“I, the Once-ler”

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”

I used to think that was the moral of the Dr. Suess book, “The Lorax”. I’m pretty sure that’s what most people think. Now, having read the story about 200 times in the last year to my book-hungry two-year-old (yes, I can recite almost all of it, I practice in the shower sometimes) I’m pretty sure the moral is smack-dab in the middle of the book.

For those of you who haven’t read it in a while, or at all, here is my quick summary: a young boy wanders to the outskirts of town seeking the “Once-ler”, a hermit who lives in a decrepit old building.  For a small fee, “15 cents and a nail and the shell of a great, great, great grandfather snail,” he pays the Once-ler to tell him the tale about the Lorax. The Once-ler starts by telling about himself, when he first came to the area, an enthusiastic entrepreneur, he arrived in the truffula tree forest, and started a business making “Thneeds” out of truffula tufts (“a thneeds a fine something that all people need”).

After he makes his first thneed the Lorax appears out of the tree he chopped down.  He is essentially a forest spirit, charged with protecting the trees and the creatures that live in the forest. He asks the Once-ler not to chop down the trees and the Once-ler argues he is, “doing no harm,” and “being quite useful” and continues to build an empire out of chopping truffula trees to make thneeds, which “everyone, Everyone, EVERYONE needs.”

Just as we start to learn of the ramifications of the Once-ler’s “hacking the trees to the ground” the true moral comes. The Lorax comes to the Once-ler and tells him the Barbaloots (bear-like creatures that eat truffula fruits) will have to leave the forest because there is not enough food left.

“They loved living here but I can’t let them stay. They’ll have to find food and I hope that they may. Good lucks, boys, he cried. And he sent them away.”

Here it comes . . .

“I, the Once-ler, felt sad
as I watched them all go.
BUT. . .
business is business!
And business must grow
regardless of crummies in tummies you know.”

Am I right?

The Once-ler and his family (and indirectly everyone buying Thneeds) destroy the forest, pollute the water and soil and then just leave with their money when there is nothing left to harvest. They can’t be bothered by starving animals, polluted water or air, they’ve got to get “BIGGER”.

By the time the boy comes to hear the story of the Lorax the soil is still so polluted that only “Grickle-grass grows”. And then, the Once-ler has the audacity to suggest that the Lorax’s final message was that this boy (or someone like him), who had no role in the destruction of the forest, should somehow with ‘the very last truffula seed of them all’ (think of the limited gene potential) and a toxic wasteland rebuild what he destroyed . . .

It’s preposterous.

Yes, someone like us must care a whole awful lot.  But everyone has to care enough to check themselves when they are being a Once-ler and a thneed-buyer and creating the problems others will have to deal with in the future. We all do it. How often do we do the wrong thing when it comes to the environmental or social repercussions of our actions?  I’m so concerned with my impact on the world that it’s practically crippling and yet I still do, and buy and say (or don’t say) things that have a negative impact on others.

It’s impossible to exist without negatively impacting others or taking up space that could be taken up by something else. The greatest challenge presented to us as humans, capable of realizing our impact, both present and future, is deciding what that impact will be. It is so un-sexy to deeply and actively care about how our actions and purchases affect the rest of the world. It’s definitely not what the marketers are telling us to think and feel. I even read articles by activists that suggest being concerned about the social and environmental impact of our individual purchases is a waste of time.

There are so many of us and we consume so much and produce so much waste. The only choice left if we will not take individual responsibility is to enforce policy.  What if there had been regulations in place that ensured the Once-ler harvested the truffula trees in a sustainable way? Would there still be a forest? Would the Once-ler still be making thneeds? But regulation gets in the way of ‘the free market’ and individual freedom to dominate resources when possible, and they are hard to create and hard to enforce.

The line, “business is business” is homage to capitalism. To the idea that businesses are so essential to our collective well-being that we must make allowances, and turn the other cheek, regardless of the consequences. But too often the consequences are indirect or, the Once-lers of the world hide the impacts to protect their bottom line, and their shareholders. Or the consequences only affect marginalized people (or people who don’t exist yet) who don’t have the resources to protect their rights.

Staying optimistic is really hard, especially if you aren’t very optimistic to begin with (like me). But without optimism, without believing that our actions are meaningful, that small change is important, that our own voices matter as do those around us, we won’t be able to reach any kind of solution.

I’m not offering a solution here, but, since it’s earth day I will suggest that you ask yourself before you buy something:

  1. Was a person exploited to make this (under-paid, exposed to unsafe working conditions . . . if we can’t take care of people we can’t take care of the environment)
  2. Will this be garbage some day? (Wood, natural cloth, metal, glass, food . . . these things will decompose or burn or are easily recycled , they will become something else – its plastic mostly that will inevitably be garbage and it comes in so many forms. Also, services, like music lessons, vising a museum, listening to a podcast are pretty low impact.)
  3. Do I really need this? Will it meet a need, will it make me happy for more than a moment?
  4. What else could I do instead? Is there a place where I can get this used? Is there a lower-impact option?

Changing our buying habits is a start, but it won’t be enough. Consider advocating for policy, like the plastic bag ban in Ashland, MA. Its a small impact compared to the 4,000,000,000,000 bags used world wide annually. But it can influence other towns to join, or maybe even the state or the nation?

Oh, and be nice in the process. It’s hard to not be self-righteous and judgmental and condescending and rude. I struggle with it too.  It comes from a place of frustration and feeling overwhelmed with global problems that will require epic collaboration to resolve. But it doesn’t help, and when people feel defensive, they are less likely to listen, and even less likely to change. So be kind, be understanding, and believe, that if given the chance and enough information, people will want to do the right thing. And remember, we are privileged to even have the space and time to write and read this post and consider our impact. If someone is struggling to meet their basic needs, or the needs of their family, how can anyone nit-pick their purchasing decisions? Advocating for social justice is a step towards environmental sustainability and more important than recycling or buying ecologically friendly things. People who are taken care of are more capable of taking care of others and the world around them.

We use too much plastic on our farm (seedling trays, soil bags, greenhouse skin, row cover, soil bags . . .). We are working to reduce the plastic on our farm, but in the mean time we will continue to use it for as long as it is usable, source it as responsibly as possible and recycle whatever can be recycled, even if it means driving to special recycling facilities to do so.

We also still do a fair amount of tillage to prepare the soil for planting. Ever since I became aware of no-till production about five years ago I have run minor experiments, and paid attention to soil quality and crop quality when it comes to tillage, and I can tell you, less tillage=healthier soil=healthier crops. The problem? We are squeezed onto a small acreage trying to make enough money to stay in business when real farming is barely a viable option in our area. If we had long term security we’d be investing heavily in a variety of improvements to lessen our impact on the soil. But for now we will continue to use minimal tillage, grow cover crops, and work towards long-term land security. And be aware and care.

We can’t have no impact, but we will do our best to have the least impact possible, and to constantly improve, because we love this world, we love life and beauty and joy, and we want to preserve, protect and promote that for as many others as possible.

Happy Earth Day!