In the 70s, Obama's Science Adviser Endorsed Giving Trees Legal Standing to Sue in Court

July 29, 2009 - 9:49 PM
President Obama's top science adviser once said that giving "natural objects" such as trees the standing to sue in a court of law would have a "most salubrious" effect on the environment. 
(CNSNews.com) – Since the 1970s, some radical environmentalists have argued that trees have legal rights and should be allowed to go to court to protect those rights.

The idea has been endorsed by John P. Holdren, the man who now advises President Barack Obama on science and technology issues. 

Giving “natural objects” -- like trees -- standing to sue in a court of law would have a “most salubrious” effect on the environment, Holdren wrote  the 1970s.
 
“One change in (legal) notions that would have a most salubrious effect on the quality of the environment has been proposed by law professor Christopher D. Stone in his celebrated monograph, ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’” Holdren said in a 1977 book that he co-wrote with Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich.
 
“In that tightly reasoned essay, Stone points out the obvious advantages of giving natural objects standing, just as such inanimate objects as corporations, trusts, and ships are now held to have legal rights and duties,” Holdren added.
 
According to Holdren and the Ehrlichs, the notion of legal standing for inanimate objects would not be as unprecedented as it might sound. “The legal machinery and the basic legal notions needed to control pollution are already in existence,” they wrote.

“Slight changes in the legal notions and diligent application of the legal machinery are all that are necessary to induce a great reduction in pollution in the United States,” Holdren added.
 
Holdren, who is the new director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama’s top science advisor, made the comments in the 1977 book “Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment.”
 
Stone’s article -- “Should Trees Have Standing?” -- which Holdren called a “tightly reasoned essay,” was published in the Southern California Law Review in 1972. 
 
In that article, Stone plainly states: “I am quite seriously proposing that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment--indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.”
 
Stone admits in the article that it may seem improbable to give legal rights to nonhuman objects, but likened it to finally giving rights to black Americans.
 
“The fact is, that each time there is a movement to confer rights onto some new ‘entity,’ the proposal is bound to sound odd or frightening or laughable,” Stone wrote.
 
“This is partly because until the rightless (sic) thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’--those who are holding rights at the time . . . Such is the way the slave South looked upon the black.”
 
The decades-old standing argument has seen a resurgence in recent months in connection with a major piece of global-warming legislation--the cap-and-trade bill--that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives. 
 
Environmental advocacy groups such as the Center for Earth Jurisprudence have begun citing the argument. Mary Munson, legal director for that organization, says she does not quite subscribe to Stone’s analogy on the slave South, but she does agree with him in principle.
 
“In our legal system, (Stone is) actually saying that rights are something that (are) little-by-little discovered, and in that sense, I’m agreeing with him in that there are rights that exist and we’re just trying to discover what they are,” she said.

Munson explained animals have already come part of the way toward a set of rights. 

“(In) the animal rights movement, there have been successful cases where people have upheld animals’ right not to be tortured. And I think a lot of people would agree that animals do have that kind of a right. So it’s just a matter of finding out what are those inherent rights that nature may have.”

“Courts are there to uphold laws,” she told CNSNews.com, “and you don’t bring a lawsuit unless a law has been violated." In cases where there's "been injury because somebody’s overstepped" an object's legal boundaries, a lawyer could sue on behalf of the injured nonhuman object.
 
“(I)t will have to be a human lawyer that would bring the lawsuit, but just on behalf of the injured party and the injured party would be an animal or something.”

The White House did not comment on questions from CNSNews.com about Holdren’s stance on legal standing for natural objects--and whether it has changed since the 1970s.

Before joining the Obama administration, Holdren was a professor at Harvard and the director of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. He holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University and an M.S. from MIT, where he also received his undergraduate degree.