The Lesson of the Lorax:

In honor of Earth Day, I thought I’d repost something I wrote in 2005 on the TV version of Dr. Seuss’ story of the Lorax.

Dr. Seuss’ story of the Lorax is an environmental classic (as is the television version that I’ve just seen). The conventional interpretation is that it’s a tale of market-driven environmental ruin. The greedy Once-ler ignores the Lorax’s warnings of environmental ruin as he turns truffula trees into thneeds (for a thneed, after all, is a thing that everyone needs!). As the truffula trees disappear the animals run off in fear, smog fills up the air yet the Once-ler doesn’t care. Eventually the Once-ler cuts the last truffula down, and his entire corporate empire folds up and leaves town.

Environmentalists love to present this as a parable of modern industry’s exploitation of the natural world. The relentless pursuit of profit leads to environmental — and economic — ruin. When the last truffula falls, so does the natural base for the Once-ler’s wealth. And unless humans learn to care for the natural environment, and control industrial development, we will produce ecological devastation. But is this the best interpretation?

Paul Feine of the Institute for Humane Studies suggests the Lorax is subject to alternative interpretations. Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn’t cut them down someone else will. He’s responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different — and he would likely have acted accordingly — even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax’s environmental concerns.

The story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image — the ring of stones labeled with the word “unless” — could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that this is the interpretation Dr. Seuss intended. Yet the Lorax, like any text, is open to multiple interpretations — and this institutional interpretation is certainly compatible with the text. As is, perhaps, another interpretation in which the Lorax is himself an owner whose property rights are ignored by an unaccountable corporation. Either way, the Lorax is easily seen a story about property rights — or the lack thereof — and the inevitable environmental consequences of poor institutions. Something to think about the next time you hear the Lorax mentioned in an environmental policy debate.

The original post, and the comment thread it inspired, are here.

For some of my academic writings on the importance of property rights for environmental conservation, see here, here, and here.