Plaintiff Trees

A lawsuit to award whales and dolphins the legal right to defend themselves against human abuse was recently thrown out of court. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had filed the complaint against Sea World, claiming that captive cetaceans should be released from the marine park because their rights were violated under the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery.

The judge ruled that the marine mammals were not persons, and as such, lacked standing to sue for their freedom. He rejected PETA'S argument that the creatures' superior intelligence in the animal kingdom established them as sentient beings rather than exploitable objects.

Okay, the lawsuit failed, but it advanced the seed of an idea in jurisprudence annals and other facets of our society. For example, the American Association for Advancement of Science took up the marine mammals' legal cause at its annual meeting in February in Vancouver, Canada. And speaking of seeds, why stop with a crusade for marine mammal rights in our litigious society? What about the rights of trees which end up as targets of human depredation?

Think treating trees as entities with rights is farfetched? Is it more of a stretch than designating corporations and ships as persons for legal purposes? Scientific evidence indicates that trees can communicate with each other. No, they cannot argue about politics. But experiments suggest that in times of stress, trees release chemical compounds and/or electrical impulses and warning signals to their neighbors, which immediately begin manufacturing chemical-defense mechanisms of their own. We are talking about eminently living organisms.

Since trees provide us with natural air conditioning, absorb pollutants, produce food, and last but not least, emit oxygen on which all life depends, maybe we should be more receptive to granting their representatives a day in court when potential mutilation is at hand.

Certainly, that was the view of the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an esteemed conservationist as well as jurist. In a 1972 dissenting opinion, he wrote that "protecting nature's ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation."

Despite Douglas' eloquence, American courts to this day refuse to recognize that nature has enforceable rights that merit the appointment of guardians to seek restitution for wrongs perpetrated by human activity. But will intransigence from the bench always be the case? One likes to think noted South African environmental attorney Cormac Cullinan was on target when he declared: "The day will come when the failure of our laws to recognize the right of a river to flow, to prohibit acts that destabilize Earth's climate, or to impose a duty to respect the intrinsic value and right to exist of all life will be as reprehensible as allowing people to be bought and sold into slavery."

A hopeful sign is that someone has been listening. Ecuador in 2008 became the fist nation to grant nature legal rights enforceable in a court of law.