Once-ler tells of his arrival in this place many years ago, when it was a lush landscape offering a supportive habitat for fantastical creatures (Swomee-Swans, Brown Bar-ba-loots, and Humming Fish). Central to this untouched paradise are the Truffula Trees, whose tufts the Once-ler immediately realizes can be turned into a universally useful commodity called a Thneed (“which everyone, everyone, everyone needs”). The rapid growth in sales for the Once-ler’s Thneeds results in the creation of a massive factory complex that spews pollution into the land, sky, and water, and the deforestation of the landscape, resulting ultimately in the eradication of the Truffula Trees and the forced migration of all the animals that were sustained by them. With the resource necessary to produce Thneeds gone, the Once-ler’s employees move on to new opportunities, while the landscape remains polluted and the offending factory falls into ruin. It is amongst these ruins that the now-chastened and guilty Once-ler is found and in which he tells his secrets to the reader.
On this reading, the conscience of the narrative is voiced by the enigmatic character of the Lorax, a semi-human manifestation of Nature’s voice (“He was shortish. And oldish. And brownish. And mossy. And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy”). The Lorax appears at the destruction of the first Truffula Tree and spends the latter half of the narrative haranguing the Once-ler about the environmental effects of his economic expansion. The Lorax attempts to play upon the Once-ler’s conscience, but to no avail, and he eventually departs through a hole in the sky once the final destruction of the local ecosystem is complete, leaving behind a message with the single word “unless.” As the Once-ler wraps up his recollections, he suggests that the Lorax’s mysterious message has finally become clear: “unless someone like you [the reader] cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” The young reader of The Lorax is then informed that it is her responsibility to repair Nature from real Once-lers, to become like the Lorax and call out pollution and environmental degradation.
This call to a kind of environmental politics is a good reading of the text, and one which coheres with what Dr. Seuss himself has said about his intent in writing the book. It has also been at the heart of criticism of the book as a kind of children’s propaganda. But I think that there is a way in which the genius of The Lorax lies in its evocation of the libidinal economy of capitalism and the catastrophic results that arise from the failure to take that economy seriously in the pursuit of a truly ecological politics.
The Once-ler and the Joys of Capitalist Exploitation
While the Lorax is the titular character in the story, the Once-ler is the center of the narrative, not just as the primary actor, but as narrator of the bulk of the book itself. On the traditional reading, the Once-ler is wracked by guilt at the effects of his greed on the environment. Pondering the disappearance of the Lorax, he tells us that since that day, “I've sat here and worried and worried away. Through the years, while my buildings have fallen apart, I've worried about it with all of my heart.” And yet, despite his claims to have worried about what he had done, the Once-ler’s retelling of his tragic tale is full of what feels like a perverse joy.
He begins his narrative with his arrival in an unspoiled and lush environment, bursting with life and color, whereupon he discovers the Truffula Trees. He tells us that upon examining their properties, “I felt a great leaping of joy in my heart. I knew just what I’d do! I unloaded my cart and in no time at all, I had built a small shop.” The Once-ler does not appreciate the Truffula Tree for its aesthetic beauty, but sees it as a resource for commodity production, about which he continues, as the narrator, to take great pride: “and with great skillful skill and with great speedy speed … I knitted a Thneed.” It is not just that the Once-ler is recalling the satisfaction of work, but rather his story dwells on the joy that he acquired from the discovery and exploitation of a new resource. Despite the disastrous consequences, the Once-ler cannot remember without feeling again this joy.
The joy in commodity production drives the rest of the narrative. As the business grows, the Once-ler can only express his economic success in exclamations: “Oh! Baby! Oh! How my business did grow!” These exclamations come from the gut, from an enfleshed pleasure in the expansion of his business. What the Once-ler embodies here is that at the heart of capitalist forms of exploitation there is a libidinal joy that animates production and consumption. We often render this with romantic labels like taking pride in one’s work, but this joy continues to exist for the Once-ler despite his own recognition that his actions were ultimately disastrously harmful.
