The Lorax – Teaching children philosophy
By Dr. Seuss, Random House
The Lorax has gone. But where did he go? The only things left are a sign in the road, and a sour smelling wind filled with nasty old crows. So where is the Lorax? Where did he go? The Once-ler can tell you, for only he knows. What happened here once in this place that’s now rotten? For the Once-ler remembers, knows how bad things have gotten, and of a wonderful world that’s now nearly forgotten. UNLESS… All hope is not lost, for the Once-ler indeed, has in his Lerkim just one special seed, and with hope and some love, and with you and with me, could take this small seed and bring the world back to speed?
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
By Jayme Johnson
The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss is a light-hearted but cautionary tale with a critically important message. If we do not collectively take responsibility for the stewardship of the environment, then our own world will soon be like the one that the Lorax left behind. Left to the devices of greed-based business interests, the resources of our world are being consumed at an abominable rate. And soon, they will all be gone. So while the Once-ler did eventually see the error of his greedy ways, it was already close to too late for his world.
One underlying message contained within the Lorax that is a good source of philosophical discussion is the idea of the interconnectedness of the things that live in an ecosystem. The ecosystem within the story completely falls apart when just one thing is taken away. As more and more of the Truffula trees get cut down, the area becomes less and less capable of supporting the multitude of other species all relying on the trees, and each other. So by removing the trees, things go completely out of balance. From a philosophical perspective, interesting questions may raised about what it means for things to be interdependent like they are in an ecosystem.
Viewed from one perspective, the different species in an ecosystem are like parts of a delicate, but efficiently functioning whole. But what is this thing called “an ecosystem” that other things are parts of? What is its nature as a sort of entity in itself? If one views the ecosystem as an independent entity, this raises all sorts of ethical question about what our social responsibilities are to our own ecosystem, and to the earth as one big interconnected ecosystem.
Answers to many of the questions about our social responsibility to the ecosystem seem currently to be driven by the notion of sustainability. In the Lorax it is not so much that the Once-ler has cut down a tree that upsets the Lorax, this just draws his attention. What initially upsets him is his discovery of the greedy intentions that the Once-ler has for the Fluff, and the realization that this greed would lead to disaster for his home. The idea of sustainability can be connected to the story when one raises the question of whether the Once-ler could have done things to keep the area healthy and able to continue flourishing. For example, had the Once-ler thought it through more carefully he would have realized that if he always replaced the trees that he took to harvest, there would always be enough trees both for him, and for the creatures dependent upon the tress for their survival. Again, important ethical questions can be raised here about what the Once-er’s responsibility to his surrounding ecosystem was, and whether there may have been a sustainable way to co-exist with all of the other parts of the ecosystem, without disrupting the balance, and hence its ability to function.
So far the discussion has been geared to the idea of social responsibility, but we can also ask about what the nature of social responsibility itself is. Of particular importance is coming to an understanding about the relationship between this abstract idea of social responsibility, and the concrete responsibilities that we as individuals have both to each other, and to our ecosystem. As the problem is presented in the Lorax, the Once-ler’s unchecked greed leads to resource depletion to the point of near extinction. So it is clear that the Once-ler has fallen short on his social responsibilities. But what could “we” have done to stop him? Did we have an obligation to prevent him from ruining things for everyone? It would seem so, but how, and who should stand up? Whose job is it to make sure “the Once-lers” out there in the real world are stopped? This problem is an example of the problem of collective action. We have a responsibility, but who are we? In the Lorax the implication is that we all have an individual responsibility to preserve the ecosystem. Hence, the last seed is handed to the narrator.
One final interesting philosophical topic that gets raised in the Lorax might be called the intrinsic value argument for environmental preservation. After realizing the mistakes he has made, and in his final address to the narrator (i.e. us), the Once-ler declares that while he once thought that Thneeds were what everybody needs it was actually Truffula Trees that everyone really needs. This weight of this declaration is carried by a tacitly made distinction in kinds of things we value. Some things we value because they provide us some kind of external good, which leads to some other good. For example, we earn money to get other things, not for the sake of the money itself. Other things we value for their own sake.
