After teaching the tragedy of the commons in my Property class today, I remembered – too late – this excellent 2005 post by co-conspirator Jonathan Adler, which reintreprets Dr. Seuss’ classic childrens’ book, The Lorax, as a tragedy of the commons story. Although The Lorax is often seen as a tale of capitalist greed run amok, it could just as easily be interpreted as exhibiting the inherent flaws of common property resources, flaws that can sometimes be alleviated through privatization:
Viewing the tale of the Lorax through an institutional lens, ruin is not the result of corporate greed, but a lack of institutions. The truffula trees grow in an unowned commons. (The Lorax may speak for the trees, but he does not own them.) The Once-ler has no incentive to conserve the truffula trees for, as he notes to himself, if he doesn’t cut them down someone else will. He’s responding to the incentives created by a lack of property rights in the trees, and the inevitable tragedy results. Had the Once-ler owned the trees, his incentives would have been quite different — and he would likely have acted accordingly — even if he remained dismissive of the Lorax’s environmental concerns.
The story ends with the Once-ler giving a young boy the last truffula seed. He tells him to plant it and treat it with care, and then maybe the Lorax will come back from there. The traditional interpretation is simply that we must all care more for the environment. If we only control corporate greed we can prevent environmental ruin. But perhaps it means something else. Perhaps the lesson is that this boy should plant his truffula trees, and act as their steward. Perhaps giving the boy the last seed is an act of transferring the truffula from the open-access commons to private stewardship. Indeed, the final image — the ring of stones labeled with the word “unless” — could well suggest that enclosure, and the creation of property rights to protect natural resources, is necessary for the Lorax to ever return.
As Jonathan points out, there is no reason to believe that this was Dr. Seuss’ own interpretation of The Lorax. It nonetheless does fit the facts of the story, and is a great way of explaining the logic of the tragedy of the commons to students – not only to law students, but also to children.