The Lorax is mossy and bossy and he speaks for the trees. And this week, his voice is a bit of a cacophony.
He is speaking, on one hand, for the estate of Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss Enterprises. And then there is the LoraxAg, the startup project intent on "seeking interested investors to provide financing for the development of a 'shovel-ready' coal gasification and chemical production facility to make fertilizer for America's farms."
In an interview with New England technology journal Mass High Tech, company president Mike Farina says Dr. Seuss is the company's inspiration. "The Lorax is the protector of the Truffula Trees," he told Mass High Tech. "We think this is the greenest use of coal."However green Farina and his partners think their prospective technology is, Dr. Seuss Enterprises is not having it, telling The New York Times' Green, Inc. blog that LoraxAg has been sent a cease-and-desist letter protesting the infringing use of the title character's name. According to Seuss lawyer Karl ZoBell, "There's no reason for" LoraxAg to use the name, "except to purloin the good will attached to the book and use it for a company that appears to be the opposite of everything the book is about."
The Lorax, published in 1971, is a dark, apocalyptic tale recounted by a boy. He pays the toll to hear his story, told by the Once-ler, a creature who encounters a forest of colorful, woolly Truffula Trees. Upon seeing their beauty, the Once-ler chops one down and knits a garment called a Thneed. The Lorax emerges, protesting, "I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees. / I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues, / And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs -- / ... "What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?"
As the dingy, birdsong-less setting of the book's present indicates, the Lorax's huffy anger and subsequent protests -- that the Brown Bar-ba-loots have no fruits to eat, that the Swomee-Swans have sore throats and can't sing, that the Humming-Fish are silent -- has no impact on the Once-ler's greed. His factory continues to churn out Thneeds, Gluppity-Glupp and Schloppity-Schlopp, until all the wildlife is gone, the last Truffula Tree is chopped down and the Lorax, along with the Once-ler's family, departs. The Once-ler is left alone in the gray gloom.
The New Lorax
While it is a relief it wasn't a logging company that chose to adopt Dr. Seuss' character as a brand name, the business of LoraxAg isn't much more hopeful. Is this a company that speaks for the trees? It would be a stretch to describe it as such. If the company raises the $4.5 million it is targeting in the initial funding, it will buy "garbage coal," or the high-sulfur coal unsuitable for combustion-powered machinery (it produces "acid rain"), and use a relatively old process called gasification to convert it to syngas, a synthetic middleman material that can be converted into a wide variety of end products, from kerosene and gasoline to fertilizer, ammonia, and a wide variety of industrial chemicals. In five years, Farina told Mass High Tech, he and his two partners could be producing fertilizer and ammonia for conventional farmers in Kentucky or Illinois.
Believers in the "green coal" concept say that gasification is a boon to environmentalism; environmentalists largely disagree. One Columbia professor and former honoree of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, James Hansen, urges that all coal be left in the ground, for instance. "Coal ash piles [a byproduct of coal mining] are so toxic and unstable that the Department of Homeland Security has declared that the location of the nation's 44 most hazardous coal ash sites must be kept secret. They fear terrorists will find ways to spill the toxic substances," he writes. He goes on to describe how coal left alone "holds up the mountains," which do, after all, provide a place to put the trees.
Green coal can be criticized with the most basic of all arguments: for any coal to be mined, thereby producing this "garbage coal" needing a cleaner method of burning, you still have to mine coal. And no one's found a way to do this without some relatively major -- and irreversible -- environmental impact.
Although LoraxAg has been raising funds since November 2008, Dr. Seuss Enterprises hadn't heard of the company until The Wonk Room, a blog of the progressive organization Think Progress, contacted its lawyer for comment last week. And once the connection was made, neither Farina nor his two partners, CEO Joshua Davidson or COO Michael Sununu (son of former New Hampshire governor and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu), would talk to the press about the situation. But by Tuesday, attempts to reach the LoraxAg website resulted in a 403 Forbidden error, indicating that the company may have caved to Dr. Seuss Enterprises' demands.
And there's one more thing. Dr. Seuss Enterprises has sold movie rights to the book to Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment, who plan to release a 3-D CG animated feature of The Lorax on March 2, 2012 -- what would have been Geisel's 108th birthday. "Ted Geisel was prescient in an uncanny way when he wrote the book and explored themes of greed and how that can lead to the destruction of the environment," said producer Chris Meledandri in an interview with Daily Variety last summer. Greed like that of a company seeking to exploit this uncanny prescience without permission? Yeah, something like that.
And it's right to quote Dr. Seuss's Once-ler character at the end of the book, as he gives the very last Truffula seed to the little boy who has listened to his story, "Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. / Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. / Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. / Then the Lorax / and all of his friends / may come back."
Something tells me that the mining of coal -- whether it's colored black, green, or the red of the faces of the company-that-was LoraxAg -- won't engender the care, clean water and fresh air Geisel called for with his book.
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