The Lorax, High Priest of Environmentalism

Earth Day. It’s the High Holy Day of the Church of Environmentalism. Conservationists don’t use such language of themselves, but the analogy is not far off. They have a god (mother nature, the Earth, etc.). They have a concept of sin (pollution, deforestation, extinction). They have penance (recycling, biodegradable products). They have an apocalyptic, redemptive eschatology (green energy and mass reduction in the human population and therefore human impact on the global ecosystem). They have a priestly caste (scientists and especially climatologists). Perhaps most scary of all, they have gotten themselves installed as the official state religion of at least one big political party and much of the “Deep State” bureaucracy that enjoys a symbiotic relationship with them.

Among this secular, pagan religion, one of the well-known parables is The Lorax by Theodor Seuss Geisel – Dr. Seuss himself. This short, illustrated story is a cautionary tale to children about the dangers of succumbing to the temptations of the Great Enemy (capitalism). A grim setting reminiscent of a rust belt city introduces us to the tragic, anti-hero cum narrator, The Once-ler, who tells his sad tale to the young inquirer (who stands in for the reader).

The story opens on an Edenic forest scene, where various creatures live in peace, harmony, and happiness with each other, and the sacred Truffula trees stand at the center of the ecosystem, providing shelter and food to Bar-ba-loots. The Once-ler happens upon this forest, and from his mind there springs whole the idea for a Thneed – some sort of all-in-one article of clothing that soon becomes popular. Once-ler quickly hires his whole family, builds a factory and logging machines, and sets to work growing his Thneed empire. In the process, his factory pollutes the air and water, and he unintentionally but uncaringly drives out the sympathetic creatures from their habitat. In the end, the Once-ler family cuts down every last Truffula tree and goes out of business. The only hope for the species affected is a solitary Truffula seed that Once-ler passes on to his listener.

This seems like a nice morality tale about greed and caring for the earth. What problem could anarcho-capitalists have with this? Do they just hate nature and want to see the whole world turned into one giant Pittsburgh (sorry Pittsburgh residents – Detroit gets a lot of hate)?

Actually, there are some redeemable elements to this story from the point of view of liberty-lovers. The problem is, as with many of these sorts of myths, it starts from poor assumptions.

To the modern environmentalist, nature is pristine – holy, almost – and humanity is a malevolent invader into this nature. I believe that is why so many advocate a reduction in human population; they truly believe humans and our intelligence and desire to better ourselves are a disease on the earth.

Moon catches earth's STD (humans)
An example of environmentalist views of humanity

As a Christian, I realize there’s a half-truth here. God did create a perfect world for us, which we ruined by joining the rebellion against Him. However, it’s important to note that in the Christian and earlier Mosaic histories, earth is created for mankind – not to destroy, of course, but to enjoy. And God will once again restore that perfect world for humans, not destroy them in order to heal the world.

So, in The Lorax we see this mythology played out. Man is the antithesis of Nature, and unless we repent and seek to undo the wrongs of our fathers, Nature will spew us out of her mouth and we will wallow in a suffering of our own making.

But what if there is another way to view this story? What if you are not a misanthropic environmentalist, but actually care about human well-being? Does that mean you inevitably must support the actions of Once-ler? Of course not! Even from a capitalist point of view, Once-ler was a very poor manager of resources.

Consider farming, one of the oldest economic activities in the world. If the first farmers had behaved like Once-ler did in The Lorax, they would have harvested the first wild corn or wheat crops and eaten them all, leaving nothing for regrowing a new crop. That was obvious to people thousands of years ago and it’s still obvious today. The way to get the most value out of a renewable resource (like corn or trees) is to make sure it keeps growing.

What advice would a wise, free-market economist give Once-ler? For the sake of example, let’s assume that it takes 30 years for a Truffula tree to reach maturity when it can be harvested to make Thneeds. Therefore, to make his business sustainable (in the sense that it will go on as long as there is demand for Truffula products), he would need to harvest no more than 1/30th of the Truffula trees each year, and he would need to replant young Truffulas to take their place. If demand was sufficient, he could even plant new Truffula forests where less valuable trees or even no trees at all were growing. In other words, he probably would have increased the habitat for Bar-ba-loots and the other animals.

What about the pollution of the water and air around the factory? This is a bit more complicated. Certainly in the past humans have fouled up rivers and lakes and the air around cities. But the wise businessperson has some good reasons not to pollute as well, even if that pollution is not coming near any other person’s property (which would trigger a whole other set of considerations).

