It’s Not (Always) About the Lorax


I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking and writing about extinction, which means I’ve also spent a lot of time drinking thinking about the tragic narrative in environmental journalism.

There’s a lot of genuine tragedy on the environmental beat, and it doesn’t take a partisan to see it. There’s not a whole lot to like about water pollution, or crop failures, or mass extinction. But I wonder if environmental journalists, steeped as we are in bad news, reach too quickly for the Lorax narrative. You know how it goes: The Lorax speaks for the trees, the rest of us keep buying thneeds, and for hope all we get is the Once-ler’s last seed.

Are there other ways to tell environmental stories? With Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots as a field guide, I’ve been searching for examples of environmental journalism with other-than-tragic narratives — archetypal frameworks that still fit the facts, but startle the reader out of his or her mournful stupor. I’ve found some good ones, and I’d love to hear about more.

The Overcoming the Monster narrative often shows up in invasive-species stories. For one recent and hilarious example, check out this story from Esquire about Argentine ants. (“They’re not in your underwear by accident. They’re nation-building.”) For a different kind of struggle against a very different kind of monster, listen to “Just Another Fish Story,” a gem of a radio piece about a small Maine town’s attempt to cope with a beached whale.

A wonderful example of the Rags to Riches narrative at work in an environmental story is “Wild Eyes,” a Radiolab piece about big-cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz and his lifelong connection with animals. (Rabinowitz told the story himself in this performance on the Moth stage.)

The Quest narrative is common in science stories: Scientist sets out on a journey of discovery, faces obstacles, and ultimately overcomes them (or not). I’ve been on a John McPhee binge lately, so I’ll cite “Atchafalaya,” the colossal New Yorker story that’s also the first chapter of his book The Control of Nature. Here, the earnest but short-sighted hero is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and its quest — to keep the wandering Mississippi on its current course — is surely doomed.

The Voyage and Return narrative is similar to the Quest, except that the hero returns home with the wisdom earned from his or her adventure. For an unusual example, read Edwin Dobb’s personal story about his love of open-water swimming, and what he’s learned about wilderness from his progressively longer, colder swims.

Finding the Comedy narrative in environmental journalism isn’t as tough as it sounds: as psychologist John Fraser points out, environmental stories are full of comedies of errors. (The problem is that most are missing their happy endings.) Earlier this year, I wrote an appreciation of Ian Frazier’s genius story “Hogs Wild,” in which humans and feral hogs play the comedic leads in an essentially tragic tale.

Environmental journalists occasionally get to dig out the Rebirth narrative, though we often find its dark side. I recently edited Brad Tyer’s poignant High Country News story about Opportunity, Montana, a small town destined to be the victim of a much-celebrated Superfund cleanup. The Rebirth story of the cleanup has been told many times; Tyer flipped the archetype and found what lay forgotten underneath.

Last but not least is our old friend Tragedy. I’ll spare you countless possible examples and leave you with one especially memorable story: “Tuna’s End,” an excerpt from Paul Greenberg’s book Four Fish. “Tuna then are both a real thing and a metaphor,” Greenberg writes. “Literally they are one of the last big public supplies of wild fish left in the world. Metaphorically they are the terminus of an idea: that the ocean is an endless resource where new fish can always be found.”

Sometimes, the Lorax is just the fastest way to the truth.


Lorax cover via Wikipedia.

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16 thoughts on “It’s Not (Always) About the Lorax

  1. Michelle, thanks for this lovely Baedeker to the Land Beyond the Lorax! While I don’t think it is in Booker’s original typology, the David v. Goliath, or triumph of the underdog, plot seems like another distinct environmental narrative. Some potential overlap with other plots–quest, monster, maybe rags to riches–but the tale of the lone hero who took on a callous giant and won (Erin Brockovich v. PG&E?) seems like another classic.

  2. I reckon the Tragedy narrative only engages with those who cried during ET – a lot of the people,sure, but sadly not a critical mass.

    But most narrative on the environmental side seems to be from that ultimate deepening of The Tragedy — The End Times (Ragnorak, The Apocalypse, Armageddon..). Plays well to the masses for a while – until Doom fails to materialize within out notoriously short attention-span – about a Day.

    Maybe the most powerful under-arching narrative for avoiding the Creeping DoomsDay — which most environmental problems have as their subtext — is a combination of the Quest and the Rebirth. We make the changes needed to avoid the End Times, and humankind might just end up back in Eden.

    People might just prefer a story with a happy ending for them,as well as the players..

    (ps Yes I was a blubbering wreck when Elliot watched that flower perk up!)

  3. Thanks, Tom – and I agree, David v. Goliath is a good one – can you think of any other examples (esp. ones that twist the archetype in some clever way)?

  4. I personally love the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” story about change that seems bad but turns out to be not so bad after all or can be cleverly tweaked to be actually good. Maybe this is the “lemonade” narrative.

    I think the whole reason I got into this science writing business is that I am a huge sucker for the “we thought it was X, but really it was Y all along!” story, which comes up a lot in science.

  5. Hmm, in scanning my brain for more David v Goliath stories, I think I may have stumbled across a sub-category, to wit, the Ahab or Moby Dick story. Maybe it’s just a doomed and obsessive quest plotline, but the lone struggler against an elusive foe does seem to come up quite often. The first example that comes to mind is Charles Moore vs. marine plastic debris (my version here: “; my former student’s here: Particularly Ahab-y because he’s a captain seeking his foe at sea…

  6. Nice post. Interesting ways to think about narrative. Yet, the narrative idea should not be pushed too far. James N. Frey (How to Write a Damn Good Novel: A Step-by-Step No Nonsense Guide to Dramatic Storytelling) points out that stories, hence narratives, are designed to prove a thesis. He then gives examples of how stories could be written to prove that premarital sex is a good thing or that premarital sex is a bad thing. Stories are arguments that skew (perhaps mislead) the reader to believe that something is true and then say, “Yes, life is just like that.”

  7. Thanks and great point, Norm. I agree that narrative needs to be used carefully, especially in nonfiction – if writers just copy these archetypes, we end up with cliches or, worse, writing that violates the facts. For me, though, thinking about narrative is the first step in finding a strong structure for a story – without some suggestion of one of these archetypes, the story just doesn’t make sense. (Besides, I think we’ll always resort to some archetype, whether we know it or not – better to be aware of it from the outset than to write from it unconsciously.) So I think there’s a sweet spot where we can use these archetypes for inspiration and organization, while not straying too far into cliche or just nonsense.

  8. Michelle, this a very smart analysis. I’ve located myself here (I’m a quester – exploration narratives justify my existence) and I imagine your other readers located themselves, too. Thanks!

  9. Great post–and a special thanks for turning me on to the “Why’s this so good?” series. What a neat thing!

  10. Interesting article. I’d like to see examples relating specifically to climate change, one of the hardest things to engage people about.

  11. The “Truth” campaign, teenagers against the big cigarette companies, was the “overcoming the monster” and a big success.

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