Ever since the publication of The Lorax in 1971, the Lorax himself has become an iconic representation of an environmental crusader. As a character, he sounds the warning of environmental catastrophe over and over again, but to no avail. The Once-ler is driven by greed, and is thus too self-absorbed and too self-interested to alter his actions according to the Lorax's urgent demands. This is a pattern all too familiar to environmentalists today, but it was a remarkably prescient story at the time of publication, during the dawning of the modern American environmental movement. How could Dr. Seuss have known that environmentalists would spend subsequent decades sounding the alarm bell for a variety of different environmental issues, only to be met with a level of resistance every bit as stubborn as the Once-ler?
Critics of the environmental movement have long derided its proponents for being alarmists and anti-progress. The Lorax seems to match these criticisms perfectly. Indeed, the Lorax's character has often been interpreted as a parody of a particularly self-righteous, holier-than-thou, killjoy version of environmentalism. The Once-ler's initial descriptions of the Lorax match this stereotype perfectly: the Lorax is "shortish" and "oldish" and has a voice that is "sharpish and bossy." The Lorax also fails to create the change he wishes to see, instead angering the Once-ler with his persistent nagging. In this interpretation of the Lorax's character, therefore, he acts as a symbol of the failures of the environmental movement.
Yet certain clues in Dr. Seuss's texts and the accompanying illustrations lend themselves to a different interpretation of the Lorax, one that imagines him as a member of the ecosystem himself and thus possessing knowledge indigenous to that land. After all, the Lorax appears for the first time and disappears for the last time out of a tree trunk. In other words, he appears out of nowhere, or out of the land itself. Indeed, the illustration that shows the moment when he first reveals himself to the Once-ler depicts the Lorax with zig-zag lightning bolts around him, giving him an aura or a sense of magic. The Lorax is also clearly an authority figure within the ecosystem itself; he advises the Brown Bar-ba-loots, the Swomee Swans, and the Humming Fish to all take their leave before it is too late—and they follow his advice. In this reading, the Lorax is not some moralizing figure who has decided the environment needs saving; he possesses a spiritual authority that is inherent in the land itself.
In conclusion, although Dr. Seuss's The Lorax is a a text with an unabashedly black-and-white message—anti-corporate greed, pro-environmental conservation—interpretations of the text's version of environmentalism differ. These varying readings of the source of the Lorax's authority, and his effectiveness, may provide impetus for diverse ways of thinking about how to protect and preserve the planet.