New lessons from the new Lorax

I was on a plane. That’s always my excuse for watching drivel. But I thought that, for research purposes, and given how often I talk about it, I should catch the remake of the Lorax. At the risk of turning a bit Žižek, here are my random thoughts on a highly-polished turd of a film that hardly deserves thought.Image

For those of us who loved the book, and the smaller number of us who enjoyed the original cartoon, with its loopy jazz-funk soundtrack, the film is an inevitable disappointment. Dr Seuss has been put into the title but much of him has been stripped from the film. The parable that makes up the book becomes a sub-plot of a boy-meets-girl that seems as though it has been scripted and storyboarded by the same computers that vomited up the graphics. The music is execrable and the animation must be exhausting even for the ADHDers. Nevertheless, some of the tweaks to the story tell us interesting things about where environmentalism and the politics of innovation have gone.

In the new film, the invention – the thneed – is the problem, not the means of production or the slippery slope of innovation. The invention springs fully formed from the air. Demand for it goes goes viral. Innovation and the eco-destruction that follows is near-instant.

Unlike in the book, the Onceler has a face. He starts off human – young, idealistic and full of good intentions. His relationship with the Lorax begins as friendly banter. It begins with just one tree, after all. The assumption is that both of their interests can be aligned. Rather than the Onceler consistently ignoring the Lorax, as in the book, there is a constant but ineffectual dialogue between them. There is an ever-present if feeble critique of Corporate Social Responsibility. One crappy song has the lines: “How bad can I be? I’m just building the economy. How bad can I be? A portion of proceeds goes to charity”. The Barbaloots and Swammy Swans are bribed with marshmallows and acquiesce rather than kicking up a fuss. The tree’s fall takes on a ritual quality, with the film acknowledging the step onto a slippery slope.

The Onceler’s once-responsible intentions get trampled once his family get involved. The innovator becomes an innovation system. Processes overtake ethics and the last tree falls soon after the first. The Onceler retreats to his castle to wallow, but we still see his face. He is no cigar-smoking monster.

The redemptive turn occurs with a seed. But whereas with the book, we are left with the seed and its possibilities, the film gives us a story of remediation. The trees are brought back to life. The Onceler’s desolate dystopia that lies outside the hermetically-sealed utopia in which boy and girl live is made natural again with the new trees and the nasty capitalist who wants to privatise the air are vanquished. We are left with a moral (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not”) attributed not to the Lorax or the apologetic Onceler, but to Dr Seuss himself.

So the film’s cautionary tale has been buried and its corners chopped off. Some things have been added that speak to responsible innovation – the speed with which innovation can take society and the environment by surprise, the mutation of good intentions into bad outcomes, the failings of a CSR approach to engagement. The story could have been updated in interesting ways. Given the globalisation of environmental concerns over the last 40 years – global climate change has superseded local air and river pollution, but is ignored in the film – I suspect that the new Lorax tells us that US parents aren’t willing to be preached to by a cartoon.


UPDATE: Not really an update. More of an additional thought. Since the Lorax’s publication, there remain people who speak for the trees, but the number of people who claim, in some way, to speak for the environment, has exploded. And they speak in increasingly scientific terms. The new film’s remediation story makes it sound so easy – think local, act local. Maybe somebody needs to rewrite the book for the anthropocene. Julia Donaldson, ahem.

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GRC in Science and Technology Policy group photo

GRC in Science and Technology Policy group photo

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Why is PUS not open access?

Cobi Smith has got in touch to ask why PUS is not open access. I am on the editorial board for PUS, so I have some share of responsibility for decisions about such things. I thought she deserved a response. Indeed, she deserves a proper response, which I can’t give her. But it’s prompted some thoughts which I thought I would jot down at any rate.

Cobi has a really thoughtful blog post here about why PUS should be open access and why she took the decision to withdraw a paper from the journal. For those of us who have observed the open access debate for a while, it is heartening to see bottom-up agitation for open access in various ways. For me, the arguments for open access have always been obvious, and they have got stronger over time. (Here’s an old post). The arguments against open access have mostly been lazy, disingenuous or brazenly self-interested. The publishing industry have been allowed to drag their feet for too long.