And what’s more, the Once-ler’s enjoyment of his past success means that he takes a perverse pleasure in recalling how he argued with the Lorax, whose dire warnings about the effects of the Once-ler’s factory on the environment have supposedly changed his perspective. While debating whether anyone will desire a Thneed, the Once-ler takes pleasure in remembering that he proved the Lorax wrong, a scene in which the desire that the Once-ler had for a resource he could commodify spills over as an excess that animates consumers to purchase his Thneeds. The chap who buys the first Thneed “thought . . . [it] was great. He happily bought it for three ninety-eight.” Having shown that the desire for consumption is so easily induced, the Once-ler mocks the Lorax: “I laughed at the Lorax. ‘You poor stupid guy! You never can tell what some people will buy!’” It’s not just that the Once-ler is here being cast as a swindler and a hustler, selling quack tonics to rustic rubes, but that he takes joy in recalling how his product could so easily be rendered an object of desire, a desire that is a reflection of his own joy in commodifying the Truffula Tree.
The Once-ler’s recollections are also shaped by explanations of how desire flows through capitalist systems, in ways that negate his own personal responsibility. These explanations are never critiqued within the narrative and so are left to stand to the reader as accurate descriptions of economic reality. When confronted by the effects of his factory on the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Once-ler expresses a certain kind of remorse: “I, the old Once-ler, felt sad as I watched them all go. But… business is business! And business must grow regardless of crummies in tummies, you know. I meant no harm. I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got. I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads. I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads of the Thneeds I shipped out. I was shipping them forth to the South! To the East! To the West! To the North! I went right on biggering . . . selling more Thneeds. And I biggered my money, which everyone needs.”
The Once-ler’s matter of fact descriptions of the excessive demands for never-ending expansion and profit within the logic of capitalism represent what Mark Fisher has called “capitalist realism.” For Fisher, capitalist realism refers to “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Even as he lives among the ruins of his factory “'neath the bad smelling-sky,” the Once-ler still cannot think beyond the logic of capitalist economies.
We are introduced to the capitalist realism of the Once-ler even before we learn of his complicity in environmental catastrophe. The first narrator of the story tells his reader that they can learn about the Lorax from the Once-ler, but they will need to pay: “He’ll tell you, perhaps...if you're willing to pay. On the end of a rope he lets down a tin pail and you have to toss in fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather-snail. Then he pulls up the pail, makes a most careful count to see if you've paid him the proper amount.” The “secret” of the Lorax can only be revealed to the reader through a capitalist exchange: the reader, having heard of the enigmatic Lorax, desires knowledge, which the Once-ler will sell for the right price, even if that price is paid according to a combination of capital and barter. While he has watched the terrifying effects of capitalism’s relentless appetite for destruction, the Once-ler cannot imagine a future that lacks capitalism’s logic of commodity exchange.
Fisher’s notion of capitalist realism helps us to see one of the ways in which The Lorax serves to reinscribe the very rapacious forces that it so vividly documents. As Slavoj Žižek has noted, anti-capitalism is a feature that lives within capitalist logic itself and paradoxically serves to reinforce the system. For Žižek, this occurs because anti-capitalist characters or stories allow us to take an ironic distance to the functioning of capitalism itself. The reader of The Lorax learns that capitalist greed is bad and that nature should be protected “from axes that hack,” but by enacting this moralizing analysis the book allows us to feel good about ourselves as we continue to consume commodities made with the same environmental consequences as the Once-ler’s Thneeds. The Lorax then functions much like the label “organic” on our produce: by buying “organic” we show that we believe the right things, even as we fail to interrogate whether this overpriced “organic” produce is actually better for us or grown and distributed with lesser negative environmental effects.
