A report in the New York Times the other day about the Federal District Court case naming the Colorado River as plaintiff led me to Christopher D. Stone’s 1972 Southern California Law Review article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Justice Douglas drew on Stone’s arguments to formulate his dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, and since that time the essay has been widely influential, a classic that helped define a field.
For Stone, a river or a lake, a mountain or a forest, a species or the biosphere can have roughly the same status as other “legal incompetents.” A human guardian or, as we might say nowadays, a protector brings a complaint for a natural entity that has suffered some injury. The case is brought “at the behest of” the river or mountain, without having first to prove injury to the guardian or some third party (e.g., a fishing guide whose business has suffered as the result of stream pollution); and the natural entity itself would be the beneficiary of an award or remedy ordered by the court. So, for instance, a judgment against those who have polluted a stream might direct them to undo the damage done to its waters, mitigate erosion of its banks and depletion of its plant life, restock its fish, and so on. The stream would have a “right” to be made whole again.
Stone recognizes that his proposal “is bound to sound odd or frightening of laughable,” but that, he notes, has been true of any movement to confer rights on rightless “things”:
There will be resistance to giving the thing “rights” until it can be seen and valued for itself; yet it is hard to see it and value it for itself until we can bring ourselves to give it “rights” — which is almost inevitably going to sound inconceivable to a large group of people.
Stone’s thinking can seem way ahead of its time — and ours (even if the writing here is sometimes redolent of Southern California in the early 1970s). This is especially true toward the end of the piece, where Stone moves from making strictly jural arguments for the standing of rivers, trees, and other natural entities to broader observations about the “shift from the view that nature exists for men”:
…the time is already upon us when we may have to consider subordinating some human claims to those of the environment per se. Consider, for example, the disputes over protecting wilderness areas from development that would make them accessible to greater numbers of people. I myself feel disingenuous rationalizing the environmental protectionist’s position in terms of a utilitarian calculus, even one that takes future generations into account, and plays fast and loose with its definition of “good.” Those who favor development have the stronger argument — they at least hold the protectionist to a standstill — from the point of advancing the greatest good of the greatest number of people. And the same is true regarding arguments to preserve useless species of animals, as in [the case of sea urchins endangered by a nuclear power plant.] One can say that we never know what is going to prove useful at some future time. In order to protect ourselves, therefore, we ought to be conservative now in our treatment of nature. I agree. But when conservationists argue this way to the exclusion of other arguments, or find themselves speaking in terms of “recreational interests” so continuously as to play up to, and reinforce, homocentrist perspectives, there is something sad about the spectacle. One feels that the arguments lack even their proponent’s convictions. I expect they want to say something less egotistic and more emphatic but the prevailing and sanctioned modes of explanation in our society are not quite ready for it. In this vein, there must have been abolitonists who put their case in terms of getting more work out of the Blacks. Holdsworth says of the early English Jew that while he was “regarded as a species of res nullius … [H]e was valuable for his acquisitive capacity; and for that reason the crown took him under its protection.” (Even today, businessmen are put in the position of insisting that their decent but probably profitless acts will “help our company’s reputation and be good for profits.”)
For my part, I would prefer a frank avowal that even making adjustments for esthetic improvements, what I am proposing is going to cost “us,” i.e., reduce our standard of living as measured in terms of our present values.
We may still not be “ready for it,” as Stone puts it; and, he goes on to say, there might be a more “fundamental problem” with asking human beings to put their own immediate self-interest aside and act on ethical principle, or to limit our rights in order to respect the rights of others:
Insofar as the proposal is not just an elaborate legal fiction, but really comes down in the last analysis to a compromise of our interests for theirs, why should we adopt it? “What is in it for ‘us’?”
This is a question I am prepared to answer, but only after permitting myself some observations about how odd the question is. It asks for me to justify my position in the very anthropocentric hedonist terms that I am proposing we modify. One is inclined to respond by a counter: “couldn’t you (as a white) raise the same questions about compromising your preferred rights status with Blacks?”; or “couldn’t you (as a man) raise the same question about compromising your preferred rights status with women?” Such counters, unfortunately, seem no more responsive than the question itself. (They have a nagging ring of “yours too” about them.) What the exchange actually points up is a fundamental problem regarding the nature of philosophical argument. Recall that Socrates, whom we remember as an opponent of hedonistic thought, confutes Thrasymachus by arguing that immorality makes one miserably unhappy! Kant, whose moral philosophy was based upon the categorical imperative (“Woe to him who creeps through the serpent windings of Utilitarianism”) finds himself justifying, e.g., promise keeping and truth telling, on the most prudential-one might almost say, commercial-grounds. This “philosophic irony” (as Professor [S. Morris] Engel calls it) may owe to there being something unique about ethical argument. “Ethics cannot be put into words”, Wittgenstein puts it; such matters “make themselves manifest.” On the other hand, perhaps the truth is that in any argument which aims at persuading a human being to action (on ethical or any other bases), “logic” is only an instrument for illuminating positions, at best, and in the last analysis it is psycho-logical [sic] appeals to the listener’s self-interest that hold sway, however ”principled” the rhetoric may be.
That logic may have its limits and ethical argument its attendant ironies should not deter us. “The strongest case can be made from the perspective of human advantage,” Stone writes; and after reviewing that case, he goes on to suggest that protecting the environment will actually raise our standard of living, if not in terms of our present values, then (this point deserves emphasis) in terms of new and more durable values.
Stone is even prepared to argue that “a radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems” (and the problems Stone identifies here, in 1972, are still very much with us and more urgent than ever before: melting polar ice caps, dying oceans, serious threats to water). “There are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness [Stone admits that he is uncomfortable with the term] from the point of making us far better humans.” Recognizing the rights of those whose standing once seemed “unthinkable,” to borrow Stone’s phrase, surely has.