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On the Great Lakes Commons
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The On the Commons team is developing a co-creative process that will allow the Great Lakes and its tributary waters in North America to be declared as a lived commons - to be shared, protected, carefully managed and enjoyed by all who live around them. By On the Commons.

What We Can Do to Protect the Great Lakes - By On the Commons team

Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever- by Maude Barlow

10 Water Commons Principles: A co-creative approach for protecting the planet's future - by Maude Barlow

Needed: A New Vision for the Great Lakes - By Jack Tuholske

Waterkeeper Alliance Declares Great Lakes a Shared Commons - By Alexa Bradley & Jessica Conrad 

Further resources

What We Can Do to Protect the Great Lakes
Creating a commons charter to govern management of the lakes will protect the public interest

1st September 2012 - By On the Commons team

If we are to truly “claim” the Great Lakes as a commons, we need a commons charter (known among organizers as a social charter) that articulates the foundational vision and structure for a desired governance of the Lakes. Read on to learn about governance pattern we hope to challenge with a new and highly participatory governance structure, On the Common’s current work to that end, and how you can get involved.

Susan Raffo, a Minneapolis-based writer, activist and body worker wisely said, “The only time patterns become visible is when they are contradicted or challenged.” Here at On the Commons, we’ve discovered the need for a Great Lakes Commons Charter and set in motion a multi-cultural, cross-border commons movement by doing just that: questioning why the Great Lakes are severely threatened—despite the work of countless groups to protect and preserve the Lakes—and discovering a deeply troubling governance pattern.

Why we need a Great Lakes Commons Charter

The underlying logic driving Great Lakes policy and decision-making is dominated by a market paradigm biased toward private ownership and shortsighted economics, not public interest. The resulting value system is skewed in favor of private interests, leaving community members with two meager avenues for impact: petition or protest.

We’re calling for a fundamental shift in the governance structure—both of the basis on which decisions about the Lakes are made, and in who is making the decisions. In other words, we need to establish a different worldview—one that values the Lakes individually and as a source of life in such a vast region—and to articulate a new system of governance through a Great Lakes Commons Charter.

What exactly is a “Commons Charter” and how will it address the current governance structure?

Simply put, a commons charter (known among organizers as a social charter) is an established set of norms, rules, rights, and practices that define a community’s relationship to and governance of a commons. Today, we are a long way from establishing a successful commons charter for the Great Lakes: The average person living in the Great Lakes region thinks little about her relationship to the Lakes or her 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 commons charter creation process that will renew, rediscover and reinvent a stewardship culture around the Lakes. It’s important for the commons charter claim to be audacious and clear, as it needs to break through the status quo and galvanize people around a new framework for Great Lakes management. The claim needs to go beyond any existing environmental framework and put forward a substantive goal that clearly challenges the dominant political structure of current Great Lakes governance.

Because the people of the Great Lakes commons will be the first to legitimize a commons charter, it is critical that we create a highly participatory charter creation process involving people across the region. Our process will need to awaken and reconnect people to the Lakes 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.

What is On the Commons working on?

On the Commons is currently developing a game-changing strategy and co-creative process that will allow as many people to participate in the writing of a Great Lakes Commons Charter and the various events of the Great Lakes Commons Initiative as possible. You can learn many more details about the state of the Lakes, and about our current work to declare and live the Great Lakes as a commons in our Great Lakes Plan.

Link to original source

Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Plan to Protect the Great Lakes Forever

March 2012 -  By Maude Barlow, published by On the Commons


This paper is intended to serve as a background, a call to understanding and a call to action on an exciting new proposal to designate the Great Lakes and its tributary waters as a lived Commons, to be shared, protected, carefully managed and enjoyed by all who live around them. The Great Lakes Basin Commons would need to be protected by a legal and political frame- work based on Public Trust Doctrine, underpinning in law that the Great Lakes are central to the very existence of those people, plants and animals living on or near them and therefore must be protected for the common good from generation to generation. This means that the Lakes could not be appropriated or subordinated for private gain. It is also our determination that the Great Lakes will be designated as a Protected Bioregion, recognizing that while there are many political jurisdictions governing the Great Lakes Basin, it is, in fact, one integrated watershed and needs to be seen and governed as such.

Link to full report [PDF]

10 Water Commons Principles: A co-creative approach for protecting the planet's future 

11th July 2012 - By Maude Barlow, Published by On the Commons

Through our co-creative fieldwork, On the Commons seeks to transform society’s decisionmaking about water toward participatory, democratic, community-centered systems that value equity and sustainability as core values. Our work is based on the following ten water commons principles.