The joy of listening to a favorite song, for example, seems to be of value to us simply because of what it is, and not what it can get us. So some things, like money, we value because they have extrinsic worth, and other things, like happiness, we value for its intrinsic worth. The Once-ler’s declaration that the trees are what everyone really needs can be read as a claim that the Trees have a value all of there own. Also, and perhaps more importantly, the bringing back of the trees is a means to restoring the balance to the ecosystem. Why should we value a balanced functioning ecosystem? The Once-ler’s realization is that the ecosystem has intrinsic worth, and that a healthy, well-functioning ecosystem is a good in and of itself.
Questions for Philosophical Discussion
By Jayme Johnson
When the Lorax first appears to speak on behalf of the tress, the Once-ler claims he is doing no harm by cutting down Truffula Trees to make Thneeds.
- Was it harmful when the Once-ler cut down the first tree? If so, who, or what did it harm?
- What does it mean to do something harmful? How can you tell things that are harmful from things that are not? Is it harmful to cut down just one tree?
- Why do the Lorax and the Once-ler disagree on this? Who do you agree with?
- The Lorax claims that it was harmful for the Once-ler to cut down the tree. Are trees the kinds of things that can be harmed? Can anything not be harmed?
- The Lorax tells the Once-ler that his idea for Thneeds makes him sound crazy with greed. What is greed? How can you tell if a person is greedy?
- Is the Once-ler greedy? Why do you think so?
- Is being greedy harmful? Is it ever not harmful to be greedy? Is the Once-ler’s greediness harmful?
The Lorax also tries to speak for the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Swomee Swans, and the Humming Fish. The Once-ler ignores the Lorax and continues quickly expanding his business, cutting down more and more trees at a faster and faster clip…
- The Once-ler’s business making and selling Thneeds is very successful. Is the Once-ler’s success a good thing? Why or why not? What might make it good? What might make it bad?
- Now that the Once-ler is cutting down lots of trees, is this harmful? Why is cutting down one tree ok, but cutting down many trees harmful?
- What happens to the Brown Bar-ba-loots? Why does this happen? Did cutting down the trees harm the Bar-ba-loots?
- Why does the Once-ler keep expanding his business after the Brown Bar-ba-loots leave? Why does the Once-ler think that everyone needs Thneeds? Is he right?
- Why do the Swomee-Swans leave? How about the Humming Fish? What happened to their habitats? Why doesn’t the Once-ler care about what is happening around him?
- How are the problems for the Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, and Humming Fish all related to the Once-ler cutting down Truffula Trees? Can the same thing happen in real life?
- Why do you think the Once-ler keeps expanding more and more anyway? Is what the Once-ler doing morally wrong? Why? Is it morally wrong when these same things happen in real life?
When the Once-ler realizes what has happened, it seems like it is already too late
- What happens to the Once-ler’s factory once all the Truffula Trees are gone?
- What is the world around the factory like? Describe the details. Is this a nice place to be?
- Could the Once-ler have prevented this from happening?
- Do you think that there could have been a way for the Once-ler to make Thneeds, without causing harm? Why or why not?
- Do you think that if the Once-ler was not greedy, that he would have tried harder to be less harmful?
Once the Lorax leaves, and the Once-ler is alone, he discovers a message on a pile of small stones.
- Why does the Lorax leave the word “UNLESS” on a pile of rocks? What does “unless” mean?
- The Once-ler says that he didn’t mean to cause the harm he caused. Does not meaning to cause harm make you less responsible? How do you take responsibility for the things you have harmed? # Do we ever have a responsibility to repair the harm someone else has caused? Why or why not?
- Do you think that if we take the seed and follow the Once-ler’s new advice that the Lorax and his friends will come back?
- In the beginning of the story, the Once-ler claims that everyone needs Thneeds, but at the end he claims that what everyone really needs is Truffula trees. Why does he change his mind? What is different about the value of trees and the value of Thneeds? What makes trees more valuable?
When a pipeline threatened national forests, a federal court invoked Dr. Seuss