Message 94, “The Gospel According to Dr. Seuss: The Lorax”, 5-13-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

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Last year I announced that I was not going to specifically celebrate Mother’s or Father’s Day anymore.  They seem like anachronistic events designed more as marketing tools to sell flowers or boost restaurant sales than heartfelt celebrations.  If one truly appreciates his or her mother, than one ought to be expressing that each and every day of the year – much like I do for my mom – I tell her I love her each and every day………..  (Not really, but I like to make myself look good!)

But, in keeping with this month’s theme on the “Gospel According to Dr. Seuss”, I decided to break my own rule and acknowledge today our one true mother – the one true womb from whom we each have come, the one true nurturer and sustainer of all life, our mother earth.  I don’t intend to engage in an environmental rant, however.  Rather, just as Seuss did in his children’s book The Lorax, (show slide One) which is the focus of my message today, I hope we can consider the value of the environment from a spiritual perspective.  Do we pay lip service to its well-being or can we be environmentalists in an honestly balanced way – one that offers respect and protection while still enjoying the benefits of nature?

Theodore Geisel published The Lorax in 1971 – a year when the environment was very much in the news with oil spills staining the California coastline and Cleveland’s Cuyahoga river infamously catching fire.  While Dr. Seuss said he wrote his books mostly for the reading pleasure of children, it is clear that The Lorax has a very pointed message.

The story opens with a young boy visiting a grim and polluted place to meet a reclusive figure whom we never fully see – the Once-ler.  (show slide 2)  The boy asks the Once-ler why the surroundings are so devastated, barren and grey.  The Once-ler says that when he first arrived, the area was a pristine place – a bright and colorful Eden teeming with Brown Bar-ba-loots, Humming-Fish and large tufted Truffula trees. (show slide 3)  The trees were of particular interest to Once-ler since they could be used in the manufacture of his invention – a “Thneed” that is apparently invaluable to any person. (show slide 4)  “A Thneed’s A Fine Something That All People Need!  It’s a shirt. It’s a sock.  It’s a glove.  It’s a hat.  But it has other uses.  Yes, far beyond that!”

The Once-ler then began to mass produce Thneeds – all to meet insatiable consumer demand.  A factory is built, employees are hired and Truffula trees are cut down all in the name of progress and the production of Thneeds.  (show slide 5)  A creature called The Lorax protests this mass deforestation.  “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues” he tells the Once-ler.  (show slide 6)

But the Once-ler admits that he paid no attention to the nagging Lorax.  In his greed and pursuit of profit, he pushed ahead until, after a while, every Truffula tree had been chopped down.  (show slide 7)  With no more Thneeds to be made, the factory shuts down, employees lose their jobs, the Brown Bar-ba-loots and Humming Fish leave the new wasteland and even the Lorax departs for a better world.  (show slide 8) The Once-ler is left to live in a grey world of his own creation – one with polluted air, no trees, a shuttered factory and, of course, no people or creatures.

Dr. Seuss does not end the story here, though.  He concludes on a hopeful note as the Once-ler bestows on the boy the very last Truffula tree seed.  (slide 9)  “You’re in charge of the last of the Truffula Seeds”  the Once-ler tells the boy.  “And Truffula Trees are what everyone needs.  Plant a new Truffula.  Treat it with care.  Give it clean water.  And feed it fresh air.  Grow a forest.   Protect it from axes that hack.  Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back.”

Equal to his many other books, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax is filled with creative characters, vibrant illustrations and humorous, rhyming verse.  As a children’s book, it tells a compelling story while respecting the active minds of young people.   This is no simple story.  Its characters are complex and imaginative.  The plot is alive and interesting.  While its message is not as subtle or perhaps as funny as that of Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax encourages its young readers to think about a great issue of 1971 and even of today.  As an ardent progressive Christian, Geisel was also making a strong spiritual appeal.

That fits well with my intention today to celebrate the earth as our ultimate mother.  As we often say at the Gathering, spirituality is not about offering answers and ironclad doctrine regarding what we should believe.  Rather, spirituality is concerned with asking questions about ourselves and our world.  It is about grounding us in the reality of what is true of human nature and then encouraging us to change for the better – to reform ourselves such that our better angels guide our actions.   If our purpose is to live so that we improve ourselves and the world, then care for our mother earth is a spiritual endeavor.  It is a spiritual task to ask ourselves how we are doing in that regard.

