A Place for Trees: Toward Arboreal Rights

This essay was presented at the Toward a New Way of Being with Plants conference on June 18, 2021. See the presentation here.

Trees and plants are receiving renewed attention in both the sciences and humanities, pointing towards recognition of their intelligence, agency, and relationality. Trees have a dramatically different expression of livingness than humans, and the ethical stance in the Western philosophical tradition is founded on a hierarchy with plants at the base, allowing for unimpeded use. In this essay, I will address rights for trees, specifically proposing that trees may have a right to place based on the work of phenomenologist Edward S. Casey. First, I would like to acknowledge the land that I am writing to you from, in the East Bay of California, which is in unceded Chochenyo Ohlone territory. My work and scholarship is situated in the Western tradition, which is my own lineage, both personally and intellectually. I will be speaking about precedents for tree rights, exploring Casey’s work on place, and opening the question about what arboreal rights might look like.

The history of Western philosophy has primarily regarded trees and plants as inferior to humans and animals, starting with the writings of Plato and Aristotle through the 20th century. However, some scholars are beginning to rethink the place of plants ontologically following the cutting-edge science showing plants are intelligent, communicate, and have complex relationships.[1] This is leading to questions about the ethical treatment of plants, including trees, what could be called an arboreal or vegetal ethic, which includes consideration of moral and legal rights for trees. My focus is on trees because they are larger and older than humans, and I might say charismatic in the way many of us have strong feelings for specific trees. They are a good exemplar of the way we can think anew about plants.

Can a tree even have rights? As part of the rights of nature movement, several rivers around the world have been granted legal rights and there are ongoing cases, like that of Happy, the elephant at the Bronx Zoo in New York, for legal rights for animals. Thinkers in the Western lineage have occasionally suggested rights and legal standing for trees and plants. Articles with titles like “Humanity to Trees” [2] from the late 19th century and “Animal Chauvinism, Plant-regarding Ethics and the Torture of Trees” [3] from 1986 have suggested something like rights for trees. Christopher Stone, a legal scholar, famously argued that trees should have rights in a 1972 article, “Should Trees Have Standing?” Stone suggests that what he calls “natural objects” should be allowed legal rights.[4] Another key document is the 2008 Swiss brochure “The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for Their Own Sake,” [5] which sought to articulate what dignity for life means in terms of plants. While the brochure does not address rights directly, it affirms that plants should not be harmed arbitrarily. Legal rights for trees of some sort could be an avenue toward both greater environmental protection and toward recognition of trees as intelligent, relational beings.

Edward S. Casey’s work on place is a helpful framework for thinking about arboreal rights. Casey’s work is grounded in the philosophical discipline of phenomenology, which inquiries into human consciousness and perceptive experience as a way of understanding the world. Place is often overlooked in favor of time and space. Casey says, “place is what takes place between body and landscape.”[6] As he reminds us, to be is to be in place. Place is the condition as well as the limit of existence. Trees, as enduring individuals within the environment, have an arboreal form of place. Casey’s philosophy is open to such an expansion and leaves open the possibility that “animals, perhaps even plants, possess their own equivalents of embodiment and implacement.”[7] This phenomenological approach is an embodied and experiential way to approach trees and reconsider ethical relationships between trees and humans.

Humans and animals experience movement from place to place. Trees, unless forcibly uprooted and replanted, remain standing in one place throughout their lives. Living trees are engaged with and make place. While trees are often backgrounded as merely part of the scenery, they are involved in arboreal activities unbeknownst to humans that impact their surroundings. Trees change the light that filters to the ground, provide homes for other plants and animals, and shift the local climate. Trees also make place that is inaccessible to humans in their crowns and below the soil.

Casey affirms place contains ethical concern.[8] Because trees endure standing in one place throughout their lives, ethical considerations toward trees must take arboreal existence into account, rather than imposing an anthropocentric view.

Of course, place has not always been a right for humans, for example indigenous peoples being forcibly removed from their homelands and the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. Acknowledgement of these human atrocities is critical to a conversation about trees, place, and ethics.

Trees and plants are uniquely ethically problematic. Even considering a fruitarian diet — eating only the fruits of plants without killing them — we humans must take their lives for building and fuel among other sustaining needs. Thus, trees may not have a right to life or to bodily integrity. An ethical stance toward trees may not be based on total lack of harm but instead on taking trees with respect for their lives and their place.

While trees may not have a right to life, they may have a right to place in an arboreal ethic. What could this look like practically? Such a place-based ethic must take into account each place’s indigenous and local peoples’ needs and wishes. An ethic of place may mean allowing a tree or plant to remain and thrive wherever possible. There are cases where taking a tree or plant is essential for human livelihood, and in these cases, an ethic of place may offer an alternative to an ethic based on total lack of harm. When a tree must be taken for human purposes, the place itself could be allowed to regenerate with or without help from the harvester, considering both individual tree and surrounding and acknowledging ecological interrelationships. Once a tree or forest has been cut, place irrevocably changes. However, forests depend on change and death for their overall health, which may be an opening for intentioned human taking. Such a place-based arboreal right would have implications for example for avoiding deforestation, a significant part of the solution to climate change.

I would like to come back to the place where I am currently writing. Here in the Bay Area of California, there are native oaks and redwoods as well as invasive eucalyptus. Where I am currently, oak and eucalyptus exist together. Do these trees, which are on private property, have a right to place? Locally there has been debate about removing non-natives, like eucalyptus, and if native species should have preference. I do not propose to answer this question here, but rather to open up the conversation about place for trees and what might be implied if an arboreal right to place was seriously considered. Conversation about arboreal and vegetal rights and ethics is a move towards respecting trees and plants as intelligent beings worthy of human respect.

[1] See an extensive bibliography here: https://plants.arizona.edu/bibliography/.

[2] James Russell Lowell, “Humanity to Trees,” The Crayon 4, no. 3 (1857).

[3] J. L. Arbor, “Animal Chauvinism, Plant-regarding Ethics and the Torture of Trees,” Australasian Journal of Philosophy 64, no. 3 (1986).

[4] Christopher D. Stone, “Should Trees have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects,” Southern California Law Review 45, (1972): 450–501.

[5] Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, The Dignity of Living Beings with Regard to Plants: Moral Consideration of Plants for their Own Sake, (Berne, Switzerland: Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology, 2008).

[6] Edward S. Casey, Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009), 15.

[7] Edward S. Casey, “Between Geography and Philosophy: What does it Mean to be in the Place-World?” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 91, no. 4 (2001): 693.

[8] Casey, Getting Back into Place, 265.

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Writer, Creative, and Integral Ecologist

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Laura Pustarfi

Laura Pustarfi

Writer, Creative, and Integral Ecologist

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