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Rockmore: On Being The Lorax

In one of the most beloved of Dr. Seuss stories, a cranky woodland creature called The Lorax fights against the deforestation of his Truffula Tree home, saying, 'I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.' And if the new administration follows through on its plans for the Environmental Protection Agency, we may soon wish we had a lot more Loraxes around. For starters, it was ordered that the climate change page be removed from the EPA’s website. Similar orders were then given to the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior as well as the USDA, all of which touch on environmental issues. Then the President called for a freeze of all EPA contracts and grant programs.

Research in an area dries up when funding disappears, so it’s not just the trees at risk now, but also the scientists who study them and thus, the science of their survival. In short, it appeared to be an all-encompassing strategy to undermine public awareness and understanding of responsible stewardship of the environment. No irony intended, but it was a chilling moment for many Americans.

Now, those orders seem to have been “walked back” to some extent, but widespread concern remains that attempts to control information and manage communications won’t stop at the environment. If the government can reach into one agency and deny scientific facts to accommodate the needs of an industry or some other special interest group - why not others? Why not forbid the NIH to discuss the links between fast food and obesity? Why not tell the National Science Foundation to cut all funding for the study of evolution?
Democracy isn’t a spectator sport and neither is science - especially when the communication of basic facts – and I don’t mean the alternative kind – is endangered. Dr. Seuss’ story ends with The Lorax surrounded by devastation and mournfully admitting defeat. But Dr. Seuss offers a small sliver of hope when he tells the reader, “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”

So at this very moment scientists around the country are saving copies of the data and materials still available on government websites. Private citizens are providing funds and taking on environmental studies in a new era of citizen science - in which we must now all be The Lorax.

Dan Rockmore is a professor of mathematics and computer science at Dartmouth College.
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