Indeed, we each accept that ALL creation is sacred – all plants, animals and humans – even rocks and soil – are bound together in a divine unity.  We share one creator, one source, one mother and are thus interconnected in a vastly complex system.  The dust of the earth and the trees of a forest will one day be me just as you and I are made of the stuff of ancient plant and animals.  All life is dependent on other life for existence.  While this is not only scientific fact, it is also a spiritual one.

And that is the message of Dr. Seuss in The Lorax.  The book is not, however, an environmental scream at humanity to be better.  Nowhere in the book does it imply or say that a tree should not be cut down.  Nowhere does it suggest that nature should not be used to provide for our needs.  Indeed, the book implies that good can come from nature – useful products and employment for workers who make them.  Dr. Seuss uses the Lorax character to voice an ironically conservative message regarding human nature and the environment – “Sometimes progress progresses too fast.”

What the book suggests IS bad, is human excess – our propensity to want more and more of anything good.  Human greed is the problem.  Not human need.  How do we fulfill our purpose to build heaven on earth with less disease, hunger and poverty – while still ensuring we do no harm to the earth?  That is a spiritual question facing humanity.  Can we increase food production to feed the world, can we find new drugs to cure disease, can we create new technology to make life easier, can we offer meaningful employment to all – can we do all these things and yet preserve our natural world?

The Dalai Lama says that care for our earth is a simple spiritual matter.  It is as simple as taking care of one’s house.  The earth, after all, is our one and only home.  The Book of Ecclesiastes, part of the Jewish and Christian Old Testament, quotes Gods as saying, “Look at My world, how beautiful and perfect is everything that I created.  I created it for you.  Be careful not to ruin and destroy My world.  If you ruin it, there is nobody to restore it after you.

Acting contrary to God’s appeal, however, humanity is quickly eliminating much of the world’s primeval forests – just as foretold in The Lorax.  These are forests untouched by human development – places where vast numbers of unique species exist and where indigenous human tribes have dwelled for thousands of years.

The Amazon rainforest, the forests of Madagascar, Indonesia and southwest China are all in peril.  Over 150 acres of untouched forest are destroyed each and every minute – the loss of of 216,000 acres a day – all cut down for logging, mining and farming.  At this rate, scientists estimate the world will be devoid of primeval forest within forty years.

And such a loss comes with significant consequence to humanity.  Over three-hundred drugs have been derived solely from rainforests.  These are drugs that treat cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and AIDS.  Muscle relaxants and plant based steroids to treat multiple sclerosis were just recently discovered in the Amazon.  25% of all current drugs on the market have at least one chemical compound found within the Amazon rainforest.  And yet scientists have analyzed only 1% of Amazon plants for their pharmacological potential.  What miracle cures could yet be discovered if the Amazon rainforest is somehow saved?

Human diversity is also being destroyed along with the forests.  Before Europeans first landed in the Americas, experts estimate that over 10 million indigenous people lived within the Amazon basin.  Today, fewer than 200,000 native people live in the forest – and that number is rapidly declining as Amazon tribes are encouraged to develop, clear land, begin farming and thus, supposedly, improve their lives.

A number of years ago, I travelled to the Central American nation of Belize with an outreach team to work at building homes.  We did not travel to the resort and beach towns along the coast of that Carribbean nation – the Belize most tourists see.  We ventured to small inland villages many miles from the coast where people lived in huts made of tree branches and thatched roofs.  Pigs and chickens ran wild, the young children were unclothed, the villages lacked running water and electricity.  People survived through subsistence farming, hunting and foraging.  Initially, I believed such villages were terribly poor and in need of assistance.

With an arrogant western attitude, I assumed that by building cinder block houses with cement floors, the lives of these people would be improved.  Other agencies were helping to dig wells and run electrical lines.  Slowly, some of these villages were being transformed.  Progress was coming.

