Call it fate or an unfortunate coincidence that Dr. Seuss' eco-parable marks its 50th anniversary just as the United Nations releases a report on the dire consequences of human-induced climate change.



Fifty years ago today, "The Lorax" was published. NPR also turned 50 this year, so we're looking back at some of the big events of 1971. And this particular anniversary is happening at a really interesting time. We are all trying to wrap our heads around dire news from a U.N. report on climate change. And "The Lorax" was Dr. Seuss writing for kids about how human beings affect the Earth and the environment 50 years ago. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, believed in the environmental movement, but he didn't always like its rhetoric. He thought it was...

DONALD PEASE: Preachy and bossy.

BLAIR: But Geisel was furious about construction going on in his La Jolla, Calif., neighborhood, says biographer Donald Pease.

PEASE: They were destroying quite beautiful eucalyptus trees. And he wanted to do something about this. But he also was confronted with writer's block.

BLAIR: His wife suggested they go on a trip to the Mount Kenya Safari Club. Wanjira Mathai of the World Resources Institute says that was a good idea.

WANJIRA MATHAI: It is built on one of the most beautiful landscapes with a spectacular view of Mount Kenya. So I'm not surprised Dr. Seuss was inspired by that.

BLAIR: Really inspired, says Pease.

PEASE: While he was there, he caught a view of - in the mountains - of elephants crossing. And as he said, afterwards, the logjam broke.

ELSA: (Reading) At the far end of town where the Grickle-grass grows and the wind smells slow and sour when it blows, and no birds ever sing excepting old crows, is the street of the lifted Lorax.

BLAIR: Those first few pages of "The Lorax" are pretty grey and depressing. The greedy Once-ler has ravaged the land by chopping down Truffula trees. He needs them to make his Thneed garment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) I meant no harm, I most truly did not. But I had to grow bigger, so bigger I got.

BLAIR: The Lorax is having none of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs - he was very upset as he shouted and puffed - what's this thing you've made out of my Truffula tuft?

NATHANIEL DOMINY: He wanted a book that captured the effects of pollution on ecosystems. And I would say it was really ahead of its time.

BLAIR: Nathaniel Dominy is an anthropology professor at Dartmouth College.

DOMINY: The Bar-ba-loots leave because they run out of food. The Swomee-Swans leave because the air is polluted. The humming fish leave because the water's polluted. He's describing what we would now call a trophic cascade. And for me, I find that genius that he anticipated that concept by a decade or more.

BLAIR: This prescient story has special significance for Wanjira Mathai. Her own mother was a little like the Lorax, speaking for the trees in Kenya. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai, who died in 2011, founded the Green Belt Movement, which is credited with planting more than 51 million trees across Kenya, part of a campaign to end poverty.

MATHAI: My mother, Wangari Maathai, always talked about trees as a symbol of hope. And so "The Lorax," in many ways, was that and remains that for me, that each of us can be such a potent agent of change. We can be custodians of hope.

BLAIR: Just as she read "The Lorax" when she was a girl, Wanjira Mathai's daughter, Elsa (ph), reads it today.

ELSA: (Reading) But now, says the Once-ler, now that you're here, the word from the Lorax seems perfectly clear. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.

BLAIR: Biographer Donald Pease says Theodor Geisel kept his distance from the environmental movement. But uncharacteristically, he did allow some groups to use "The Lorax" in their campaigns. In 1971, Geisel conceded to the Los Angeles Times that "The Lorax" wasn't his easiest book for children to understand. The real target of his environmental message seems to have been adults. Maybe, he said, the way to get the message to the parents is through a children's book.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.