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Should trees have standing

February 04, 2011

As natural areas give way to human construction, trees and other parts of the environment often are displaced to make way for progress.  But what if the trees had actual legal rights?   What would be the criteria for a tree, or for a river or an animal for that matter, to have its own rights?  Christopher D. Stone addresses this issue in his 2010 revised edition of Should Trees Have Standing?: Law, Morality, and the Environment (3rd ed., Oxford ; New York, N.Y. : Oxford University Press). As most of you know, standing refers to the authority of a person or entity to initiate a legal action. It doesn’t imply winning but it is a key issue that a party has to satisfy to get into court.   

Christopher D. Stone holds the J. Thomas McCarthy Trustee Chair in Law at the University Of Southern California School Of Law.  He is an authority on environmental and global issues, including international environmental law, environmental ethics, and trade and the environment. An earlier edition of this book, originally published in 1972, was a rallying point for the then burgeoning environmental movement. The book launched worldwide debate on the basic nature of legal rights that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stone notes that 39% of the worlds land surface has been converted to cropland and grazing.  As the global population continues to increase, more acres will be needed to feed the population.   He also indicates that more acres are needed to feed the population corn-fed beef than to feed the population the corn crop itself. Stone proposes a number of creative solutions to the pressing environmental issues that face us. One way is to allow humans to file suit on behalf of the non-human elements of the natural world. After you read Stone’s book, you can offer your own response to his question: “should trees have standing?”
Joe Parsio is Head of Access Services at Biddle Law.    He is also on the Lansdowne Borough Tree Board, which plants more than 100 shade/street trees a year.