One such reason is that pollution, being waste, is expensive! Pollutants are little bits of your product that aren’t being put to good use. Perhaps the Thneed factory ran on coal, which had to be brought from far away. If the coal is putting out pollutants, that means you paid to have those pollutants shipped to your factory just to pump them into the air. How wasteful! That’s good reason to convert to more refined and cleaner fuels that give you more energy per pound, and consequently put out less soot.

Another reason is that pollution lowers the future value of the land. A wise person would have a contingency for an unexpected decline in the demand for his Thneeds – say, they go out of fashion as quickly as they came in. If he ruined all the water and air in his Thneed forest (besides being potentially harmful to the valuable Truffula trees), he would be left with a useless, unsalable piece of land for years until the pollution cleared up. Not smart! If he kept the pollution to a minimum, the land would be much more attractive for other uses should Thneed-making become bad business.

A third reason is that unpolluted forest could offer other revenue streams. Once-ler could have operated a Bar-ba-loot safari, or rented out picnic pavilions or opened a woodlands resort.

Of course, no one person is likely to think of every possible use of a given resource. That’s why markets are so important. According to F. A. Hayek and others, markets and the prices of goods that make them up are means of conveying information to the world about the uses of that good, even without having to know every detail yourself. I don’t need to know every possible use for a resource like copper to figure out whether my idea for it is the most valuable for society. I just have to compare the price of copper (which is driven by everyone else’s trying to buy it for their ideas) to the value of the product I want to use it in. If the value of my product in the market is worth more than all the inputs (copper, energy, my labor, etc.) then it is more valuable than at least some other uses for copper. Likewise, I don’t have to know much about the inner workings of Google or Wal-Mart, for example, to know whether I ought to invest in them. I can look at the price of their stocks and bonds and see what a vast number of other people have learned about those companies recently.

This brief explanation does not do justice to the beauty and power of markets. I include it merely to say, that the tale of Once-ler and the Lorax is about not heeding the voice of wisdom. Yet you notice I didn’t even include the Lorax in my synopsis of the story. That’s because the Lorax is ultimately useless. He does nothing to help the Bar-ba-loots or Swomee-Swans or Humming-Fish. All he does is nag Once-ler. This Lorax would fit in nicely at the EPA or on a congressional committee about the plight of the Truffula. Sadly, this world Dr. Seuss created had plenty of moralizing nags and not enough self-interested capitalists.

What Anarchy Is Not

I am very sympathetic to the ideas of anarcho-capitalists. If you were to ask for a very brief description of my political views it would be, “Government is not necessary, but it’s inevitable.”

In discussing this with friends, I find that many balk at the idea of anarchism. Indeed, most libertarian-minded people, well-known and otherwise, do not go to the extent of anarchism. I think, though, that the hesitation is mostly semantic. Let me try to clarify what I mean by anarchism and (the lack of) government.

By government I mean an organized, political system whereby some individual or group makes a monopoly claim to the legitimate use of force. Where I think I differ from most people is I do not equate “government” with “governance” or “rule of law.” So here is my list of things anarchy is not.

Anarchy is not…

  • … lawlessness. Anarchist societies would still have laws, in the natural law sense that many scholars, such as Hayek, have discussed at length.
  • … a lack of governance; that is, an anarchist society still has institutions (note the important plurality) that limit or inform the behavior of people and communities.
  • … rule by the strongest – such a society is by definition not anarchist (i.e., without rulers), and anyone attempting to assert rule over others would be breaking the law and would become subject to the governance of the society at large.
  • … the natural state of humans.

This last point may be the most important. I believe anarchy is the polar opposite of the base tendencies of humans. An anarchist society would require that the vast majority of its citizens be highly virtuous, committed to all of the virtues as cataloged by Dierde McCloskey:

  • Love for fellow man that sees others as not only capable of making decisions for themselves, but intrinsically worthy of being afforded the right to make their own choices;
  • Faithfulness to the ideology of anarchy and absolute freedom;
  • Hope that future generations will be able to sustain the virtues that make anarchy possible;
  • Courage to stand against those who do stray from any of these virtues;
  • Seeking justice for others whose rights are violated, just as if your rights were violated;
  • Temperance (with a large dose of humility) to restrain from thinking that you can decide for others better than they can decide for themselves;
  • Prudence (again with humility) to understand that spontaneous order is better than any societal order you or another person can imagine.

Anarchy is not childish or violent. Indeed, it is possible only when most people think and act like mature adults.