Revisiting The Lorax: Do Trees Have Rights?

by Peter Lehner, via NRDC’s Switchboard

“The Lorax” opened [two weeks ago] in theaters.

Back in 1972, one year after the book came out, a young law professor from USC named Christopher Stone wrote an influential article, called “Should Trees Have Standing?” Stone argued that trees and other natural resources should have rights (e.g. to exist) and that environmental groups should be entitled to speak for them and to present their claims in court. In a legal sense, this would mean that trees do have standing.

Dr. Seuss’s title character, of course, famously stated (again, and again): “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Did the Lorax predict Stone’s paper? Did Stone read Seuss?

The same year as Stone’s article, Justice Douglas of the Supreme Court argued in a famous dissent to Sierra Club v. Morton that trees and other natural resources should have legal rights. Soon after, with the Clean Water Act of 1972 and CERCLA of 1980, Congress finally granted legal rights to natural resources —albeit in different language from the plainspoken Lorax’s.

Under the “natural resource damages” provisions of these laws, governments can sue for compensation for injury to natural resources—on behalf of those resources. Most tellingly, the law says that governments, in so doing, are acting as “trustees” for natural resources, not suing in their own right as governments. Moreover, the law requires that all recoveries be spent on the resource itself; the government cannot spend natural resource damages, say, on roads or schools. The money belongs to the resource, not to the government.

“Trustee,” importantly, is very specific term used in law to describe a situation where an entity has a right of its own but cannot speak for itself (e.g. an infant or a disabled person) on behalf of that right.  The Lorax, again, seemed to be invoking this principle when he said: “I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” (And I’m asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs… What’s that THING you’ve made out of my Truffula tuft?)

So, while the Lorax is a parable (and perhaps now a commercialization of a parable), there is still a profound legal issue beneath the colorful pictures.

Peter Lehner is Executive Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. This piece was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard.

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4 Responses to Revisiting The Lorax: Do Trees Have Rights?

  1. Renewable Guy says:

    Not that we have legal rights for natural resources, but but but who will speak for Industry? Those poor people, (corporations are people now), I can’t help but feel sorry for them.

  2. If natural resources have rights, humans have no right to life. This is because humans must use natural resources to live. It is one or the other but you can’t have both.

    The only self consistent action on the part of the creatures (if human) who claim natural resources have rights is to commit suicide WITHOUT consuming or modifying ANY natural resource. The only way to do that is to stop breathing! Otherwise you are violating the rights of the natural resources.

    Clearly, since the advocates of natural rights for resources are not being self consistent, it is not the rights of natural resources they are after. They simply don’t want you or me to use them to live as humans.

  3. Gail Zawacki says:

    This is really fascinating because just this morning I was thinking that the EPA effort to pass stricter regulations for ozone HAD to have been squelched by the Obama administration, because otherwise so many places would be in noncompliance that there would be lawsuits.

    The new draft makes it quite clear that the ambient background level of ozone in most places, even remote rural locations, is CURRENTLY toxic to vegetation – trees and annual crops as well.

    So this article explains that not only farmers and people with property losses from fallen dying trees, but even the trees themselves could sue if the revised EPA draft is accepted as the basis for air quality standards.

    Ho ho! Thank you very much for this insight!

    Excerpts from the EPA Integrated Science Assessment are here linked to below, which hopefully is somewhat enlightening about what the “Policy Relevant Background” level means:

    By the way, there will be an “occupy the EPA” protest March 31, let’s hope this lovely (haha) spring weather means a great turnout to demand do the right thing, not the politically acceptable thing.

  4. fj says:

    Humanity depends on the extremely important life-giving services that natural systems provide which are integral to human rights.

    We are mobile natural ecosystems within larger natural ecosystems and when we use our intelligence wisely we benefit both.