When it comes to a particular journal, there are of course limits to what can be done. I can easily envisage an open access future, populated with new journals, journals that have adjusted and the corpses of those that couldn’t. But I’m not close enough to the action to see how the adjustment gets made. In the short term, there are risks of going hybrid – allowing some authors to pay for open access (with the benefits that accrue including wider readership and citation) while others can’t afford to. And the risk of turning completely open access is of losing an existing body of authors overnight. It would be easier, I think, to start a new journal.

If I have any sway (and I need to work out if indeed I do), I would say that the best thing for a regular journal to do is to clarify, emphasise and publicise an approach to green open access. Especially in the social sciences, where the speed of change is not so frenetic, I think it’s idiotic that all articles older than the usual embargo period (be that 6 months, a year or whatever) aren’t available and Googleable in institutional repositories or on personal web pages. The first thing I will do is check what the PUS policy is on this.

Cobi, you’re absolutely right. The social sciences need far more people like you to take a stand and make editors, journals and publishers think.

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Disorganised scepticism

I was on a radio 4 programme last night called ‘Reclaiming the sceptic’. It was pretty wide-ranging, as you would expect from something trying to track a theme such as ‘scepticism’ (we take ours with a c here). But I think the producer,Toby Murcott, held it together nicely and made a thoughtful contribution to a few debates that are often idiotic (I am thinking in particular of an appearance by James Delingpole on Radio 5 earlier in the day in which he subtracted from the sum of human knowledge by discussing sunspots and inclement weather).

My contribution to the piece was about what I called ‘disorganised scepticism’, to contrast with the Organised Scepticism described (or prescribed depending on who you believe) by Robert Merton. The programme shied away from climate issues, which is understandable given the tendency for all discussions involving climate change to become discussions about whether it is happening. But climate, and climategate in particular still provide the best possible example of disorganised scepticism in action and why it is important for scientists not to wish it away. This, by Jerry Ravetz and Mike Hulme, is great. 

Toby also wrote a piece for Research Fortnight on the topic, which is worth a look. 


(picture from

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The Jubileefication of science policy

An interesting meeting yesterday at King’s College, London, new home of the BIOS group.  We were talking about the place of social science in emerging areas such as Synthetic Biology. I was asked to discuss a paper by a friend and collaborator, Matt Kearnes. His focus was on the ‘banal nationalism’ of science policies, how this reinforces a linear model of innovation and how this in turn impacts upon the efforts of social scientists, scientists and others, to question the direction in which things like Synthetic Biology are seen to be heading. Matt described how simplistic models of innovation emphasise supply over demand. The answer is almost always to pump in more cash and try to free up any bottlenecks that are detected further down the pipe. Spin-outs and patents become the defining qualities of innovation. The demand for innovation, whether from industry, from government (via procurement) or in the form of human needs (so called ‘Grand Challenges’) is typically given only a cursory glance. Matt makes the point that new materials, whether nano, syn bio or Graphene, exacerbate this linearity. The imagined wonder-material is assumed to create its own demand.

I largely buy Matt’s argument. My only suggestion was to acknowledge a more recent phenomenon, that of austerity. When there is no money left in the kitty, this removes the main lever in government’s impoverished science policy toolbox. My suggestion was that a lack of money could lead to an even worse performance of national identity in science policy. I mentioned that, at a time at which the UK’s sources of economic growth look pretty meagre, one thing we can always rely upon is tourism. I proposed, therefore, that we might be witnessing the ‘jubileefication’ of science policy, in which the UK’s scientific strengths and heritage are trumpeted and paraded without consideration of their current relevance. And as for the role of social science… well, we know that jubilees aren’t hugely democratic affairs. Perhaps the social scientists are expected to organise the street parties and roll out the bunting.

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Reflections on Rothamsted

So it appears that there was a protest. And a counter-protest. And lots of lots of police and lots and lots of journalists. The field trial didn’t get torn up, which was good for the particular research project, but not really the issue. The experiment itself, sociologically-speaking, was symbolic – a pivot with which to gauge the balance of sentiments in the GM debate. As a member of the Sciencewise board, I have been dragged into this discussion as Rothamsted consider how to strategically engage with the public in the future. I have made the case to them that doing so means looking forwards rather than fixating on the politics of this trial. For all the talk of ‘dialogue’ and ‘debate’ around this trial, it is clear that the progress or otherwise of this experiment was not on the table. No reason why it should have been. The trial had been agreed by ACRE, a sensible body with broad expertise, appointed legitimately to represent the public interest. Put the trial to one side and we can see that there are plenty of important decisions to discuss about the future of agriculture and that these can usefully be opened up to deliberative discussion. Observing the sabre-rattling that has taken place in the last week or so, I have been interested in whether this helps or hinders that debate. It has certainly been interesting to observe the emergence of the muscular rationalists in response to the anti-GM gang. They will be congratulating themselves this morning on a moral victory, although it would have been all the sweeter had they not needed quite so much Council help and police muscle. But my worry is that, in winning this battle, they make future battles more likely and risk prolonging the war. (‘They’, incidentally, might be Jon Agar’s Geekocratic Tendency).