1.) Affirm water as a commons. It belongs to everyone and to no one exclusively, and must be passed on to future generations in sufficient volume and quality.

2.) Ensure that the earth and all of its ecosystems enjoy rights to water for their survival. Indeed, those ecosystems make human life possible.

3.) Conserve water as a social priority (enforced by law), including advocacy of drastic changes to industrial and agricultural practices.

4.) Treat watersheds, the source of our water, as a commons, as well as the water itself.

5.) Encourage local, community management of water while legally requiring users to respect upstream and downstream neighbors’ rights.

6.) Create or reaffirm trans-boundary agreements that respect water sovereignty for all communities and nations.

7.) Provide everyone with water as a basic principle of justice, not as an act of charity.

8.) Ensure public delivery and fair pricing of water.

9.) Promote the right to water as a principle in national constitutions, laws, and a UN covenant.

10.) Employ innovative legal tools to protect water and manage water as a commons, including public and community trusts.

Link to original source

Needed: A New Vision for the Great Lakes
A commons belonging to all rather than a commodity for sale to the highest bidder

12th September 2012 - By Jack Tuholske, published by On the Commons

The recent revision of the 40-year-old Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (see New York Times blog) to address on-going international pollution problems is an important recognition of the continued threats facing the world’s largest source of freshwater. It also highlights systemic problems in our conventional approaches to protecting our common heritage.

Despite decades of well-meaning top-down technocratic efforts, the Great Lakes remain troubled. Asian carp and more than 100 other invasive species threaten the ecological balance of the Lakes. Many companies are allowed to pollute with near-impunity because governments at all levels are loathe to intervene. An algae bloom last year was the worst ever, caused in part by agricultural pollution that no government is willing to effectively tackle. The impacts of climate change loom on the horizon and large cities over-pump groundwater. This reflects a vision for the Great Lakes that is short-term and overly market-focused.

If we are to protect the Great Lakes for posterity, a different vision is needed. We must charge national and international bodies with a true mandate for sustainability. Pending before the International Joint Commission is a petition to adopt the Public Trust Doctrine as a guiding paradigm for the lakes, which would signal a precautionary, rather than reactive, approach to stewardship. This proposal reinforces the view that the lakes are a commons belonging to all, rather than a commodity for sale to the highest bidder.

Recent efforts to involve indigenous peoples in decisionmaking are a step in the right direction. Important next steps include giving local communities a true voice in deciding who is allowed to withdraw and pollute Great Lakes water, which insures that those most affected by pollution have a say. These efforts require more than “stakeholder” meetings. They require re-focusing governance at the local level.

Managing the Great Lakes is complicated – international, national, state, provincial, local and tribal governments all have a role. While strengthening the Agreement is a positive step, it must be accompanied by a recognition that the Lakes need more than a “business as usual” solution.

Jack Tuholske is a professor at the Vermont Law School, Director of its Water and Justice Program.

Link to original source

Waterkeeper Alliance Declares Great Lakes a Shared Commons

A new resolution passed by the international organization founded and chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Alexa Bradley & Jessica Conrad

As a sign of the growing momentum to declare and protect the Great Lakes a commons held in public trust, the Waterkeeper Alliance, a multinational water organization with a significant commitment to the Great Lakes recently issued the following resolution. The resolution was first introduced by John Nelson, Grand Traverse Baykeeper in Michigan, and promoted by by Mark Mattson, an environmental lawyer and head of Ontario Waterkeepers, at the annual Waterkeeper Alliance gathering. He has been a participant in the Council of Canadian’s Great Lakes Commons tour featuring Maude Barlow this spring. The resolution coming from such a long time champion of water protection, adds weight to the effort to gain political and legal recognition of the Great Lakes as a commons.

Resolution of the Board of Directors of the Waterkeeper Alliance – Water is a Public Trust Resource

Whereas, access to clean water is a fundamental right; and Whereas, water is a public trust resource; and
Whereas, the Great Lakes represent 20% of the world’s surface freshwater and 95% of the surface freshwater in the United States and is only 1% renewable; and Whereas, the Great Lakes Waterkeepers are dedicated stewards of a shared Great Lakes Commons.
Therefore, be it resolved by the board of the Waterkeeper Alliance that the Waterkeeper Alliance:
Supports the principle of water as a public trust resource; and
Supports and endorses the proposals for a Declaration from the International Joint Commission that the Great Lakes Boundary Waters are a Shared Commons and Public Trust.

Signed by Robert F. Kennedy Jr, Board President

Link to original source

Further resources:

Outcomes from the Great Lakes Commons Gathering , by Anna Betz at the School of Commoning, 5th October 2012