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'The Lorax' preaches to a new generation

A film adaptation of the 1971 children's book "The Lorax" is soon to hit movie screens. But to many, it's 40-year-old environmental messaging that needs a reboot.

Actress Betty White arrives at the premiere of "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" at Citywalk on February 19, 2012 in Universal City, Calif. How much of an impact does this story still have in today's environmental world?

Kai Ryssdal: Tomorrow, you know, a new movie appears with a little orange "Lorax." You're sure to shed tears over how he defends the truffula trees. Or tries to, at least, as the Once-ler makes thneeds. This story has lived for four decades now.

Our reporter Eve Troeh takes a look back at how the tale pits nature against industry. From the Marketplace desk of Sustainability.


Eve Troeh: OK, I'm not going to compete with Kai or Dr. Seuss for rhymes. Theodor Geisel had such a way with language he could sell beachfront property in Kansas. And in 1971, he used his whimsical words to sell environmentalism.

Henry Myers: At the far end of town where the grickle grass grows and the wind smells slow and sour when it blows...

James: Can I read?

That's writer Henry Myers and his son James reading "The Lorax." Its message is stark. An entrepreneur, the Once-ler, finds a pristine forest and starts cutting down all the trees. He's warned not to by a curious orange creature...

James: And he spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy.

Henry Myers: Mister, he said with a sawdustry sneeze, I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees!

"I speak for the trees." That mantra is more famous now than it was when "The Lorax" came out, says Troy University historian Elizabeth Blum.

Elizabeth Blum: This was not one of his best-sellers, it was not something that was, you know, hotly anticipated at the time.

But it did fit with the times. In 1971, President Nixon had just created the Environmental Protection Agency.
Tough pollution legislation was speeding its way through Congress. The news was full of stories on oil spills, or rivers so polluted they caught fire. Blum says the famous author had an awakening.

Blum: In the '20s and '30s he did a huge, very successful ad campaign for a pesticide called Flit. I think that "The Lorax" is a way of him making peace and atoning for what he saw as his role in the pesticide business.

Or any business, maybe. Blum calls the book a screed against capitalism and materialism.

Blum: Directly attributing environmental harm to people purchasing things.

In the book people go crazy for Thneeds, a mysterious all-purpose garment, and every single truffula tree gets cut down to make them. So, it's easy to cry foul on product tie-ins for Hollywood's new "Lorax."

Mazda Ad: And who received the only certified Truffula Tree Seal of Approval? Mazda, with SkyActiv Technology.

Cars, computers, hotels. Though the studio says it has been careful with which products get to use "The Lorax." Julie Corbett runs Ecologic Brands. "The Lorax" will be plastered all over a recycled paper bottle she designed for Seventh Generation. She says "The Lorax" book didn't account for responsible business.

Julie Corbett: Humans are humans, and we need to sustain ourselves. The idea of renewables is quite important.

Not simply, "Don't cut trees," she says. But rather, "Don't cut all the trees before others grow back." Christina Page directs sustainability at Yahoo. She loved "The Lorax" as a kid. But now she finds the book too gloomy.

Christina Page: I think if the book was being written today, "The Lorax" would probably start a locally run co-op of truffula tree biodiesel and sustainably-harvested fruit.

We do have more nuanced conversations today. Peter Lehner is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
He says that's mostly because we have to.

Peter Lehner: It's a much tougher challenge we have today because the rivers aren't on fire, because the air is clearer. Global warming is more complex than having a factory next door that's poisoning your drinking water.

Getting an hour-and-a-half movie out of a short kids' book is more complex, too. "The Lorax" screenplay adds a back story, a love interest and musical numbers. In the book, the villainous industrialist, the Once-ler, is shown as a faceless arm of corporate greed. In the film, he's a fully fleshed-out character. That alone suggests this new version of "The Lorax" offers a different take on business and the environment.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

Actress Betty White arrives at the premiere of "Dr. Seuss' The Lorax" at Citywalk on February 19, 2012 in Universal City, Calif. How much of an impact does this story still have in today's environmental world?

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