A Troubling Reality

We began with a question: “Why, with all of the remarkable efforts to protect and preserve the Great Lakes, were our waters ever more jeopardized?” This question was at the heart of a 2010 gathering of environmental and environmental justice activists, First Nations and Native American leaders, scientists, educators, artists and other allies who shared a love of the Great Lakes. 

We concluded that we couldn’t achieve healthy Lakes fighting the threats one by one without ALSO addressing deeper problems: 

  • We treat water as a commodity or resource, prioritizing industrial, agricultural and energy demands at the expense of ecological and human wellbeing;
  • Political boundaries in the Lakes region fragment decision making in ways that do not correspond to ecological realities;
  • The people of the Lakes are disconnected from water stewardship and largely lack standing or power in the water decisions that affect them;
  • And stunningly, we appear to have forgotten that we too are part of this eco-system, not outside it, and that our lives and those of future generations depend on the Lakes.

Nor could we wait for someone else to lead the way – the citizens of the Lakes needed to step up and act.

Deeper Reflections 

The Great Lakes Commons Initiative emerged from a recognition that fundamental change is essential if we want to create a sustaining future for our Great Lakes. Decades of activism and effort (and even some remarkable victories) have not resulted in thriving and protected waters. It is clear that a transformation of our relationship to these waters and of the region’s governance is key for enabling us to care for this life-giving ecosystem. 

The Great Lake Commons initiative draws on the knowledge and practice of both commons and Indigenous governance, long-standing and complementary models that each offer a viable path for transforming the governance of our waters. These two approaches reflect successful ecosystem governance based on shared benefit and responsibility, sustainable use, and participatory decision-making. And they are bolstered by the powerful legal traditions held in the public trust doctrine and regional treaty rights.

Of course the Great Lakes are already a commons—something shared by many and belonging to none. But they are an unconscious commons, left vulnerable to misuse all too often. A true commons lives in the understandings, relationships, actions, and laws recognized by the public. A commons needs commoners who are empowered to act as stewards and protectors.

The Great Lakes Commons Initiative will establish and protect the Great Lakes as a living commons, but it will require participation from us all to succeed.

“What we do to the water, we do to ourselves” 

This is an undeniable truth and yet, we live as if it weren’t.

The Great Lakes are an incredible gift of nature that makes up most of North America’s freshwater. Millions of people, along with a whole ecosystem of living creatures, depend on them. And for most inhabitants of the Lakes bio-region, we feel a rich sense of history, place and identity that connects us to these waters. We drink, fish, boat, swim, walk, grow food, and live because of the Great Lakes. 

And yet, despite all this, the Lakes face a growing list of threats – from extreme energy extraction and mining to agricultural run off, toxics and climate change. And while there is no shortage of efforts to protect and restore the Lakes, they cannot keep pace with the damage.

We will be stymied in creating the future we want if we continue to fight the attacks on the lakes one by one without also developing a transformative vision and ground-breaking strategy to address these deeper problems. And we can’t wait for someone else to lead. We the citizens of the Lakes need to step up and act. 

We need to put forward and legitimize a different approach—one that values the Lakes both unto themselves and as a source of life in a vast region, one that enables us all to play a vital and effective role in the care of the water. This work will build on existing frameworks, particularly commons and indigenous models of governance, as well as the public trust doctrine and regional treaty rights.

Irene Orkin offering tobacco to South Bala Falls

Irene Orkin offering tobacco to South Bala Falls