Julie Ristau, Ana Micka, Alexa Bradley, Faye Brown, Jessica Conrad and Jay Walljasper.
| by On the Commons Team
The Need for a Game Changing Strategy
Our Great Lakes Commons and this Plan have their origins in a convening of community leaders focused on a troubling question: Why, with all of the remarkable organizing, legal, policy and restoration work being done to protect and preserve the Great Lakes, are the Lakes more threatened than ever? The unprecedented gathering brought together environmentalists, Indigenous leaders, social justice organizers, public trust lawyers, and academics, all engaged in efforts of varying kinds to protect the Lakes and the communities that depend on them.
Those gathered concluded that without a game changing strategy, our efforts would be insufficient to protect the Lakes. We emerged with a shared goal: that the Great Lakes be declared and lived as a commons, a protected bioregion and public trust. We understood that this ambitious goal would require a broad, trans-border movement to advance a commons framework for Great Lakes stewardship and governance.
From the initial gathering, the circle continues to grow and now includes on-going participation by a widening group of academics, activists, attorneys, Indigenous leaders, cultural workers/artists, students, policy advocates and others. The information gleaned and the relationships built over the past year and a half have informed the plan that follows.
The Underlying Problem
The threats facing the Great Lakes are not only connected, but also symptoms of a much deeper and more problematic reality. The underlying logic driving Great Lakes policy and decision-making is dominated by a market paradigm biased toward private ownership and short-sighted economics, not public interest. This is most evident in the acceptance of market metrics by our own governing bodies as a way to “value” water and make decisions about its use. As a result, the governance of the Lakes, held in its many jurisdictional bodies, is failing to properly value:
The bias toward private interests is also evident in the lack of standing or structural power afforded communities in the water decisions that directly affect them. The current governance structure too often privileges private interests while leaving community members with only two avenues for impact: petition and protest.
All of the organizing and efforts to protect our water exist within this context. We will be stymied in creating the future we want if we continue to fight off the threats to the Lakes one by one without also developing a transformative vision and ground-breaking strategy. What is called for is a fundamental shift: both in the basis on which decisions about the Lakes are made and who is making the decisions. In other words, we need to work from a different worldview—one that values the Lakes both unto themselves and as a source of life in such a vast region—and toward a new system of governance.
Why The Commons: The Logic of Reclaiming Our Great Lakes Commons
The commons paradigm is a powerful and alternate framework that humans have used to take care of and equitably share resources for centuries. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has shown it to be a highly effective form of stewardship whose governance, in accordance with commons principles, is participatory, egalitarian and focused on ecological responsibility and social equity. It is rooted in a different understanding of relationship, belonging and value and a different approach to stewardship and governance.
The commons as a way of thinking about shared resources is both ancient and contemporary. The logic of the commons is informed by indigenous knowledge, history and living examples of commons-based economic and governance structures. Indigenous wisdom is increasingly being recognized internationally as essential to our collective survival, reminding us to restore our relationships to each other and to the earth by tapping into the deep cellular memory of a society organized around authentic community, collaboration, reciprocity, belonging, and respect for all life. Kindred principles of shared stewardship, access and co-creation can be found in the digital commons, open source technology, crowd sourcing, and other emergent forms of collaboration and resource sharing.
In seeking the declaration of the Great Lakes as a living commons—one in which people and communities around the Lakes have a role and power in the care of that commons—we are echoing these other commons in asserting the need for a re-oriented and shaped governance/stewardship structure. The failure of Great Lakes governance to fully protect the waters and the interests of the living beings who depend on them is deeply troubling. While there is no simple or single answer to this problem, the power of the commons framework for the region is in its ability to offer an alternative set of criteria and governance propositions that provide a greater locus of power for “commoners” and commons interests.
Central to claiming and establishing a Great Lakes Commons will be the development of a social or commons charter—typically a written or otherwise established set of norms, rules, rights, and practices that define a community’s relationship and governance of a commons. The development of a Great Lakes Commons charter will create a vehicle for the people of the Lakes to set forth a broadly shared vision, guiding principles and a framework for Great Lakes stewardship.
Expanding The Circle and Strategic Assumptions
If we are to going to realize our goal of the Great Lakes declared and lived as a commons, we need to answer the question: What will it take to activate a critical mass of people around the Lakes to step up and together ensure that our waters and our communities are healthy, protected and vibrant for generations to come? This plan is built on several assertions that help answer that question:
Strategic Framework: A Multi-Pronged Approach
The effort to reclaim our Great Lakes Commons requires multiple prongs of connected strategy and sustained efforts by many partners and allies in related, albeit different, arenas. While On the Commons will be focused primarily on the first prong described below (the social charter development) other key partners and allies are already leading work in others. Shared purpose, shared learning and strong communication will enable these efforts to aggregate and unify.
A Social Charter For The Great Lakes
If we are to truly “reclaim” the Great Lakes as a commons, we need a social charter, or a commons charter, that articulates the foundational vision, metrics and structure for a desired governance of the Lakes. A social charter is a formal declaration that outlines the rights and incentives of a community in the use and protection of a common resource. Today, we are a long way from articulating a commons charter for the Great Lakes. The average person thinks little about their relationship to the waters or their responsibility for them. While it’s evident that the people of the region love the Lakes deeply, that love is rarely tapped politically or socially.
