Arguing for the legal standing of nature was greeted as ridiculous in the 1970s. But now the idea is catching on. In October 1971, a few months after international officials gathered in Iran to sign the Ramsar wetlands treaty, Christopher Stone was standing in front of his introductory property law class at the University of Southern California’s law school, trying to hold the attention of his restive students. Observing that the definition of property had changed radically over human history, transforming not only the distribution of power within society but society’s view of itself, he wondered aloud about the effects of a similarly radical redefinition of “rights.” What if legal rights were extended to, say, rivers? Or animals? Or trees? “This little thought experiment,” Stone recalled decades later, “was greeted, quite sincerely, with uproar.” Class was soon dismissed—​to the relief of the students and their professor—​but Stone did not abandon his thought experiment. Instead, he called the law library’s reference desk and asked if there were any pending cases where the “rights” of a natural object might affect the outcome. Within half an hour, a librarian called back to suggest Sierra Club v. Hickel . The case involved a […]

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