Lessons from the Lorax

There isn’t much to know about politics that can’t be found in the works of Dr Seuss. He covers off apartheid (The Sneetches) brinkmanship (The Zax) capitalism (The Grinch, The Sneetches again) and mutually-assured destruction (The Butter Battle Book). For the politics of innovation, look no further than the Lorax.

The story’s innovative protagonist is the Onceler, a green, hairy thing whose face is constantly hidden by executive chairs, limousines and the ludicrous machines that he uses to harvest Truffular trees. The Onceler turns the hairy tops of these trees into Thneeds – pointless but multi-purpose accessories that nobody wants but “everyone needs” (think iPad).

The Onceler’s productivity grows to meet the exploding demand for Thneeds. He begins employing his family to help him knit them before automating the whole process.

As the innovation accelerates, the only voice of dissent, from the Lorax (that’s him under the title of this blog) is drowned out. The Lorax protests, “I speak for the trees, as the trees have no tongues”. But his warnings are ignored. The barbaloots, who make their homes in the trees, wander off in search of food. Pollution from the Onceler’s sprawling factories poison the Swomee Swans and the Humming Fish. And, finally…

…at that very moment, we heard a lound whack.

From outside in the fields came the sickening smack of an axe on a tree.

Then we saw the tree fall… the very last truffula tree of them all.

No more trees. No more thneeds. No more work to be done.

And in no time, my uncles and aunts, everyone, had all waved me goodbye and jumped into their cars, and drove away under the smoke-smothered stars.

Innovation ends up eating itself.

Published in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the book captures a particular moment when Americans began to notice the ecological detritus of unfettered innovation. Much of the book is fatalistic. It pits the innovator against the powerless ecologist:

They say I’m old-fashioned, and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast!

But the book ends with one optimistic word, inscribed on a stone – “unless” – a suggestion that there may be an alternative, that innovation may one day learn to comprehend its consequences.

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About Jack Stilgoe

Jack Stilgoe is a senior lecturer in science policy at the department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London.
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3 Responses to Lessons from the Lorax

  1. alice says:

    Ever read the pro-wood industry rebuttal to the Lorax, the Truax? It used to be available as an ebook on the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association website, but I think they realised the irony of this and it’s gone…

  2. Jack Stilgoe says:

    This sounds like a wind-up, but I suspect given the sensitivities of the American right that it might be all too true. Hilarious.

  3. Pingback: Control, closure and cars | Responsible Innovation

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