In late September, On the Commons and the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame—with sponsorship from the Blue Mountain Center, Michigan Technological University, and Vermont Law School—co-hosted a historic gathering to explore a life-sustaining future for the Great Lakes, and to reclaim the water as a commons.
Among the seventy visionary individuals who attended the gathering were Indigenous leaders, lawyers, water conservationists and engineers, academics, organizers, activists, and artists. The group’s diversity was intentional and representative of the broader community required for establishing a living Great Lakes Commons. Seeking common ground, we came together to share our knowledge and to voice our communities’ needs with a commitment to creating authentic solutions based on our collective wisdom.
A troubled watershed
The gathering grew out of a shared belief that, to create a life-sustaining future for the people and species of the Great Lakes, we must reestablish an ancient approach to governance—one based on community-driven decision making, ecological stewardship, and equitable use.
For a variety of reasons, current governance has simply failed the region. Despite decades of activism to protect these waters, today the Great Lakes face grave danger from hydro-fracking, tar sands refineries, and copper-sulfide mining—among countless other industrial threats—that put private interest before the public good. Citizens of the bioregion lack the standing and structural power to influence the decisions that affect their lives and livelihoods as a result.
Recovering knowledge for a living commons
Those of us who came together at the September gathering understood the increasing necessity for a new worldview that does not value economic profit over everything else, and that sees the power of the commons to provide a path forward.
The structure of the gathering was designed to both identify the social and ecological problems the Lakes now face, and to recover knowledge about ways of governing rooted in the commons and Indigenous thought and practice. Both systems of governance include longstanding values that foster multigenerational thinking, recognize our interdependence with the natural world, and understand reciprocity and generosity above private ownership.
The creation of a social charter
Drawing on our shared knowledge, we focused on the creation of a social charter, an age-old tool used to protect the commons from enclosure and destruction.
We understood that the social charter process itself would not only help residents of the Great Lakes realize their critical and rightful role in reshaping the governance of the Great Lakes, but that is would also help us to understand what commons-based principles should be put into practice.
Forging a new path forward
When a commons has been enclosed or forgotten, recreating the web of connections among those who share it is the essential first task for restoring it as a commons. And all of us who attended the gathering at Notre Dame recognized the need to establish trusting relationships with one another before we can be successful in designing a life-sustaining future for our Great Lakes.
We also recognized that it will not be easy: The people of the Great Lakes—urban and rural, native and immigrant, and descendants of First Nations, European, or African peoples—share a complex history. It will take time for us to nurture rich and meaningful relationships and to build a true sense of togetherness in common cause.
But when we parted ways at the end of the gathering, no matter the community, culture, or generation we came from, we each carried with us the experience of practicing the co-creation, shared leadership, equity, and reciprocity required for aligning our efforts to establish the Great Lakes as a living commons. And with that experience, we will all carry forward a sense of hope and responsibility for working toward the change we must bring about.