Friday, June 4, 2010

Sorry, Mr. Lorax

At the Archdruid Report, where it's the end of the world as we know it, and we feel fine, there are a lot of references made to the 1970's. For it is in that decade, with its energy crises, back-to-the-land movements, and increasing environmental awareness, where we find one of the richest archives of thought, from the practical to the philosophical, macro to micro, on possible paths to a sustainable future.

Eventually the business-as-usual capitalists and neoconservatives won their precursor to "drill, baby, drill," hippies sold out to Wall Street, and pollution became more pervasive if less visible. In the meantime such visionary texts as Small is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, and The Limits to Growth have gathered dust on the shelf, awaiting the curious and hopefully-not-too-desperate, inviting us to rethink nearly 4 decades of intervening policy. All three are on my short list, either checked out or on hold through my public library.

But until I get to crack open these tomes, I think The Lorax encapsulates pretty well the conflict between growth-dependent industrial capitalism and sustainability. For all it's kid-friendly simplicity it is still a fairly accurate and potent parable for what we have done with our natural resources.

In case you're not familiar with The Lorax, it is a children's book by Dr. Seuss published in 1971, arguably at the height of that era's environmental movement. In an interesting coincidence of chronology, at the time I was just a little too old for picture books. In fact I never saw the book until I started reading my partner's old copy to our son a couple years ago. So I first read it through the eyes of a slightly jaded old environmentalist.

Back to the story: Poking around the sketchy outskirts of town, a boy finds "the place where the Lorax once stood, just as long as it could, until somebody lifted the Lorax away." If this sounds a little dangerous to you, remember that this was the seventies. I spent a good deal of time alone in the grickle grass and decayed industrial sites as a young child, and no one thought it was a big deal. But that's another topic.

The main part of the story is told by the Once-ler, a hermit-like character who lives a meager life amongst the industrial ruin. He describes how he arrived at this place when it was a forest paradise covered with truffula trees. Though many of the details are sketchy--probably no ecological studies were done--the forest appears to have supported a healthy ecosystem including frugivorous mammals and other wildlife that depended on pristine air and water quality.

The Once-ler seems to have appreciated the idyllic setting, but his main motivation was profit. For the truffula trees provided the raw material for what would turn out to be a major growth industry: thneeds! In his headlong pursuit of maximized production ("biggering") he repeatedly ignores the warnings, relayed by the Lorax, a sort of wild forest man, that his activities are destroying wildlife habitat. He doesn't stop until the last truffula tree falls. His business collapses because his raw material is gone.

By that point, for whatever reasons, the land no longer supports truffula trees without intervention, and a different vegetation type dominates, even years after the cutting stopped. Perhaps truffula seeds need specific conditions to germinate. Or maybe they just take much longer to germinate and grow to maturity than the lifetime of the average Once-ler. Or perhaps the soil, water, and air were just too degraded. I have heard different objections to the Lorax, and different questions have popped up in this old over-educated mind. The forest industry replants trees, don't they? Why couldn't the Once-ler sustainably harvest the truffula tufts without destroying the trees?

Dr. Seuss wasn't an ecologist, and he was writing for kids. Whether he was trying to draw close parallels to any particular industry is beside the point. Yes, the forestry industry has made efforts to keep their operations sustainable, but that has not always been the case, and they have learned the hard way. Most of the eastern US was clear-cut at least once during the last 3 centuries. Many animal species were extirpated and human cultures forgotten or displaced. The river systems and estuaries are still reeling from the resulting erosion and siltation.

But it isn't just about forestry. Applied to non-renewable resources, especially oil, the parable may be most apt. The question of sustainability is moot. And the idea that someone who "cares a whole awful lot" could make things better (rather than just mitigate the harm), which may still have been true in 1971, becomes all the more poignant. The current disaster in the Gulf just highlights our insatiable need for the thneeds of modern life. Drilling in the sea floor a mile underwater is the act of a desperate people.

Shame on us. Sorry, Mr. Lorax.

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