Rainbow Rant: The left’s Lorax problem

If we’re going to speak for the trees, or any other cause, we’ll need to learn to be persuasive

Joy Ellison
A sign depicting the Lorax, a Dr. Suess character, is seen during a protest on Thursday, July 29, 2021, at the former location of The Varsity in Athens, Georgia. The trees on the site are threatened by new development plans on the property.

The left has a problem. We’re consistently winning on the issues: Medicare For All, abortion access, trans rights and more. Polling shows that many Americans agree with progressive positions, but we struggle to translate that into any meaningful political power. 

It’s as though people agree with our beliefs, but they don’t like us. What’s an activist to do? 

The answer is in The Lorax.

The Lorax, of course, is Dr. Seuss’ environmentalist polemic for children. When a villain called the Once-ler discovers the idyllic Truffula tree forest, he immediately begins cutting down the trees and manufacturing the ultimate consumer product, an all-purpose “thneed.” Thneeds would be right at home on Wish.com or in the Skymall catalogue. Soon enough, demand for the useless objects is sky high. 

“I meant no harm,” says the Once-ler. “I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.” 

It doesn’t take long for the Once-ler’s factories to disrupt the entire Truffula ecosystem, leaving the Brown Bar-ba-loots hungry, the Swomee-Swans wheezing through smog and the Humming Fish choking on Gluppity-Glupp. It’s only when the Once-ler cuts down the very last Truffula tree that he realizes that he should have listened to the Lorax’s warnings. 

In The Lorax, Dr. Seuss deftly calls out the careless, short-sighted greed of unfettered capitalism; that’s the lesson that the left readily grasps. Dr. Seuss, however, has something else to teach us about the nature of persuasion — and that lesson is far harder to learn.

The titular Lorax is admirable, but ultimately a failure. The reason? Because he knows he’s right, he assumes he can present his case any way he pleases. Instead of attempting to persuade the Once-ler, he admonishes him.

Of the Lorax, Dr. Seuss writes, “He spoke with a voice that was sharpish and bossy.” Sound like any leftists you know? I think if we’re honest, many of us can hear ourselves in Dr. Seuss’ description. 

The Lorax’s anger, of course, is completely justified. The Once-ler’s actions are causing ecological collapse. His world is crumbling around him. It’s a crisis, so the Lorax’s perpetually grumpy mood is understandable, but it does nothing to convince the Once-ler. 

Like the Lorax, the feelings of the left are justified and deserve a place in public life. Our rage and sadness are warranted, and their expression is not just inevitable, but healthy and productive. When handled with care, pain can be alchemized into great art, convincing arguments and beautiful acts of compassion. Those things have the power to bring people over to our side. Self-righteousness, though? Not so much. 

In the end, it’s the Once-ler, former thneed tycoon, who effectively delivers Dr. Seuss’ message. Through Whisper-ma-Phone, he tells a child what he has learned from his mistakes. He acts as a humble teacher, not a windbag ideologue. Most importantly, he gives the child the tools to act: a Truffula seed. 

“Plant a Truffula tree,” the Once-ler says. “Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air.” It’s the kind of call to action that builds a movement.

To change the world, one must persuade other people. There is simply no way around that fact. It’s true of both militant struggles and nonviolent ones. Yes, some people are fundamentally unmovable in their positions and thus debating with them is a waste. But the battle for minds and hearts is inescapable. 

This is a difficult truth to face because reckoning with it means facing the possibility of failure. We might lack persuasive skills or we might find ourselves overwhelmed by prejudice and misinformation. Success, however, begins with trying. 

It’s alright to be mad

It’s alright to be sad

But if we can also be kind

We just might change some minds