No one would accuse Christopher Stone’s 1972 discourse-changing article, “Should Trees Have Standing,” of being centrist. The article, which advocated assigning legal rights to animals and inanimate environmental objects, legal rights that could be activated to protect the trees, etcetera, for their own sake and not explicitly in the property interest of humans, was received as radical, if not laughable, in its attempt to reconceptualize the role of the legal system in anointing non-humans as fully realized legal beings. No, the type of centrism at play here is anthropocentrism versus biocentrism – in this context, saving the world for the sake of humanity, or saving the world for the sake of the world.
In the early 1970s, the environmental movement had a touch of the Gaia to it, a wholeness, a subservience to Mother Earth. Stone was writing in a time when Westerners were reassessing their role as the top-of-the-food-chain, unquestionable dominators of the world. Guilt-ridden, the new attitude was about taking care of the planet and maintaining as much “naturalness” as possible. This is the biocentric viewpoint, wherein humanity must service the tree for the furtherance of nature. After all, who are we to chop the majestic organism down when it has sat happily in its spot since before we were born, producing oxygen, being home to countless birds, and so forth.
The anthropocentric comeback takes the following form: how much more pompous and self-regarding can one get than assuming the responsibility of global guardian of natural wellness! That we should be making determinations about what the trees want by assigning them fundamentally human characteristics? No, the anthropocentrist says, assigning a tree legal rights to protect it for its own sake simply laminates deeply felt but in many ways selfish human desires onto inanimate objects in order to justify our quixotic brand of preservation at the expense, ultimately, of the global poor. Instead, the anthropocentrist advocates thinking about the fate of the tree in a way that maximizes benefits to humanity as a whole, across space and time.
By 2009, the anthropocentrists have the upper hand in the debate over the environment.
Which is not to say we should toss out Stone’s baby with the bathwater. Assigning legal rights to trees — and later, Stone advocates assigning legal rights to global commons like oceans biospheres, and to future generations of humanity, by way of guardians who may sue to protect their “clients'” interests — creates a new forum for debate over our actions and their consequences. Creating legal rights for the atmosphere to sue polluters on its own behalf is the legal equivalent of monetizing and trading carbon dioxide outputs: both put consequences on externalities. As such, it is worth revisiting “Trees” for its description of a pragmatic tool for environmental regulation, if not for its philosophical underpinnings.
- Finding Common Ground in Biological Conservation: Beyond the Anthropocentric vs. Biocentric Controversy, by Alejandro Flores and Tim W. Clark [Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies]
- Reconciling Anthropocentrism and Biocentrism Through Adaptive Management: The Case of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant and Public Risk Perception, by Alex W. Thrower and J. Michael Martinez [The Journal of Environment and Development]
- Environmental Ethics, by Robin Attfield [Google Books]
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