Christopher Stone, who proposed legal rights for trees, dies at 83

By Alex Traub

Christopher Stone, who in 1972 made what seemed a whimsical argument — that forests and rivers should have rights in the eyes of the law — and in the following decades found that his work was galvanizing environmental lawyers in the United States and launching a global movement to grant nature the legal status of personhood, died May 14 at an assisted-living facility in Los Angeles. He was 83.

The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Ann Pope Stone, said.

Stone, who served on the faculty of the University of Southern California law school from 1965 until his death, proposed his idea in “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” an article published in the Southern California Law Review. He defended the rights of nature by analogy.

In ancient Roman law, Stone observed, children were less persons than objects under the absolute authority of fathers. Just as children acquired rights over time, so did women and minority groups. And not only humans: Corporations and nation states gained legal protections, too.

“Until the rightless thing receives its rights, we cannot see it as anything but a thing for the use of ‘us’ — those who are holding rights at the time,” he wrote. “Throughout legal history, each successive extension of rights to some new entity has been, therefore, a bit unthinkable.”

That prepared the ground for Stone’s thesis. “I am quite seriously proposing,” he wrote, “that we give legal rights to forests, oceans, rivers and other so-called ‘natural objects’ in the environment — indeed, to the natural environment as a whole.”

Parts of the environment could gain legal representation, he continued, using common methods. If a man becomes senile and seems unable to manage his affairs, concerned parties intervene and seek the appointment of a guardian. Stone suggested that groups such as the Sierra Club could apply to serve as court-appointed guardians for mountains or streams that they perceived as endangered. Guardians would gain the power to sue on the environment’s behalf.

Stone referred to a case then being considered by the Supreme Court: Sierra Club v. Morton. The Sierra Club had sued Roger C.B. Morton, then the secretary of the interior, to prevent The Walt Disney Co. from building a resort on public land in California. In a 4-3 decision in April 1972, the justices concurred with an appeals court that the Sierra Club did not have standing to sue.

But in a famous dissent, Justice William Douglas adopted Stone’s argument. “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium,” Douglas wrote, “should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation.”

Stone, the son of crusading reporter I.F. Stone, was a 34-year-old law professor who had never published anything about the environment. Yet his essay — which he expanded into a book called “Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment” (1974) — became the highlight of his career.

“He obviously was one of the pivotal people in helping to launch the modern environmental movement,” said Dan Esty, an environmental law professor at Yale University, adding that “Should Trees Have Standing?” helped inspire him to focus on environmental law.

Andrew Wetzler, who oversees much of the legal operation of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the same.

“When I read it, a light went off for me,” he said. “I knew this was what I wanted to do — to stand up and make those kinds of arguments on behalf of nature.”

In the United States, a growing number of municipal and tribal governments — including Pittsburgh, Santa Monica, California, and tribes such as the Yurok and the Ponca Nation — have sought to protect local natural resources by granting them rights.

Christopher David Stone was born Oct. 2, 1937, in New York City to I.F. Stone and Esther (Roisman) Stone. Chris’ mother helped her husband run his independent publication, I.F. Stone’s Weekly (later I.F. Stone’s Bi-Weekly); Chris pitched in, too. He grew up in Washington, D.C., within walking distance of Rock Creek Park, where he liked to wander around and collect turtles.

In 1962, he graduated from Yale Law School and married Ann Pope. They honeymooned in Nova Scotia, where they fished and slept in a pup tent.

Stone’s wife said that he was “not a tree hugger,” but that when the couple had a second child and she wanted to build a big addition to their house, he said they could not do anything that would harm a loquat tree whose fruit he used to make jam.

In addition to his wife, Stone is survived by two daughters, Carey and Jessica Stone; a sister, Celia Stone Gilbert; and two grandchildren.

What is known today as the “rights of nature” movement is led largely by Indigenous groups with ancient traditions involving conservation of the environment. Stone’s work helped make the connection between those traditions and modern law.

In 2010, before there was public discourse about the rights of nature in New Zealand, two Maori scholars, James Morris and Jacinta Ruru, wrote “Giving Voice to Rivers,” a paper devoted to popularizing Stone’s ideas.

The Maori view that “humans and water are intertwined,” Morris and Ruru wrote, provided what Stone had described in 1972 as a missing ingredient for acceptance of nature’s rights. His paper focused on practical matters such as how companies might pay damages to nature; but in his conclusion, he called for a revolution in popular attitudes.

“What is needed,” he wrote, is “a radical new theory or myth — felt as well as intellectualized — of man’s relationships to the rest of nature.” Humanity, he speculated, could be considered Earth’s mind: “different from the rest of nature, but different as a man’s brain is from his lungs.”

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