Ethics to law


In HCN’s special issue on the future, the first two essays discuss Aldo Leopold’s land ethic and William O. Douglas’ dissent in Sierra Club vs. Morton. I’d like to connect these ideas using Leopold and Christopher Stone, whose law review article Douglas cited in his dissent.

In his 1949 “Land Ethic,” Leopold challenges us to expand the boundaries of our community: “All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. … The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” However, more than 60 years after this challenge, most of us still think of community in purely human terms. Our failure to see our larger community, to push Leopold’s “ethical sequence,” remains our problem. Until we can move beyond our own narrow, shortsighted interests to see ourselves as a small part of a large biotic community, we will not expand our ethical conscience to include that community, a community we must also love.

Without this ethical foundation, based in a community of love, there will be no “rights.” Stone, in his essay, “Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” written in 1972, employs Leopold’s idea of an ethical sequence as it is reflected in law. Citing the history of the expansion of rights to children, “prisoners, aliens, women (especially the married variety), the insane, blacks and Indians …” and then to nature, Stone again challenges us to evolve, to broaden our rights community. In Stone’s terms this expansion, was, at the time, “unthinkable,” just as rights for all these other groups were at some time unthinkable. Sadly, for many it remains unthinkable for nature to have rights.

But the unthinkable must become the imperative. As climate change squeezes us into an awareness of the web connecting our larger community, we must think the unthinkable. The environment may have gained some legal protection based on human needs, but we still have not taken what should no longer be considered a radical step. It’s time to get radical.

Susan Jacobson
Denver, Colorado

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