The Lorax and the (Im)morality of Capitalism
The Lorax doesn’t understand the libidinal economy of the Once-ler. His haranguing lectures attempt to create an emotional response on the part of the Once-ler in the hopes that seeing the effects of his labor will change his actions. But the Lorax fails to see that the Once-ler feels joy in his factory, its products, its machinery, and even its waste. The joy is palpable in his exclamations of growth and expansion and even his pride at his inventions, like the “Super-Axe-Hacker which whacked off four Truffula Trees at one smacker.” The Lorax’s emotional appeals to the Once-ler fail to reckon with the Once-ler’s own affective relationship to his labor and the broader flows of desire that course through a capitalist system.
And it is this that gets at the heart of the problem for the environmental politics espoused by The Lorax. Like the Lorax, we often turn to moral arguments about environmental degradation designed to pull at the heart strings, as in the recent meme showing a starving polar bear in Canada: “You're glumping the pond where the Humming-Fish hummed! No more can they hum, for their gills are all gummed. So I'm sending them off. Oh, their future is dreary. They'll walk on their fins and get woefully weary in search of some water that isn't so smeary.” We think that images of polluted rivers, overflowing landfills, massive oceanic garbage patches, and starving polar bears will motivate consumers and polluters to change their ways. But, again following Fisher, moralizing arguments like those of the Lorax reinforce capitalist realism: “A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism.” As the Once-ler succinctly puts it, “But… business is business! And business must grow regardless of crummies in tummies, you know.”
While moralizing arguments reinscribe the very system they critique, the also fail to reckon with the ways in which capitalism is not just an abstract economic system, but a flow of desires. For example, a West Virginia coal miner’s pleasure in extracting coal from deep in the earth might mean that he sees the pollution of a local river as simultaneously tragic and joyous. What we often gloss as the pride that folk take in their work is an oversimplified description of the enjoyment that conscripts bodies into the libidinal economy of capitalism. And this enjoyment is not just about pride, but also, as the Once-ler shows, can manifest itself in the joy in demeaning others. It is not just that coal miners voted for Donald Trump because they felt he would protect their work, and thus their sense of pride, but also because he would be a mechanism for embarrassing and punishing those forces (liberals, environmentalists, elites, etc.) who posed a threat to their enjoyment.
Ultimately, the moralizing ecopolitics of the Lorax induce a cycle of guilt and passivity rather than mobilizing action. This is the tragic state of the Once-ler. Once so animated by a desire to extract and produce, he loses his agency when the Truffula Trees, the resource upon which his enjoyment depends, disappear. Thus he can only lurk in his Lerkim, where he does nothing but worry and worry. The Lorax’s message to the Once-ler, moralizing as it was, induces nothing but guilt. He must live with the tension between memories of joyous capitalist expansion and the guilt that its effects induce. Thus he cannot envision himself as having agency over making a change. He is immobilized by guilt. Despite having a Truffula seed with which he could plant new trees and regenerate the local ecosystem, he passes the responsibility for change to the reader: “unless someone like you [the reader] cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” An alternative to the ecopolitics of moralizing must take seriously the libidinal nature of capitalism and seek to redirect the flows of desire that pulse through it rather than trying to moralize them away. A moral critique of capitalism can at best press for a milder form of capitalist exploitation, while at worst it induces paralysis. A more radical project would be to imagine alternatives to capitalism itself, a move the is inhibited by a larger problem at the heart of how The Lorax frames questions around a politics of Nature.
Nature, Society, and Ecopolitics
While The Lorax offers a cogent, if ultimately futile, moral critique of capitalist exploitation of the environment, it shares with modernity a problematic assumption about the relationship between Society and Nature, between Humans and Non-Humans. The Once-ler’s story begins with a pristine natural environment into which the Once-ler arrives, like an explorer discovering some new continent: “It all started way back...such a long, long time back...Way back in the days when the grass was still green and the pond was still wet and the clouds were still clean, and the song of the Swomee-Swans rang out in space… one morning, I came to this glorious place.” As if in a pre-historical time, the Once-ler appears in a hermetically-sealed paradise and proceeds to destroy it through the introduction of human society, taking the form of the capitalist factory and its mechanical accompaniments. The narrative is thus framed as a contrast between the pristine harmony of Nature and the polluting, destructive force of Society.
