Journal of Human Rights and the Environment

Should trees have standing?

Mary Warnock *

Keywords: conflicts of interests, ethics, interests, romanticism, sentience, speciesism, standing, stewardship, wilderness


The author argues that relevant distinctions between humans, animals and plants should be taken into account when considering the extension of standing to elements of the environment. She argues that the question of standing should not be confused with the question of whether animals or elements of the environment have ‘intrinsic value’ and that recognising and protecting intrinsic value does not entail or require the granting of standing. Furthermore, Singer's alternative equal rights/anti-discrimination approach also fails to justify the extension of standing to elements of the environment – indeed, the Bentham/Singer ‘sentience’ approach would disqualify trees from the award of standing as having no interests in the relevant sense. This conclusion, however, does not render insensible the notion of plants/trees having ‘interests’ rendering them worthy of being taken morally into account when making decisions about their destruction or preservation, but the author cannot see how one can proceed beyond this point to the grant of legal standing. While this conclusion may be taken to give priority to human interests over all others, a stewardship conception of environmental responsibility has the virtue of embracing not only the inescapable fact that it is human beings who make decisions concerning the destruction, preservation and the value-meaning of the natural world, but of simultaneously acknowledging and responding to the interests of nature itself. However, certain problems remain, such as complex conflicts of interest concerning the difficult task of assigning value, and it is difficult to see how such problems are assisted or solved by the grant of standing to environmental entities or elements.

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