Until the very end, my dear friend and colleague Burns Weston was passionate, hard-driving and committed to changing the world. That’s why I was stunned to learn that Burns passed away yesterday, a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. When he failed to make a scheduled telephone call, friends checked his condo and found him dead. Burns was a well-known international law and international human rights scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law. He was also founder of its noted Center for Human Rights.
I met Burns about seven years ago when he was a professor for one semester a year at Vermont Law School. He was writing a major legal treatise about climate change, and one element of the essay dealt with the commons. A mutual friend, the polymath Roger G. Kennedy, introduced us, and the gravitational pull of Burns’ essay quickly drew me in. It was an irresistible disruption in my life that got me thinking a lot about environmental law and the commons.
Soon we were working together on a variety of projects: a major scholarly book, chapters in anthologies, law review articles, grant proposals. In the course of it all, Burns exposed me to a great deal of human rights and international law, and he helped clarify their potential and limits for re-imagining international governance, environmental law and the actualization of human rights. For my part, I introduced Burns to the loose but growing network of international commoners and commons literature. He quickly realized that the commons is not just complementary to human rights; the two are long-lost partners with affirmative synergies.
Our conversations became more serious and, with a bit of serendipitous funding, we embarked upon a grueling book project, Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Law of the Commons, published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press. It was a bold attempt to reimagine environmental law and policy through the lens of human rights and the commons. We wanted to envision new ways to actualize human rights principles and commons practices at global and regional levels. We wanted to think beyond the framework of the nation-state and international treaty organizations. We wanted to think beyond the standard forms and institutions of law itself.
Burns attacked these questions with the enthusiasm of a first-year law student and the sagacity of a gray eminence. He really wanted to come up with creative legal solutions, and he wasn’t afraid if they might require social and political struggle. Now that’s not a quality you find in your average law professor, let alone one in his seventies. Burns had a bold and questing temperament, and did not let himself be confined by the disciplinary blinders of law. That’s why, following the publication of Green Governance, Burns wanted to continue our explorations. So we founded the Commons Law Project to see if we could propose an architecture of law and public policy to address climate change and other urgent ecological problems.