Like pretty much everyone of my generation, I grew up on Dr. Seuss. One of my best memories is of laughing myself silly in a hotel room with my parents on vacation when I was very, very young, with my dad reading The Cat in the Hat out loud to me. Later, I loved One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and others. I read most of these same books to my children (There’s a Wocket in my Pocket was a favourite when my kids were small).
I don’t recall either having The Lorax read to me when I was a kid, or reading it to my own kids — in fact, I’ve never owned a copy of the book. What I do remember vividly was the original Lorax TV movie, which came out in 1972 when I was seven. The story of the greedy Once-ler who destroyed all the Truffala trees by his insane overproduction of Thneeds, and of the wise old Lorax who recognized the danger of capitalism gone mad, left a HUGE impact on me.
In those days, children, we didn’t have our favourite movies on DVD to watch over and over and over and over again. We saw them when they came on TV, and maybe once or twice more when they appeared in something called “reruns.” Who knows if I even saw the movie more than once? I do remember the sick feeling I had watching the production of the one-millionth Thneed, and the subsequent destruction of the trees and the devastated environmental wasteland that resulted. And although I was only seven or eight, I understood immediately that this was not just a fable; it was a parable. It was about real stuff happening in the real world. Making, selling and buying too much stuff destroys the environment. It was a simple message and it sank right into my bones at that young age and became an integral part of how I viewed the world.
So here it is, 2012, and The Lorax movie is the number-one hit at the box office this week (enjoy that, guys, before The Hunger Games opens next week). Since my kids are a bit old for most animated features (we do make some exceptions), and the book wasn’t a treasured part of their childhoods, and big-screen adaptations of Dr. Seuss books have a track record of being pretty awful, we hadn’t planned on going. But hey, I don’t need to see a movie to work up a little righteous indignation about it.
In the case of the Lorax, it’s not the movie itself I quibble with — having, as I just said, not seen it and not planned to see it. (Though I’ll admit I half want to believe this reviewer who says it’s “a noisy, useless piece of junk, reverse-engineered into something resembling popular art in accordance with the reigning imperatives of marketing and brand extension.”) What gets me steamed is the controversy that has been raised around the corporate sponsorship movie tie-in gimmicks, like slapping the Lorax’s name on, of all things, SUVs. You can read lots more about this travesty here and here, written by people better-informed than I.
One of those articles quotes Random Corporate Person as saying that environmental issues are much less clear-cut than they were in Dr. Seuss’s day — there’s no Big Bad Once-ler, and there are many gray areas. But the fact is a lot of those gray areas are actually greenwashing (to beat the colour metaphor to death). Various products we think we can’t live without are trying to clean up their acts so they can slap an environmentally friendly, Lorax-approved label on the box. That means those of us consumed both by liberal guilt and advertiser-driven greed can buy more Thneeds and feel like we’re still speaking for the trees.
It’s not a bad thing for the people who produce stuff to try to treat the environment better, or for those of us who buy stuff to be vigilant and ask questions about where it comes from and how it’s produced.
But the original Dr. Seuss tale got at something that’s entirely at odds with corporate tie-ins and with the basic mentality of capitalism — something we too often forget in our urge to make the world cleaner and greener while still Having It All.
The problem is the Thneed — a useless object that the Once-ler convinces people, through the power of advertising and consumerism, that they need. Thneed rhymes with need rhymes with greed, and the good Doctor never rhymed anything by accident. There’s a reason why the first two elements of being environmentally friendly are REDUCE and REUSE. There’s also a reason why the only one our kids ever learn about in school, the one we hear all the advertising about, is the third and least important: RECYCLE. It’s easy to promote recycling, and easy to spent money on it, even though in many cases its benefits are limited. Who’s going to advertise: “BUY LESS STUFF”??? What kind of corporate tie-ins are you going to find for a movie whose clear and unequivocal message is: You don’t need all that crap you’re buying, and the world would be better off if you’d learn to do without it.
It’s kind of terrifying that we have built the entire capitalist world on the engine of Greed. Not just Need but Greed. We buy stuff not because we need it but because it’s cool, because our neighbour has it, because the Thneed 3.0 is out this week and your old Thneed 2.0 suddenly looks outdated and tacky. (Yes, Steve Jobs, I’m looking at you beyond the grave. You dared to call yourself a Buddhist yet built a massive fortune on making people DESIRE stuff. Shame!)
If we turned off the engine … if we stopped and said, “Maybe I don’t need a new Thneed” … what would happen?
I don’t know, because I’m not an economist and economics doesn’t really go in my brain, and when I try to ask people they give me very complicated answers. But I’m smart enough to figure out that if you keep mass-producing Thneeds for no better reason than that you can, and that people will keep buying them, you eventually run out of Truffala trees. Earth’s resources are not limitless. I doubt the Lorax had a degree in economics either but he could see that one. And if I had any corporate sponsors on my blog, I would just have lost them.
Because the hardest message to sell is: Stop buying stuff.