Are you a greedy Once-ler or a tree-hugging Lorax? If you spend too much time listening to hyper partisan politicians and talk radio, you might think those are mutually exclusive options. They aren't, of course. Take a deep breath, briefly let go of your affiliation with whatever political party claims you, and take a walk with me.
I recently took my two children, ages five and eleven, to see The Lorax. The movie is based on Dr. Seuss's 1971 children's book in which a greedy industrialist turns a pristine wilderness area into a wasteland in order to make a profit, despite warnings from the Lorax, a mystical but non-threatening creature who says, "I speak for the trees." After the trees and his profits are gone, the industrialist, known as the "Once-ler" regrets his actions. The story ends with the hopeful prospect of regrowth and the admonition from the Lorax, "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
As we left the theater humming the movie's catchy closing song, Ester Dean's Let it Grow, my five-year old daughter excitedly recounted memorable scenes and characters, then asked, "Daddy, what can we all do to save the environment?" No, she didn't. Actually, she begged me to buy her a cheap plastic toy from a machine -- the kind with a knob you twist and out pops one of several possible options -- then threw a temper tantrum when she didn't get the toy she wanted. My daughter had responded to the emotional tug of the movie and certainly loved the trees, but what she really wanted was her plastic toy. Just like all of us.
Dr. Seuss published the children's book The Lorax in 1971, when the modern environmental movement in the U.S. was taking shape. Like any savvy writer, perhaps he chose his topic in response to the times. As Seuss was crafting his book, Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin was promoting the concept of Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970 and annually ever since. Like any savvy politician, he, too, was reacting to the events of his day. In this case, it was the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, the largest in U.S. history. It would hold that title for twenty years until Exxon Valdez in 1989, then fall to third place another two decades later after the Deepwater Horizon in 2010.
Images of sea birds, seals, dolphins and sea lions lying dead in pools of black sludge had an impact on the U.S. public, and the inaugural Earth Day boasted something like twenty million participants. The government began to enact environmental regulations. Despite the quip that environmentalists "wanted to live like a bunch of damned animals," President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed the Clean Air Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the Endangered Species Act.
But can a person be both pro-business and pro-environment? Aggressively pursue profits while supporting sustainable growth? Recognize the power of creative destruction while seeking to honor the virtues of preservation? I think so, but in the U.S., where many treat material consumption with the reverence normally reserved for religious belief, walking this middle ground is not easy.
For anyone who has seen the movie The Last Mountain, it's hard not to condemn a company like Massey Energy, whose former CEO Don Blankenship could stand in as a real world version of the Once-ler (minus the post-bankruptcy sense of guilt). According to the movie, the company racked up 67,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in five years while removing mountaintops to get at the coal underneath. Trees, soil, and toxic heavy metals were dumped into the nearby rivers. Local communities suffered from poor air quality and contaminated drinking water.
The EPA reported that, to date, the tops of about 500 mountains have been blown off in similar fashion. The Last Mountain cited a study showing that wind farms on the tops of these mountains would have produced a sustainable, clean supply of energy for the surrounding communities for years to come without the horrible environmental impact of mountaintop removal coal mining. ut the old way of doing things proved unstoppable.
I don't have much sympathy for Massey Energy's violations of the law (the company was also assessed the largest fine for a mine accident in U.S. history for an April 2010 coal dust explosion that killed 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine), but I will grant them this: They were operating in an economic system that demands cheap energy. And, as officers of a public company, the management had a fiduciary duty to maximize profit. Their illegal actions are worthy of condemnation, but also sadly rational. In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources acquired the company for $7.1 billion.
We all share the dilemma of balancing the desire for wealth with concern about the health of our environment. Anyone with a serious regard for the truth will acknowledge that human actions are harming the planet. Scientists studying the fossil record have documented the current animal extinction rate as somewhere from 100 to 1,000 times higher than natural rates, citing human activity as the primary culprit.
Since 1958, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has documented a rise in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from 315 parts per million by volume (ppmv) in 1958 to 392 ppmv in 2011. The vast majority of scientists agree that this rise is due to the combustion of fossil fuels and is a worrisome trend that speeds up plant and animal extinctions, and intensifies flooding and droughts. And left unchecked, the trajectory will take Earth in a matter of a couple of centuries back to a phase last seen about forty million years ago, when there were no ice caps on the planet. A phase NASA's Jim Hansen describes as "not compatible with a planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted."
The scale of the problem really does call for radical action. But what should we do? Give up driving automobiles altogether to reduce CO2 emissions? Stop fighting infant mortality to slow the relentless population growth that now crowds the planet with over seven billion humans? Refrain from buying anything made of plastic to avoid contributing to the huge vortex of churning polymers in the Pacific Ocean? And one individual's actions won't make a difference, right? The new fuel economy standards in the U.S. are nice, but fixing this problem requires planet-wide, collective action. No wonder so many people feel a vague sense of unease and guilt, feelings that might be a useful prod, but not a positive force.
One of the most promising forces in the face of our generation's great dilemma is coming from one of the foundations of capitalism: venture capital. In the past few years, many entrepreneurs and venture capitalists have attempted to harness the Once-ler's greed and the Lorax's concern for the environment, following a pro-business, pro-environment motto: "Do well by doing good." They have invested in a broad range of clean technology companies developing new photovoltaic and wind turbine technologies, energy efficiency solutions, battery-powered vehicles and more. And although some companies and business models fail, this is the only rational path forward. Yet too many people resist this vision because of... what? Inertia? Partisanship? Making too much money off fossil fuels?
I think most of us are a complex mix of the Once-ler and Lorax. Like my daughter, we want our toys. And we live in a society that makes it nearly impossible not to consume constantly and damage the planet's resources. Fixing problems as massive as climate change and environmental destruction from industrial practices lies beyond any individual's abilities.
But that doesn't mean we can't agree on the vision. We should pursue alternative forms of energy that are not based on a non-renewable resource and apply modern society's remarkable power of innovation to develop clean technologies. I don't know if human beings will succeed in making the shift away from fossil fuels toward a sustainable energy and economic model. Such a radical change is asking a lot and I suspect is unlikely to occur without a major worldwide calamity to focus our attention.
In the meantime, I am trying to spend lots of time in the woods, listening to sounds that have existed for billions of years. The more time you spend in nature, the more you want to protect it. When I was growing up in Tennessee, some of the fiercest environmentalists I knew weren't pointy-headed college liberals. They were hunters who spent long stretches of time in wilderness. More of their knowledge came from the land than from books. They understood the habits of animals and the rhythm of nature and the damage humans could do to an interdependent natural ecosystem. As they honed their hunting skills amid wildlife and flora, they heard the Lorax's message in every life-giving breath the forest let out around them: return, if only for a short while, to the wild and tell the trees, "Grow, baby, grow!"