Institute of Marine Affairs
In 1970, Theodor Geisel was fighting to save some Eucalyptus trees around his house from being cleared in order to make way for suburban development. His idea was to write a children’s book about conservation that was not boring but entertaining. However, writer’s block got the better of him and upon his wife’s suggestion he travelled to Mount Kenya Safari Club where he was able to watch the animals along Kenya’s Laikipia plateau.
Theodor Geisel was a children’s author of some repute, he could ill afford to have his work be substandard, and such an important message of environmental conservation had to be done correctly. We all know Theodor Geisel much better by his other name – Dr Seuss – and the work he would go on to pen, thanks to his visit to Kenya, he would later describe as his favourite of the more than 40 books he wrote. This book was later adapted into the 2012 movie The Lorax.
Written 50 years ago, the message of the Lorax remains relevant. The Lorax, although a children’s book, detailed the very real threat of biodiversity loss and its far-reaching consequences. If you have not read the book or seen the movie, in a nutshell, it is the story of a once beautiful valley containing Truffula trees and teeming with biodiversity. But thanks to the importance of the Truffula trees to the garment industry, the Truffula forest was decimated by a factory owner known as the Once-ler. He destroys the Truffula trees in order to make Thneed fabric. The Lorax is presented as the one who “speaks for the trees.” He emerges from the stump of a Truffula tree and speaks of his disapproval of the use of these precious environmental resources needed for the production of the Thneed fabric.
In a piece written for Nature magazine in 2011, Emma Marris describes the Lorax as the parody of a misanthropic ecologist – an apt description. Gone are the days of preaching gloom and doom for loss of nature and biodiversity. Everywhere we look we see the loss of forests, important marine ecosystems such as coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds, and species extinction. It is no secret that biodiversity is under threat.
In 2019, a landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) warned, "Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely."
We know all too well the consequences of human waste, overuse and improper management of our resources. But as detailed in 1970, the Once-ler represents the critics of the ecologists and environmentalists who say, “All you do is yap-yap and say, 'bad, bad, bad!'"
In a world where many depend on environmentally destructive practices to sustain themselves and their families, the message of “stop what you’re doing because it isn’t good” falls flat. We are now urged to find creative ways to solve biodiversity loss that still allows for the provision for a growing population. The fragile balance between nature and man has never been more apparent than in 2020.
The year 2020 has reminded us that we are not above nature but simply a part of it. Covid19 brought the world almost to a screeching halt. A virus, unseen to the naked eye, has caused thousands of deaths and fundamentally changed the way we conduct our lives. We were urged to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary. The unintended consequence of this is that biodiversity has once again begun to emerge. Popular local waterways, such as at Caura River, have shown wildlife being braver and venturing a bit further out of their hiding places now that noise pollution is at a minimum.
Internationally, more urban dense areas have seen animals such as coyotes venture onto the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, deer in Washington, DC graze in close proximity to the White House and even sheep have been spotted having a go on children’s playgrounds in Monmouthshire, Wales. While comical and almost relieving, this is only one part of the story. In rich, more urbanised countries because biodiversity is so rarely spotted, their presence is deemed remarkable. However, in poorer, underdeveloped countries the situation is a bit grimmer. The monitoring and protection operations in the Amazon Rainforest have been reduced and deforestation seems set to hit a record high. Due to lost tourist revenue, nature reserves in the Serengeti and Masai Mara are finding it difficult to pay rangers, leading to fears of increased illegal poaching, mining and logging as local people seek to feed their families in the midst of a global pandemic.
We stand at the intersection of a crossroad in human history. In the story of the Lorax, once the forest and all its associated biodiversity disappeared, the Lorax himself blasts off into space leaving behind a simple message, “UNLESS.” The Once-ler who was unable to keep his factory running once the forest had been destroyed only came to the realisation of the importance of biodiversity when it was too late. The Lorax is enduring not because it details a new or ongoing problem but because of its message. What are we leaving behind for future generations? The present, as it has ever been, influences the future.
When the Once-ler is asked by a child what happened to the Lorax, he lays the future at the feet of the child’s generation and he is finally able to complete the Lorax’s final thought, a message we should all ponder, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
As we commemorate International Day for Biological Diversity, and the theme – Our solutions are in nature – Dr Seuss was able to shine a light on the way forward some 50 years ago. In the Lorax’s final passage the Once-ler tosses the final remaining Truffula seed to his young friend with these words of advice, “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula seeds. And Truffula trees are what everyone needs. 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 his friends may come back.”
Additional reading resources:
Marris, E. In retrospect: The Lorax. Nature 476, 148–149 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/476148a
Klein, J. Who Was the Real Lorax? Seeking the Inspiration for Dr. Seuss, The New York Times (2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/23/science/lorax-dr-seuss-environment.html
Coste, V. Coronavirus: Is wildlife the big beneficiary of the COVID-19 lockdown? Euronews, (2020)https://www.euronews.com/2020/03/30/coronavirus-is-wildlife-the-big-beneficiary-of-the-covid-19-lockdown
Watts, J. Climate crisis: in coronavirus lockdown, nature bounces back – but for how long? The Guardian (2020) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/09/climate-crisis-amid-coronavirus-lockdown-nature-bounces-back-but-for-how-long
Watts, J. Brazil: coronavirus fears weaken Amazon protection ahead of fire season TheGuardian (2020) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/03/brazil-amazon-protection-coronavirus-fire-season
Vaughan, A. Amazon deforestation looks set to hit a record high in 2020, New Scientist (2020) https://www.newscientist.com/article/2237048-amazon-deforestation-looks-set-to-hit-a-record-high-in-2020/