We propose a social charter creation process to renew, rediscover and reinvent a stewardship relationship and culture around the Lakes. The audacity and clarity of the social charter claim are important, as it needs to break through the status quo and galvanize people around a new possibility. The claim needs to go beyond the existing environmental frames and put forward a substantive goal that clearly challenges the dominant political framework. We would use this both as an organizing tool and as an agenda setting document.
Because a social charter first is given legitimacy by the people of a given commons, a highly participatory social charter creation process involving people across the region is critical. Our process needs to awaken and reconnect people to their Lakes commons through various means, enliven an alternate framework of belonging, engage people in the creative articulation of a shared vision for Lakes stewardship, and plant the seeds for new governance practices and structures.
Establishing Our Great Lakes Commons
The goal of the Great Lakes Water Commons initiative is to establishing the Great Lakes as a living and functioning commons, with an emphasis on engaged stewardship, equitable benefit and sustainable use. Such a transformation will require a profound shift in our relationship to the Lakes and new forms of bio-regional citizenship. A social charter will be a critical vehicle for articulating and structuring that desired shift. Because there are no exact templates or models for a commons social charter on this scale, we see the work toward this social charter as requiring a living “laboratory” where people, institutions and communities can share learning and develop the necessary structures, agreements and practices to bring the Great Lakes commons and social charter to life.
The Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame University has offered to partner in the effort to catalyze a working laboratory to create the living social charter we envision. A gathering from September 30th through October 2nd, 2012 is being organized at the Notre Dame campus in South Bend. This will be a multi-disciplinary, working gathering that can serve both as a focalizing event toward which to orient research and organizing over the spring and summer, and a way to launch the development work of the social charter going forward.
Social Charter Ratification
This is a bold and long-term effort. It will take years, and perhaps decades, to transform our collective relationship to water and to codify practices and structures for shared stewardship of this precious commons. A first step in this process is completing a draft of the social charter. Ultimately we see that Charter being ratified and recognized – first by an Assembly involving a critical mass of people around the Lakes. The Assembly will culminate in the declaration and celebration of the new social charter and announce the movement toward its longer term recognition in Great Lakes governance.
Addendum: Commons Governance, Social Charters and The Power of Commoners
Framework for Commons Governance
Here some of the key concepts on which commons governance rests:
Value proposition: The commons offers a system of meaning and value that is not simply transactional or narrowly based on the market. Resources in a commons are part of the totality of a community—its economic survival, its history, its ecological health, its beauty, its identity, its resilience, the relationships among its people, its life blood. A commons names a set of relationships that extend in ways that the market suppresses—to include future generations, other living beings with whom we share the planet, and the very resources on which we depend.
Claim: The commons expresses an understanding that communities have a fundamental and equitable claim to our common inheritance of natural and created abundance. This claim grows out of an understanding that a commons does not belong to any one in the usual private property sense but to all of us. This is the basis for both our right to equitable use and benefit and our responsibility to care for it.
This claim is a collective one. It is a claim whose history stretches back in time. Communal resource arrangements have always existed in indigenous communities around the planet. And in Europe, peasants asserted hunting and gathering rights that predated the legal authority of kings and landowners and were recognized in social charters. In more recent history, the standing of commoners has been recognized in public trust law and other legal frameworks.
Stewardship: The commons carry responsibility. The community entrusted with those resources must ensure their equitable and just use as well as their preservation for the future. Equity and stewardship are intertwined at the center of a commons with community members acting as the protectors, co-creators and beneficiaries. The responsibility includes recognizing the Lakes as an ecological system with value, limits and needs itself.
Governance: The commons—as both an idea and practical arrangement—reminds us of the vital difference between petitioning for access/benefit or having real authority with regards to the use and stewardship of commons resources. Commons governance draws its legitimacy from a direct and sovereign relationship of belonging between commoners and a commons resource. That relationship is expressed in a decision making structure based in subsidiarity that gives standing and power to communities most directly affected.
What Is Commons Governance?
Commons governance can take a variety of forms and involve multiple tiers of governance that are “nested” in order to cope with different scales and to assign appropriate decision making to the right level. The decision-making honors a principle of subsidiarity—an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.
Throughout history, community rules for many kinds of commons have been set up to prevent resource overuse while ensuring fair access. For the most part, these rules were customary and gained acceptance through practice. In our current period, there are efforts to codify commons protections and the clout of commoners through public trust law, the establishment of commons trusts, the enforcement of treaty rights, the establishment of rights of mother nature, and so on. “The point is to create a participatory culture of stewardship that can persist and cherish the resources that need to be protected,” (from Bollier/Weston), “and to enable and protect those entrusted with the stewardship with the necessary legal and political standing.”
The basis of commons governance is a Social Charter. “The social charter empowers a geographical group and a broader association to hold a commons in trust for its beneficiaries, thereby safeguarding these vulnerable resources from the growing pressure to exploit them.” (from Bollier/Weston) If we want to move toward more commons governance in the Great Lakes we need to catalyze the development of a new social charter. Components of a social charter may include (James Quilligan’s research):
A summary of long-held and emerging claims to legitimacy and responsibility for preserving the commons resource