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Oregon State University / Flickr

“When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” – Native American Saying, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, 2009

Perhaps you have heard this warning. This principle of how greed in taking natural resources will leave us bankrupt of life is perfectly illustrated in The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel), first published in 1971.  The story, if you haven’t heard it since you were small, or read it to your children or shared the film with them more recently, begins with the Once-ler, a lonely creature who lurks in his “Lerkim” selling his story to passers-by of how his business making “Thneeds” from Truffula Trees destroyed all the natural resources of land, water and air, despite the ongoing warnings and pleas of the Lorax.

The Once-ler’s business ended when he cut down the last Truffula Tree. Note that even his name, Once-ler, points to the dead-end business model he followed.  The Once-ler’s business plan moved in one direction, eating up resources until he used the last Truffala tree.  If he wouldn’t listen to the Lorax, the environmentalist who spoke for the resources, shouldn’t there have been some regulations to keep him in check before he used up the Truffala trees and poisoned the air, water and land? Regulation could have saved not only the resources, but also his Thneed business.

How did Geisel arrive at the same message as the Native American saying that capitalism without regulation spells doom? Geisel had absorbed the environmental message of his times – a time when Americans were waking up to the realization that our time on this planet may be limited by our own reckless use of natural resources.

A Chorus of Environmentalism

The Lorax was preceded by a wave of environmental activity in the 1960s, including Rachel Carson’s book for adults called Silent Spring (1962), which chronicled the impacts of the pesticide DDT on the thinning of egg shells. Her book catalyzed the banning of DDT for agricultural use by 1970, the connection of the public health and conservation movements, and the takeoff of the environmental movement in America.

There were many voices of the Lorax in the 1960s that did not get heeded. Way back On February 8, 1965, in a “Special Message to Congress on Conservation and Restoration of Natural Beauty,” U.S. president Lyndon Johnson warned of a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels… Pollution destroys beauty and menaces health. It cuts down on efficiency, reduces property values and raises taxes. The longer we wait to act, the greater the dangers and the larger the problem.”

And On March 18, 1968, Robert. F. Kennedy spoke at the University of Kansas:

“Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that — counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

And on December 1, 1968, Garrett Hardin published his article “Tragedy of the Commons” in Science, 162(1968):1243-1248.

“Every new enclosure of the commons involves the infringement of somebody’s personal liberty. Infringements made in the distant past are accepted because no contemporary complains of a loss. It is the newly proposed infringements that we vigorously oppose; cries of “rights” and “freedom” fill the air. But what does “freedom” mean? When men mutually agreed to pass laws against robbing, mankind became more free, not less so. Individuals locked into the logic of the commons are free only to bring on universal ruin; once they see the necessity of mutual coercion, they become free to pursue other goals. I believe it was Hegel who said, “Freedom is the recognition of necessity.” 

On June 22, 1969 the Cuyahoga river burst into flames 5 stories high from oil and chemical pollution. The river fire became a defining moment for the new environmental movement.

And on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day was established by Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to call attention to the fact that we have only one earth and we need to care for her.  An estimated 20 million people nationwide attended festivities that day, a huge grassroots explosion, leading eventually to national legislation such as amendments to the Clean Air Act and the creation of the 1972 Clean Water Act.

All this preceded the warnings of The Lorax.  But have we heeded his warnings or are we proceeding with business as usual like the Once-ler?

Short-Sightedness Delays Progress

We have certainly made progress in some areas through effective regulation on smokestacks and cars, but as population grows, regulation has failed to keep up with pollution, and carbon dioxide is rising along with water pollution.

Business has contributed greatly to the destruction of our resources by failing to design for long-term sustainability, outsourcing the costs of pollution onto the public, and using advertising to convince the public that it is our duty to clean up the world, not the duty of business to control pollution at the source.

On the first Earth Day, Keep America Beautiful introduced what is considered one of the most effective PSA’s of all time – the crying Native American ad.  Finis Dunaway’s commentary on this Ad in the Chicago Tribune in 2017 shows how deceptive this ad was:

Behind the Tear:

The campaign was based on many duplicities. The first of them was that Iron Eyes Cody was actually born Espera de Corti — an Italian-American who played Indians in both his life and on screen. The commercial’s impact hinged on the emotional authenticity of the Crying Indian’s tear. In promoting this symbol, Keep America Beautiful was trying to piggyback on the counterculture’s embrace of Native American culture as a more authentic identity than commercial culture.

The second duplicity was that Keep America Beautiful was composed of leading beverage and packaging corporations. Not only were they the very essence of what the counterculture was against; they were also staunchly opposed to many environmental initiatives.

Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953 by the American Can Co. and the Owens-Illinois Glass Co., who were later joined by the likes of Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Co. During the 1960s, Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaigns featured Susan Spotless, a white girl who wore a spotless white dress and pointed her accusatory finger at pieces of trash heedlessly dropped by her parents. The campaign used the wagging finger of a child to condemn individuals for being bad parents, irresponsible citizens and unpatriotic Americans. But by 1971, Susan Spotless no longer captured the zeitgeist of the burgeoning environmental movement and rising concerns about pollution.

The shift from Keep America Beautiful’s bland admonishments about litter to the Crying Indian did not represent an embrace of ecological values but instead indicated industry’s fear of them. In the time leading up to the first Earth Day in 1970, environmental demonstrations across the United States focused on the issue of throwaway containers. All these protests held industry — not consumers — responsible for the proliferation of disposable items that depleted natural resources and created a solid waste crisis. Enter the Crying Indian, a new public relations effort that incorporated ecological values but deflected attention from beverage and packaging industry practices.

