Today’s WTF: Lou Dobbs was (sorta) right about “The Lorax”

When I first heard Lou Dobbs complaining about the new feature film “The Lorax”, I pretty much dismissed it. His Fox News commentaries have, in the past, been more than a little off base in my opinion, so I tend to take his words with a huge pinch of salt. And this one sounded especially silly, with protests that the movie was intended to “indoctrinate our children” and turn them into little members of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

After seeing the movie with my kid this past weekend, I am here to report that old Lou was not entirely incorrect in his assessment. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film was specifically addressing the Occupy protesters, since it went into production back in 2009, well before Occupy Wall Street and the “99%” subculture came to prominence. Moreover, the film is (obviously) based on the Dr. Seuss book of the same name, which has been on the bookshelves of kids everywhere since its publication in 1971.

But the message of the book is certainly pumped up to gargantuan proportions in the film, making the theme of conservation vs. big business far more “in your face” than it was in its original form. I can honestly see why Dobbs and other conservatives may feel that the movie is blatantly hostile towards capitalism. They could easily point to one particular musical number called “How Bad Can I Be?” to support their suspicions. This is a sequence during which the Once-ler (the antagonist and the symbol of corporate greed and excess) lays out his philosophy in terminology that clearly echoes the stereotypical viewpoint of hard-core capitalists:

“There’s a principle in business that everybody knows is sound/It says the people with the money make this ever-lovin’ world go ’round….How bad can I be? I’m just building the economy.”

About as subtle as an ax to the head, no? Now, this is not to say that the message was invented by the makers of this particular film, because anyone who read the book certainly realizes that it wasn’t. But this sequence is so very black and white, and it leaves no room for discussion: business bad, nature good. I respect kids enough to think that it could have been handled more thoughtfully.

In the original animated adaptation of “The Lorax”, a short film made for television and released in 1972, there were some obvious attempts to frame the issue differently, and in more depth, than the book had done. At one point, the Once-ler asks the Lorax what good it would do to close down his factory and put people out of work, to which the Lorax concedes he has no real answer. In another sequence, the Once-ler is contemplating his actions and questioning whether the things he does in the name of progress are “completely un-good”. Both of these moments reflect the real-world factors that people must consider when trying to strike a balance between economic growth and respect for the earth we share, not to mention the living beings with whom we share it.

The new film shows no such nuance, and allows no such shades of gray. The idea of business is never presented in a positive light, and the Once-ler never questions himself, making him a character for whom the audience has little or no sympathy. I am a reasonable person, and I know every story has (at least) two sides, which is why I had a problem with the way this film made its points.

Let me also say, however, that I do agree with the spirit of the message, if not the execution of the film in relaying that message effectively. The earth needs its Lorax-like defenders, and too many business people do, in fact, come off like the Once-ler. There is constant railing on the right about the way government regulations “strangle” the free market, and a pervasive point of view among conservatives that economic progress must be completely unfettered. This doesn’t wash with me. Regulations which are intended to protect the air, water and land from the toxic by-products of certain industrial processes are both reasonable and necessary, as are regulations that ensure that the products businesses produce are safe for the environment and for the people who use them. There is certainly a great deal of wasteful bureaucratic clusterfuckery involved with the implementation of these regulations, which is definitely a valid problem, and a “WTF” for another day. But I get livid when I hear corporations asking to be absolved of their responsibilities for the impacts they make on our environment.

Anyone with a good idea, ambition and a willingness to work hard certainly deserves the freedom to pursue success, but  there must be some responsibility taken by those in the business world for the way they affect the earth’s well-being. Sorry if that cuts into your profits, folks, but if you’re going to claim dominion over rivers, trees or mountains which were never put here for your own financial benefit, then you need to compensate the rest of the world for appropriating them and allowing them to be squandered as part of the collateral damage caused by your business practices.

Better yet, the world of capitalism should learn that any business that relies on the destruction or depletion of our natural resources is a losing game. It simply isn’t a sustainable path for corporations to follow. As the Once-ler discovered, eventually you’re gonna run out of trees to chop down and rivers to pollute. Our natural resources are precious and finite, and should be treated as such.

I’d like to think that conservatives realize that their principles can easily work hand in hand with the principles of conservation. Lou Dobbs criticized the subtext of “green energy policy” favoritism that he claimed to see in “The Lorax”, but that’s not a smart comment to make. It seems clear to any forward-thinking person that the business opportunities of tomorrow are going to follow a much different model than those that have dominated our industrial past. The fields of sustainable, environmentally-sound  energy, transportation and technology offer so many untapped chances for exponential growth, and they will be the job-creating forces that shape our future economy. Those who drag their feet and oppose these concepts are doing their cause no favors. While “The Lorax” is very heavy-handed, it does give kids in the audience an understanding that we are all responsible for maintaining the planet we call home, and that if we fail to do so, it won’t be there for us forever. If that’s “indoctrination”, it’s the kind I can live with, and it’s the kind that might help tomorrow’s entrepreneurs come up with ideas that will both strengthen our economy and respect and protect our planet a little bit more.

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