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September 3, 2012

Great Lakes Commons Initiative: A Game-Changing Plan

An effort to declare and live the Great Lakes as a commons, a protected bioregion and a public trust

Great Lakes Commons Initiative has its origins in a convening of community leaders focused on a troubling question: Why, with all of the remarkable organizing, legal, policy and restoration work to protect and preserve the Great Lakes, are they more threatened than ever? The group determined that what’s needed is a game-changing plan.

The Great Lakes face grave danger as pollution, over-extraction, invasive species, and wetland loss continue to intensify, exacting a devastating toll on the watershed. While beaches close and fisheries decline, private companies are eyeing these precious waters for increased exploitation, whether in the form of additional commercial bottled water export, mining, oil and gas exploration, or control of once public water services.

Decades of organizing, advocacy, legal and treaty rights work have made tremendous headway against the threats to the Lakes. These campaigns have slowed the devastation, created higher barriers for abuse, and insisted on public interest in water decisions. But still, the threats to enclose, appropriate and exploit our Great Lakes escalate faster than ever.

On the Commons asserts that the many problems we face will not be solved piecemeal or by efforts that focus solely on ecological degradation or social injustice. 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. What is called for is a game-changing plan.

Our Great Lakes Water Commons Initiative acts as a game changer in multiple ways. First, the Initiative makes an explicit connection between social inequities, disregard of community participation in resource decisions and environmental damage in the Great Lakes region. Such a holistic view is critical to ensuring not only the health and well being of the Lakes, but also the people who live there. For example:

  • When water use decisions are made without community agreement, community members are further excluded from their rightful role in governance and stewardship of vital resources.

  • When water belongs to those who can buy it and not to our communities, the future of every living being is jeopardized.

  • When financially strapped municipalities sell water rights and access rather than prioritizing community needs and stewardship for future generations, the environment suffers and so do people’s health and human rights.

  • When scientists predict that the Great Lakes could one day dry out if policies don’t change, it is a clear signal that the current approach to management of this life-essential commons is not sufficient.

Second, the commons gives us something to be for—and until recently, that something has been missing from the debate. In a time of increasingly dire economic and environmental threats facing the region, the commons offers both a vision of a hopeful future and a viable approach to build one that is rooted in relationships, belonging, responsibility, and collaboration among communities, nations, citizens, and organizations.

Lastly, at the heart of the commons is an ancient, yet fresh approach to governance—one based on community driven decision-making. Efforts to reclaim our Great Lakes as a commons leads to an awareness that critical governance decisions already belong to the people around the Lakes. What we are fighting to protect is actually ours already—the water, the public water infrastructure, and the decisions about pollution, allocation and economic opportunity. Such a shift in thinking is the foundation for community action to rebuild authentic democratic participation in determining the future of the lakes.

You can learn more about the origins of Our Great Lakes Commons initiative in our blog called The History of Our Water Commons. And for information on how we hope to redefine the Lake communities’ relationships to and governance of the Great Lakes commons, don’t miss our blog called Our Great Lakes Commons Charter. It explains what a commons charter is, and why we need one to secure the future of the Great Lakes.