Saturday, January 11, 2014

Is caring enough?

Everybody knows the story of the Lorax, right? The furry little creature who speaks for the trees? The powerless opponent of the wonderfully named Once-ler.
The Once-ler is the guy who shows up, samples the local Truffula trees, and figures out how to make the tufts of the trees into ... well, it's not clear what they are, but they're called "thneeds," and as the Once-ler tells the Lorax, "A Thneed's a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need!"

In other words, he creates an economy of mass consumption, complete with desires that are driven by marketing in order to soak up productive capacity, rather than production that improves in order to meet pre-existing needs.

As a card-carrying person-concerned-about-the-environment, I know I'm supposed to love this story, or at least like it. And I did as a kid ... at least I think I did. But I know that when I re-encountered it as an adult reading it to my own kids, I found it deeply unsatisfying.

What's the message here? (Again, I put myself to the harrowing test that Ted Cruz so spectacularly failed: can I comprehend a book written for children.) Dr. Seuss has the Once-ler lay it out pretty explicitly at the end: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."

And as with the previous installment, about Horton and the Whos, I'm on board in principle. My concern is that the book misses the heart of the problem.

In general, the reason we have environmental damage is not that people get up in the morning and say to themselves, "Today's a great day to trash a piece of the planet." That's generally not what happens.

(There is the disturbing study from last year that found some people became less likely to buy a money-saving compact fluourescent lightbulb if it was labeled as being "good for the environment." But that seems to be an exception.)

Rather, people get up and ask themselves, "How can I make my life a little bit better?" And so they head out the door and grow food or make things, for themselves or to sell to others. Or they invent new things, or new ways of making things. And all the massive envrionmental damage we see around us is merely the byproduct of that blameless intention.

"But ... corporate greed!" Well, sure, there is that whole business about ALEC, which corporations fund to try to reduce our already inadequate efforts at protecting and improving the environment (see here, here, here, here, ...). (Actually, of course, it's not really "corporations" but "the people who run corporations deciding to use the group's assets" to fund ALEC.) But their goal is not environmental destruction. Their goal is reducing the cash cost to their corporation of producing things they think people want, or things they think they can convince people to want. As the Once-ler tells the Lorax, "You never can tell what some people will buy."

It's possible to read The Lorax as saying the same thing. The Once-ler isn't cutting trees just for the sake of making a wasteland; he's cutting them in order to make his thneeds. And the thneed is a reasonable stand-in for modern consumption in general: most of what we consme is useful or enjoyable on its own terms, the question is merely whether the use and pleasure are worth the corresponding ecological havoc.

And I suppose if we cared enough (or rather, "a whole awful lot"), we'd give up some of those terribly convenient thneeds and preserve reproductively viable stands of Truffula trees here and there.

But if we focus on needing to care, we sweep under the rug the likely necessity of reducing consumption. And if that's what we have to do, then "caring" has to be more than merely "keeping in mind," or "wishing well," or "thinking it's important." The necessary "care" has to be embodied in action, and that action is a lot harder to carry out than the book suggests.

(For the record, I have no beef with The Grinch ... except for the improbable physics of that little dog pulling that giant sled up that snowy mountain!)

On deck: Babar!

(Previous installment: Horton Hears a Who)

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