But was it?  I came to conclude that perhaps what we were doing – supposedly building better homes – was not for the best.  Is a house with a tin roof and cement floor better?  In a tropical climate, are young children richer if they wear clothes and watch TV instead of run and play naked outdoors?  Indeed, I was forced to ask myself that, when comparing native village life and its close to nature existence with my own life of houses, cars and grocery stores, which is richer and which is poorer?  Who is happier and more fulfilled?

While Theodore Geisel was a progressive and he even described his writing as subversive, he was a NOT a wild-eyed radical.  The Lorax was initially banned in many schools and libraries, however.  Even today, it is regarded as controversial.  But just as Geisel encouraged kids to have open minds and free thinking in Green Eggs and Ham, as we discussed last week – he implicitly asks the same in The Lorax about nature.   Industry is not bad by itself nor is the use of wood products derived from trees bad.  Geisel’s books and his profits, after all, were printed on paper made from trees!  We are grossly mistaken if we assume The Lorax promotes a radical environmentalism that forbids any development.

As I have often said in here, answers to difficult questions and issues usually lie somewhere between two extremes – somewhere in the middle.  This is true in politics, religion and life in general.  It is comfortable and easy to stake out an extreme position on any matter.  Truth, however, is far more complex.  With regard to the environment, human beings are simply one species here on earth who are not to abandon the use of nature, but to coexist, protect and sustain it.  The indigenous people of the Amazon rainforest or of any other forest in the world do not live apart from nature.  They are a part of it and they USE it for their very survival.  We must do the same.

What Geisel promotes is greater regulation on excessive greed – a frailty of human nature that no amount of religion or morality has been able to eliminate.  He does not speak against development, factories or jobs – merely that such advantages cannot be focused solely on short-term profit.  Indeed, he echoes an important spiritual theme.  As the Bible says, money is NOT the root of all evil.  We are NOT told we must live in poverty without any money or resources.  Rather, the Bible says that it is the LOVE of money that is the root of all evil.  Such a love of money is what causes misuse of the environment.  In The Lorax, manufacturing Thneeds from the Truffula trees is not evil.  It is the greed of the Once-ler in cutting down ALL of the Truffula trees that is evil.  As ironic as it might seem, Geisel’s appeal to regulate greed is actually an appeal to insure that development and progress might continue.  Spiritually speaking, he is asking humans to save themselves from themselves!

A nuanced and balanced approach to celebrating and protecting mother earth acknowledges her resources and the benefits they provide.  With such a recognition, must come an important effort to protect her long-term well-being.  If we are to reap the benefits of new drugs found in rainforests, we must protect them from being wiped out just as we must protect any part of the environment from unrestrained destruction.

And this is not a matter of simple tree-hugging.  As I said earlier, it is a spiritual concern.  The Bible tells us that God put all creation under the dominion of humanity to use and enjoy its fruits.  A spiritually balanced approach, though, tells us that we must protect and preserve creation for the long term – just as the Dalai Lama says we protect and preserve our homes for our own benefit.

Even more, we protect and preserve our earth mother because she is an intrinsic part of us and we are a part of her.  Just as we are sacred, so is she.  It is holy, right, moral and spiritual to be concerned with preserving the earth since doing so preserves human life.

Towards the end of The Lorax, the Once-ler shows the boy a small pile of rocks, one of which has the word “Unless” inscribed on it.  (slide 10)  “Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess”, writes Seuss.  “That was long, long ago.  But each day since that day I’ve sat here and worried and worried away.  Through the years, while my buildings have fallen apart, I’ve worried about it with all of my heart.  ‘But now,’ says the Once-ler, ‘Now that you’re here, the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.  UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”  (slide 11)

On this day of the year when we are asked to celebrate the perfect ideals of motherhood, we can heed the same message toward our mother earth.  Good moms, like my mom, are nurturing, supportive, protective and giving.  In their presence, we feel love and security.  When we walk through a local forest, hike across mountain meadows or gaze upon vast oceans, we experience the same feelings of love and security.  In the bosom of this earth we are fed, housed, healed and entertained.  Such is a sacred gift offered to all humanity and all creation.  For our sake and for the sake of creating heaven on earth, we must honor and protect this mother of all life so that we may continue to benefit from her.  We must restrain human propensity toward greed and misuse.  In that regard, may we wish our true mother a happy mother’s day – one that she might celebrate for many, many years to come.

I wish you all peace and joy…