In 1972, Professor Christopher Stone from the University of Southern California was approaching the final minutes of an introductory lecture on property law. He noted that, like human culture, property law is an evolving social construct and has progressed through different stages of growth and development (Schlatter). As Aldo Leopold notes in the introductory quote, human beings were once considered property. Assault or even the intentional killing of a slave was considered a matter for property law, not a matter for human rights. Throughout history, we have seen a continual evolution in the types of things that can be owned, who was considered capable of ownership and the meaning of ownership itself (Stone, ‘Trees’ vii). Stone commented to his class that ‘it was easy to see how each change shifted the locus and quality of power ... each advance in the law-legitimated concept of “ownership”, fuelling a change in consciousness, in the range and depth of feelings’ (‘Trees’ vii). Stone was awakened from this historical narrative by the shuffling and voices of his students who had begun to ‘pack away their enthusiasm for the next venture’ (‘Trees’ vii). In an effort to maintain their attention, he wondered aloud:
So, what would a radically different law-driven consciousness look like? ... One in which Nature had rights ... Yes, rivers, lakes ... trees ... animals ... How would such a posture in law affect a community’s view of itself? (‘Trees’ vii) This thought experiment created uproar and as Stone stepped out of the lecture theatre he asked himself, ‘what did you just say in there? How could trees have rights?’ (‘Trees’ vii).
Evidently, he had no idea. Thirty years later, Stone’s paper ‘Should Trees Have Standing’ and its influence in Sierra Club v Morton has become the thing of legend and continues to resonate with pockets of students in contemporary law schools. However, until recently, the notion of recognising nature as an entity capable of holding rights was completely ignored by lawmakers.