As Bruno Latour has rightly shown, central to the story of modernity is the presumption of a pure separation between Society and Nature. For moderns, Nature is static and out there. It exists outside of human zones of habitation, out in the country where one can “get back to nature.” Because it is not part of the world of Society, Nature is subject to two forms of human agency: exploitation and preservation. On the one hand, Nature exists to be exploited by Society, which is the position taken by the Once-ler. Nature exists as a site of untapped resources that might be extracted to feed the flows of capitalist commodity production. In the process, Nature is always despoiled by its encounter with Society. On the other hand, Nature is envisioned as existing in a pristine, static state, provided it remains untouched by human interference. Thus the goal of any ecopolitics for moderns is preservation and/or restoration. The Lorax embodies this ecopolitical perspective. It takes the cutting of one Truffula Tree for Nature to produce the Lorax as its moralizing voice. As the voice of Nature, the speeches of the Lorax trade on a moralizing perspective that bemoans the changes introduced by the Once-ler’s factory in the local ecosystem. If only he didn’t cut down so many Truffula Trees, then things would have remained just as they were. Such a static view of Nature misses the fact that all ecological systems, from the global to the local, are in a constant state of change and evolution. There is no keeping things the way that they are.
Similarly, there is no way to return habitats to their previous state, yet this is the goal that is enjoined on the reader as the moral lesson that the Once-ler has learned: “Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.” Just bring the trees back and everything can go back to the way it was as if nothing had changed. Such a perspective not only trades on a static view of ecology, but also serves to further reinscribe capitalism itself: “Yes, capitalism is bad and all, and we certainly don’t want to run around destroying local habitats so violently… but if we do, we can just replant the trees that we cut down and everything will go back to the way it was.” Once habitats disappear and once they have been inundated with factory runoff, whatever ecosystem might emerge will always be different from what came before, because there is fundamentally no way to turn back the clock, nor has there ever been a state in which an ecosystem was not adapting and changing. Neither preservation or restoration can be the sole focus or goal of a politics that seeks to avert the dangerous effects of human consumption on the global ecosystem.
As an argument for an ecological politics, it is precisely in its assumption of a clear divide between Society and Nature that The Lorax fails. There is no Nature from which humans can abstract themselves. Whether we like it or not, humans are entangled with non-humans in a series of scalar ecologies that move from the local to the global. We are co-evolving within a global system and that requires a different politics, wherein other entities are given voice. Latour’s work has pushed beyond merely noting the impossibility of sustaining the binary of Nature and Society to explore different forms of politics that recognize the entanglements between humans and non-humans, which Latour and Isabelle Stengers have called “cosmopolitics” or the “parliament of things.” As the voice of Nature, the character of the Lorax embodies the possibilities for imagining non-humans adding their opinions to the deliberations of humans and their institutions; however, non-humans will speak with many different voices and exert many different forms of agency that have to be taken into account in a politics that can think beyond the logic of capitalism and toward forms of life that might avert the global catastrophe that looms on the horizon. And those voices will not be the shrill moralistic cry of the Lorax. The carbon continuing to build in the atmosphere will speak in higher temperatures. The mercury in our rivers will speak through poisoned and poisonous fish. These voices are speaking now, we just do not have a politics that can allow those voices to be heard.
The Lorax has challenged generations of young readers to question the exploitation of capitalist forms of production and consumption. Reading the text not just for what it says but for what it says about us, about our flows of desires, our assumptions, and our delusions opens up the possibility of thinking a new form of ecological politics in which my daughters might fight alongside humans and non-humans for the future of the planet.