Monday, July 31, 2006

He Has To Speak For the Trees Because They're Free

My favorite Dr. Suess books have long been the modern-day parables of The Butter Battle Book and The Lorax. And much like everyone else, I have long thought of The Lorax as a well-told poem about corporate greed and preserving the environment. But courtesy of Jonathan Adler at The Commons Blog, here's a new interpretation (suggested by Paul Feine at IHS) of the tree-hugging classic:

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.

Very interesting: The Lorax as a story about propery rights (or more precisely, the destruction that follows when they don't exist). While I don't imagine this was what Dr. Suess had in mind (although I wouldn't put it past him; he was quite a crafty fellow), I will certainly offer this interpretation to my own hypothetical children when they read The Lorax sometime in the future, in addition to the important but more traditional lesson about preserving the environment.

Isn't it great that so many important lessons about the world can be drawn from simple children's stories like these? Animal Farm is of course another tale that almost perfectly describes the horrors of totalitarianism in a way that a child can understand. That's pretty damn cool.


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