As you are reading this, the hot new children’s movie is a 3D-CGI film adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ book “The Lorax.”
For the record, I am a lifelong fan of Dr. Seuss (the late Theodore Geisel, who died in 1991 at the age of 87). I had all his books as a kid, and actually had the chance to meet him — albeit only for a few minutes — when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, also his alma mater. And I loved every one of his books – except this one. Written towards the end of its author’s life, “The Lorax” is a preachy environmental fable without humor or a happy ending. Of all Dr. Seuss’ books, it is probably the most controversial. For those not familiar with “The Lorax,” here is a short plot summary (for a more detailed one, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lorax):
A young boy living in a polluted world visits an elderly hermit known as “The Once-ler” and asks how the world got that way. The Once-ler answers that once the world was beautiful, containing a wide variety of happy animals that lived among beautiful “Truffula trees.” The Once-ler cut down the trees, because they were excellent material to make products he invented called “Thneeds.” The “Thneeds” became a huge marketing success, forcing him to expand his factory and cut down more Truffula trees.
The Lorax, a small orange creature who spoke “with a voice that was sharpish and bossy,” warned the Once-ler that the trees are the environment he and his fellow creatures need to survive. The Once-ler ignored him, and soon the land became polluted, the animals fleeing to more hospitable areas and the Truffula trees dwindling until there were none. Deprived of its key raw material, the Once-ler’s factory was forced to close, and the Lorax disappeared, leaving the Once-ler to view the ruins of his enterprise with remorse. The book closes with the Once-ler giving the boy the last Truffula tree seed and asking him to plant it so the trees, and perhaps also the Lorax, will return. It is no secret that Hollywood producers love stories that present the profit motive in a negative light – think “Wall Street” or, come to think of it, just about every recent Hollywood movie that has a villain. It is also no secret that Hollywood producers also love “David and Goliath” stories with environmental themes – think “A Civil Action” or “Erin Brockovich”. But “The Lorax” takes Hollywood’s traditionally anti-capitalist, anti-business posture to a new level. In Dr. Seuss’ book, the Once-ler character is never depicted. You see only his arms and legs, which are enough to conjure up the image of a green, shriveled up thing similar to the Grinch and other Dr. Seuss bad guys. In some cartoon versions of “The Lorax”, the Once-ler is depicted as a stereotypically pot-bellied capitalist (picture the “Monopoly” man wielding an ax). But in the new movie, the Once-ler is depicted as a young, attractive Silicon Valley type entrepreneur (see http://seuss.wikia.com/wiki/The_Once-ler) – a basically decent guy who sincerely believes his “Thneeds” will help people live better, more satisfying lives and who isn’t particularly greedy or self-centered. The Lorax’s enemy now is not capitalism, Wall Street, or corporate greed, but the entrepreneurial spirit. Children’s books (and movies) are extremely dangerous things. Most authors (and producers) of these choose not just to tell a story, but to send a “message” or otherwise try to indoctrinate young people in a certain point of view. And children, especially the young ones likely to love Dr. Seuss stories, are impressionable and trusting enough to accept these messages as gospel truth. We are all shaped, emotionally and mentally, by the books and movies we devoured as children. If you saw the Disney movie “Bambi” as a child, how do you feel about hunting for sport? Please don’t get me wrong: nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than preserving the environment. What good is a healthy economy if people can’t breathe the air? Teaching children the importance of preserving the environment is a desirable, even noble, goal. And, let’s face it, if history is any guide, industrial enterprises have not been great stewards of the environment. But sending small children the message that profit-oriented businesses creating products that people want and need inevitably destroy the environment and hurt small, fuzzy, cute creatures will not help create the innovators and entrepreneurs America will desperately need –in great numbers – to survive the next century.
That message will instead create only nasty, irritating, opinionated creatures like the Lorax himself, speaking “in voices both sharpish and bossy.”
We need children’s books and movies that present a more balanced message – that a free-market economy and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive, and that profit-oriented businesses can solve environmental problems as well as create them.
As the Once-ler says, “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
Cliff Ennico (www.succeedinginyourbusiness.com), a leading expert on small business law and taxes, is the author of “Small Business Survival Guide,” “The eBay Seller’s Tax and Legal Answer Book” and 15 other books.