Keep America Beautiful practiced a sly form of propaganda. Since the corporations behind the campaign never publicized their involvement, audiences assumed that the group was a disinterested party. The Crying Indian provided the guilt-inducing tear that the group needed to propagandize without seeming propagandistic and countered the claims of a political movement without seeming political. At the moment the tear appears, the narrator, in a baritone voice, intones: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” By making individual viewers feel guilty and responsible for the polluted environment, the ad deflected the question of responsibility away from corporations and placed it entirely in the realm of individual action, concealing the role of industry in polluting the landscape.

Since the 1970s, we have witnessed the power of this advertisement with a wave of anti-litter campaigns and very little restriction on business.

The Bush presidents offered the weighing of the Economy vs. The Environment as if it was an either-or proposition.  Al Gore’s Book Earth in the Balance challenged this notion.  The defining image in the book is from a brochure that the first President Bush presented to delegates at his 1990 White House Conference on the Global Environment.  Al Gore’s discussion of this image:

“In many ways the Bush administration’s entire cost-benefit analysis is misguided and reflects an apparent inability to see the magnitude of the environmental crisis.  Thus far, the administration has been blind to the true value of preserving the environment while keenly aware …of the price. When President Bush welcomed an international conference on the global environment in the spring of 1990, his staff prepared materials for the visiting negotiators that contained a graphic illustration of the administration’s approach to balancing the short-term monetary gains against long-term environmental destruction. In the illustration, several bars of gold rested on one tray of a scale; on the other tray perched the entire earth and all its natural systems, seemingly with a weight and value roughly equivalent to the six bars of gold. A scientist, or perhaps an economist, is noting the careful balance on her clipboard. Although several delegates from other countries commented privately that it seemed to be an ironic symbol of Bush’s approach to the crisis, the president and his staff seemed wholly oblivious to the absurdity of their willingness to place the entire earth in the balance.” 

One can only imagine if Trump were to issue this pamphlet what size the Earth would be in the illustration, or if it would be included at all?

In his book, Earth in the Balance, Al Gore showed that some of America’s best corporations were doing a better job than the government in responding to the crisis. He says:

“Those that have made a strong commitment to environmental responsibility have found, to their surprise, that when they start to ‘see’ their pollution and look for ways to minimize it, they begin to ‘see’ new ways to cut down on their use of expensive raw materials and new ways to improve efficiency in virtually every part of the production process. For example, the 3M company credits its Pollution Prevention Pays program with major improvements in profits; Xerox and several other companies have reported the same experience.”

More recently, the United States Supreme Court handed us the Citizens United decision and the balance of public vs. business gets really lopsided when corporations are considered people, though unlike people, profit is their chief reason to exist, and their power over elected officials can drown out the individuals calling for better quality of life.

And now the Trump administration brings the Once-ler business model into the White House, promising to throw out 2 regulations for every one created, eviscerating the Environmental Protection Agency, backing out of the Paris Climate Accord, taking away public lands so that they can be mined, threatening to drill in the oceans and saying you can dump coal ash waste in the rivers again.

This despite Trump’s own Office of Management and Budget report released on a Friday night with minimal media outreach that totally discredits the Trump administration claim that federal protections impose debilitating costs on the economy. The report shows that federal regulations in place between 2006 and 2016 brought between $287 billion and $911 billion in benefits – dramatically outweighing the costs of between $78 and $115 billion. In sum, federal regulations offered a net benefit of up to $833 billion.

The same Friday the OMB report came out, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, touting the repeal of 22 environmental and public health benefits he claimed would save the nation $1 billion. He did not mention the economic benefits of the rules or the societal benefits listed in the OMB report such as fewer deaths, asthma attacks, cardiovascular conditions, and lower rates of cancer.

Are we doomed?

In the absence of government control, business may come to the rescue.  Enter Larry Fink in 2018’s Trump America.

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink is the largest asset manager in the world.  BlackRock manages $6.3 trillion in assets.  In a letter to CEOs of public companies, Fink said that companies needed to demonstrate a strategy for long-term value creation and financial performance, and that understanding a company’s effect on the world was a key component.

Simply managing for short-term shareholder profit is not an acceptable management strategy, according to Fink.

“Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose,” Fink wrote. “To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.”

Why should business agree to self-regulate and push for legislation to protect the environment?

1)   Because Larry Fink says so.

2)   To level the playing field for Best Management Practices so that sustainable practices are not undercut in the short term by polluters who outsource the cost of their pollution onto society.

3)   Innovation and cost savings – refining manufacturing to cut pollution and create fewer polluting products can be win/win for profits and the environment.

4)   California: By defying everything Trump stands for and with 1/8 the nation’s population, California represents 1/7 of the gross domestic product and is tied for the 5th largest economy in the world with the most stringent regulations on environmental protection in the nation.

5)   Unless Businesses care, things won’t get better.  And though Corporations are not people, people own and work for corporations. Corporations depend on people to buy their product.  We have one planet. There is no business on a dead planet.

Lisa Kaas Boyle is an environmental attorney and an expert in plastic pollution issues.  She currently serves as Executive Director of WeTap, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the drinking fountain as the only sustainable way to keep the public healthy and hydrated while reducing plastic pollution.

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