The Rothamsted scientists made an interesting move in proactively setting the agenda on the trial. The early involvement of Sense about Science rapidly turned this into a fight between pro- and anti-science. I’ve written before about how dumb this is. But if nothing else, Manichean rhetoric mobilises certain groups. Pretending that an issue is about more than it is expands the constituencies on either side (to include, in this case Stephen Fry, whose volley (“The latest assault on what remains of Castle Enlightenment”) was as ludicrous as anyone’s). The stretching of the terms of debate confuses things, but this confusion has given me grounds for optimism. We’ve had greens arguing with each other about their positions on agriculture, energy, growth and ‘naturalness’. And we’ve seen publicly-funded scientists distance themselves from the oligopolistic, industrial use of GM that has tainted their work for more than a decade. If we follow the idea that controversies are a form of ‘informal technology assessment’, we can pick out an interesting line of discussion – what sort of GM for what sort of agriculture? – between the extremes.

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Why population?

I’ve been meaning to jot down some thoughts about the Royal Society’s report on population. Having warmed a chair in the Royal Society’s Science Policy Centre for a couple of years, I maintain an unhealthy interest in the politics of national academies – how they perceive their legitimacy, where they choose to speak and how they do so.

For a national academy, the issue of population is almost as tough as it gets. Science has a troublesome track record on the population question, and the more elite it gets, the more troublesome things become. (I don’t know as much as I should about the issue, so apologies in advance for my skip through history). Population is one of those areas in which the temptation to pluck an ought from an is has landed the scientific establishment in trouble. People like Francis Galton were too quick to jump from genetics to eugenics, reasoning that understanding human populations should in some way allow us to improve them. This hubris transcended political left and right, resurfacing in views of the progressive left elite between the wars (Jonathan Friedland has fun with this in his latest pseudonymous novel).

The ideas of Thomas Malthus re-entered polite conversation in the 70s through people like Paul Ehrlich, who published (with co-authors including John Holdren, who would go on to be Obama’s Chief Scientist) extensively on the implications of ‘the stork passing the plow’ (birthrates increasing beyond the planet’s capacity to feed new people). His debate with Barry Commoner on the population issue takes us to the heart of the science policy problem.

The split is between those who see population growth as a problem (the role of science being to elucidate this) and those who see the trajectory of progress as the problem, in which case, from a Marxist perspective, science and innovation are implicated as part of the problem, and a possible provider of solutions. This is not to agree with the blind optimism of people like Julian Simon, who bet Holdren and Ehrlich (and won) that the price of metals would decrease as human ingenuity found new ways to mine them. Rather, it returns us to the old debate in science policy, most prominently discussed by Bernal and Polanyi in the 30s, about whether and how science can be steered. Commoner suggested that our technological means and our economic ends could be reshaped to better include environmental and health concerns. For him, the emphasis on population increase as a biological problem missed the point and led to perverse, unhelpful and unethical prescriptions.

The politics of science policy play out in subtle ways. As well as emerging through the things that individuals and institutions say, they surface in the things on which institutions choose to focus. Agendas matter. When the Royal Society decided to take on the population issue, I winced. Regardless of what the report ending up saying, the perception would always be from some quarters that the choice of the issue was the telling thing. Why population? Why now? The only good reason I could come up with at the time, much like with the food security issue, was that the scientific community had some work to do in redeeming themselves, in re-establishing credibility and humility in tackling issues on which science has a historical tendency to over-speak. The reactions that I have seen suggest that the RS have succeeded. Brickbats swung mainly from the right. Most in the middle and on the left of politics regarded the report as sensitive and well-rounded (correct me if you’ve seen criticisms please). Frank Furedi tweeted that “The Royal Society’s cringing Malthusian Report on the planet has the intellectual weight of a promotion video for creationism”. But, as if to remind us of the tangled politics of the British left, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

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