The Stewardship Doctrine:
Intergenerational Justice in the United States Constitution

Stewardship contents: (full Stewardship contents follow Introduction)
I. Historical overview
II. The intergenerational philosophy of the founders and their contemporaries
III. Constitutional Text
Note on format: Footnotes will show as a "tooltip" if you hold the mouse over them, or you can click to open a small window.

"Taking Turns"

Once upon a time, there was a small, neighborhood playground. The playground contained only one swing. The local children feuded continually over access to the swing until some parents finally stepped in and created a sign-up list. The list was kept by a local grandmother who liked to spend her afternoons on the sunny bench in front of the swing.

One day, a boy named Jimmy, who had signed up for the swing, became bored with swinging. Jimmy decided to stand up in the swing instead, and to jump up and down. Through his vigorous efforts, Jimmy made a great deal of noise, and he seemed to be greatly pleased with himself. But after a few minutes of this game, the swing set began to shake violently. The structure could not endure Jimmy's abuse much longer.

The grandmother rose from her bench. She asked Jimmy to stop jumping on the swing. Jimmy refused, protesting, "I can do whatever I want! I signed up! It's my swing right now! That's the rule!"

The grandmother shook her head. She explained to Jimmy, kindly but firmly, "No. That is not the rule. It is never your swing -- or anyone else's; it is only your turn on the swing. Other children have a right to play on the swing after you are done. So even though you are free to play on the swing, . . . you are not free to break it."


The principle to which the grandmother alluded has wide application. Eventually, each of us now living will perish and depart this world. Our "turn" on this earth will come to an end. But the earth, and all it holds, will survive us, to be inherited by our descendants. It is due to this simple truth that we may never rightfully consider the world as wholly our world. We may each of us, and all of us collectively, enjoy the bounties of nature during our allotted time . . . but we may NOT break the swing.

This childhood lesson is easily forgotten. How else to explain the unsustainable conduct engaged in today by both public and private entities, conduct which degrades the water and air that are posterity's natural legacy? We allow the manufacture of radioactive wastes which will encumber the health of the land virtually forever, before we have developed safe disposal technologies for that waste. We deplete fresh water aquifers faster than nature can replenish them. We wash precious topsoil, built up over millennia, into the rivers and oceans, and poison what soil remains with bio-accumulating pesticides. We introduce thousands of previously unknown, synthetic chemicals into the environment without requiring testing for their long term effects upon humans and other life forms. Through all of these practices, and through reckless habitat destruction, we drive plant and animal species into extinction at a rate of thousands per year; irreversibly decimating entire ecosystems. We jeopardize the very existence of the human race. We then add insult to posterity's injuries by running up incredible public debts pledged on our children's credit in order to finance short term material interests. Through all of these practices, we damage that which does not belong solely to ourselves.

Though we can imagine better, sounder, more sustainable ways to conduct ourselves, we do not require such conduct of one another. Instead, we capitulate to the lowest common denominator, the crassest of values. We accede to short-sighted demands for expedience and profit, to claims of "title" and "property right," claims of sovereign privilege, claims based -- one and all -- upon Jimmy's Rule: "I can do whatever I want! It's my swing!" Inexplicably cowed by such arguments, we allow forests to fall, salmon to disappear.

The thesis of this article is simple: Jimmy's Rule is not the true law of this country. It never was, never will be, the law. Instead, it is the principle articulated by the grandmother - the principle of responsible, intergenerational stewardship - which has forever lain, inviolable and incontestable, at the root of all public and private property right in land and natural resources. It is a principle mandated by conscience, by common sense, and, happily, by the United States Constitution.

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Sites discussing the Constitution:
(with a variety of points of view) a "think tank" for progressive policy and environmental justice.
University of Chicago page of constitutional law on the internet. a large variety of constitution related materials and opinions.


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