Our Great Lakes Commons Gathering:
Co-Convened by University of Notre Dame Mendoza School of Business, On the Commons,
Vermont Law School’s Water and Justice Program,
Blue Mountain Center and others
September 30 – October 2nd, 2012
University of Notre Dame, Indiana
Our Great Lakes Commons Gathering
The Great Lakes Commons Gathering brought together about seventy people from a range of fields and disciplines to engage in shared inquiry of a subject of profound importance– the future of the Great Lakes of North America. Scholars, economists, Indigenous leaders, attorneys, environmentalists, social and environmental justice activists, engineers, artists and other forward thinking participants focused on exploring strategies that can move us toward establishing a Great Lakes Commons and a life-affirming future for this bioregion.
The Need for a Whole System Solution
The Great Lakes are a precious gift of nature that comprises most of North America’s fresh water. Millions of people and thousands of species depend on this water. And yet, increasing damage, depletion and misuse are putting this life giving watershed and its residents at risk. Simply put, Great Lakes governance is failing to protect the water and the living beings who rely on the water for life.
The failure of Great Lakes governance stems from a set of interrelated whole system problems:
- The underlying logic driving Great Lakes policy is biased toward private and commercial interests at the expense of ecological and human wellbeing;
- The political and jurisdictional boundaries in the region do not correspond to ecological realities;
- The people of the Lakes bioregion are not seen as central to water stewardship and largely lack standing or structural power in the water decisions that effect them
Fundamental change is called for to address these systemic problems. We need to put forward and legitimize a different operating system, one that values the Lakes both unto themselves and as a source of life in a vast region – and one that enables all of us to play a vital and effective role in the care of the water.
We are using the commons to frame our inquiry at the Gathering. The commons, as a world-view and practical approach, enables us to establish a different set of operating assumptions about the value and care of our Lakes. As such, we believe the commons opens a potentially groundbreaking path forward in our relationship to and care of these iconic waters.
The commons, in brief, is a powerful and alternate framework that humans have used to take care of and equitably share resources for millennia. Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom has shown it to be a highly effective form of stewardship whose governance, in accordance with commons principles, is highly collaborative and focused on sustainability, shared responsibility and equitable benefit. The strength of the commons is in its ability to orient us toward interdependence, to invite leadership from all parts of the community and to offer avenues for everyone to take responsibility for the care of the water.
A central focus of the Gathering will be the exploration of strategies to assert, build recognition and gain standing for this commons based approach - legally, politically, economically and culturally - and to more fully engage the people of the bioregion in the active care of our commons. One such strategy is the co-creation of a Great Lakes Commons Charter. A commons charter is a set of norms, rules, rights and practices that define a community’s relationship to and governance of a commons. We are inviting Gathering participants to embark on initiating this charter, including defining a guiding vision and set of principles to orient our collective work and ultimately Great Lakes governance.
The Gathering will honor Indigenous wisdom and leadership in a central way. Indigenous communities continue to demonstrate how a life affirming vision for the Great Lakes is viable. Resurfacing values that recognize our interdependence, that engender multigenerational thinking and that foster belonging, generosity and reciprocity over ownership – all pivotal values in Indigenous cultures— are today recognized as essential to our collective survival.
The commons are shaped by a set of kindred principles and values. Both systems reject that what we buy, sell and own in the market provides fundamental meaning to our lives. Instead, value is placed on caring for all that we share and passing this legacy to future generations undiminished.
Along with recognizing Indigenous wisdom as a legitimate and vital school of thought that can set the foundation for a commons, it is also important to recognize the disproportionate impact of unsound water decisions on Indigenous peoples and the need for First Nations and Tribes to have a leading voice, as sovereign Nations, in determining a just water future.
We are setting out a bold new course. Because there are no exact templates for commons governance or charters on this scale, we see the Gathering as a place to co-create a new narrative for the future of the Lakes, share learning and insights, and lay the groundwork to bring the Great Lakes commons to life. We will leave the conference with:
- A defined development process for Our Great Lakes Commons charter;
- A constellation of linked leadership that will carry this work forward through research, organizing, education, law, business and culture, and move us toward commons governance locally, regionally and trans-nationally;
- An initial set of strategies that participants can advance in their field, sector or community.
This Gathering promises to be a visionary and catalyzing event that can launch the critical work needed to re-imagine and re-shape the future of the Great Lakes. We hope it is one that we will look back on in years to come as historic and game changing.