The little kids understand. My 6-year-old son, Emmett, reads Dr. Seuss' "The Lorax" at least once a week and can explain the message of the book succinctly. "It's about ruining God's creations, that money's not more important than nature."
Published in 1971, at a time when Earth Day and the ecology movement were gaining counterculture traction, "The Lorax" addressed then-unconventional issues such as deforestation, pollution and greed. It was "An Inconvenient Truth" for children.
" 'The Lorax' was very overt, very political," says William Dreyer, curator of the Art of Dr. Seuss Collection. "It was a statement on conservation and corporate responsibility. He did an amazing job of simplifying issues into a story that can be appreciated and grasped by kids and adults."
The book tells the story of the Once-ler, a greedy businessman, who, literally, can't see the forest for the trees. The Once-ler builds a huge factory and chops down lush Truffula trees to feed the demand for his product (a frivolous item called a thneed).
In spite of repeated warnings from a creature called the Lorax, who speaks for the trees (but also for the creatures), the Once-ler continues to raze the forest. Eventually, the wildlife become deathly ill before finally moving away in order to survive. After polishing off the last Truffula tree, the Once-ler finds himself alone and out of business, surrounded by a wasteland of his own making.
With hindsight, the Once-ler learns his lesson, but is it too late?
The same could be asked of all of us, the grown-ups who push the buttons in the real world. What is it about taking care of the earth that we don't understand? If anything, environmental conditions have gotten worse since "The Lorax" came out all those years ago. With the rollback of environmental regulations and the slashing of EPA budgets, President Bush has been a veritable Once-ler in chief for the last eight years.
"America has lost her footing, lost her elegance," says 87-year-old Audrey Geisel, widow of the late Dr. Seuss. (He was born Theodor Seuss Geisel and died in 1991 at age 87.) "Globally speaking, it's not good, and it's getting less good all the time. We didn't learn from 'The Lorax.' We're paying a price, and we don't seem to know it."
Although Rachel Carson is credited with launching the environmental movement with her 1962 book, "Silent Spring," Dr. Seuss made that message palatable for all ages. He had, says Michelle Colman, author of "Eco Babies Wear Green," "a great way of teaching a lesson without sounding overly didactic. It's an incredible talent."
But signaling social alarms was long at the core of Dr. Seuss' mission; over the years, he warned about fascism ("Yertle the Turtle"), conformity ("The Sneetches") and nuclear proliferation ("The Butter Battle Book"). "Children's reading and children's thinking are the rock-bottom base upon which the future of this country will rise. Or not rise," he wrote in a 1960 essay. "Books for children have a greater potential for good or evil than any other form of literature on earth."
"The Lorax" was not a huge hit when it was published in 1971. But that didn't bother the author.
"He did not play to the audience," says Audrey Geisel. "They could take it or not take it. He had something he wished to say, and he said it." Dr. Seuss himself once referred to the book as "propaganda."
Not only was the subject matter dark, so was the palette of colors Dr. Seuss used. "He loved the atmosphere in this book," says Geisel. "The color work -- all the shades of gray and deep purples and blues. It was a complete change, and he rather enjoyed it."
In the early 1970s, concepts like recycling and "greening" were the domain of the freaky fringe. Dr. Lynn Busia, now administrator of pupil services for the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District, was a young teacher when "The Lorax" first came out. "It was very far out for the time," she says. But as a teacher, "you bring a part of yourself and your feelings of life into the classroom. Dr. Seuss was a vehicle for that. You could write a whole curriculum around 'The Lorax' and the environment and about doing what's right as a human. That's the beauty of that book for a teacher. You weren't bringing in ecology -- you were bringing in Dr. Seuss."
There you have it: Dr. Seuss as both children's author and subversive revolutionary. "He embedded many sociopolitical messages throughout his career. His true genius lies in that it was done with such humor and finesse," says Dreyer, who is currently overseeing a traveling art exhibit called "Dr. Seuss for President," which focuses exclusively on his politically driven illustrations.
This political work dates to World War II, when he drew editorial cartoons for liberal PM Magazine. In the early 1960s, the San Diego resident threatened to quit the La Jolla Beach Club after they refused Dr. Jonas Salk bed and board because he was Jewish. "They didn't want Dr. Seuss to leave because it would be in the papers and it would be very bad," says Audrey Geisel. "After Ted made his case, Jonas stayed for a week."
These days, the world has finally caught up with Dr. Seuss' Earth-saving book. "The Lorax" has become a story-time staple for green-leaning parents such as actress Kelly Rutherford. " 'The Lorax' teaches kids what's possible," Rutherford says. "What's beautiful is that, when they're a young age, they're open to that. It's important to empower them, to show them what's possible, that we have the ability to create change."
Clearly, the message resonates because the book is flying off the shelves. Sales have doubled in the last five years, according to Kate Klimo, vice president and publisher of Random House/Golden Books. "It wasn't until the last couple of decades, when the environmental movement became an established social force, that the book really broke out," she says.
One new edition of "The Lorax" comes made entirely from eco-friendly materials; the Art of Dr. Seuss Collection, meanwhile, is planting three trees for the sale of every "Lorax" print -- according to Dreyer, nearly 10,000 trees have been planted to date. In addition, Conservation International, along with Random House and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, has kicked off the Lorax Project, a grass-roots effort dedicated to protecting forests and endangered species.
"I don't know how the man did it," says Audrey Geisel. "But he always hits at the proper time, this many years beyond his life. One thing after another, it's just how it goes. This is certainly 'The Lorax's' time."
And yet, if "The Lorax's" time is now, ultimately its lessons are timeless. Toward the end of the book, we notice a pile of rocks in front of the Once-ler's dilapidated hovel. There's one word etched into the pile: "Unless." When the Once-ler finishes his story, he tosses a seed -- the last Truffula seed. "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not," he laments.
"Dr. Seuss puts the onus for social change on the individual reader," Klimo says. "Such is the power of the story that, rather than wriggle away, the reader is moved to step up."
Unless . . .
Himmelsbach is a Los Angeles writer and producer.