Such is the question offered by environmental historian Adam Sowards. Based around a 1972 William O. Douglas dissent saying that nature should have legal standing in environmental cases, as opposed to the interests of the members of environmental organizations (for instance).
And so it seems unlikely, at least for now, that Douglas’ vision of nature as an entity with the right to sue will manifest in our courts. But does that matter? It depends on your criteria. The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Sierra Club v. Morton helped establish standing for environmental organizations, thus facilitating environmental litigation. The court’s opinion did not extend that right to natural objects, but Douglas’ dissent nudged the courts toward recognizing nature’s rights. This perspective pointed the way, according to legal scholar Christopher Stone, toward a new “level of consciousness” for the courts.
And so the debate about nature’s standing then becomes a broader philosophical debate about law and what it can and can’t, or should or shouldn’t, do. Law is not intended to transform levels of consciousness or morality; it is a pragmatic discipline. As a practical matter, extending standing to natural objects may simply be unnecessary.
As a moral matter, however, the failure to acknowledge nature’s rights frustrates legal and environmental activists and surely would have disappointed (though not surprised) Douglas, who retired from the Supreme Court in 1975, after a debilitating stroke, and died five years later.
Today, global climate change, biodiversity losses and habitat fragmentation are creating unprecedented social and ecological problems. Environmental crises require serious changes in governance and legal systems and, arguably, in morality. When organizations such as the Earth Law Center work to “advance legal rights for ecosystems to exist, thrive and evolve,” or when Ecuador declares in its 2008 Constitution that nature “has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes,” they are paying homage to Douglas’ -vision and implementing it in governing structures where law and morality may intersect.
Maybe it doesn’t matter all that much. After all, it’s not all that hard to establish that people have an interest in a sound or untrammeled or (describe how you want) ecosystem. But the lack of nature itself having legal standing does suggest how society prioritizes not only humans over other creatures but also development over the interests of the creatures displaced or destroyed by that development.
Interesting thought piece at least.