Beyond Zombie-Environmentalism: The Great Lakes Commons

May 2, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

It’s been said that the fate of any great movement is to be cannibalized by the mainstream or to die.  I’d like to suggest two others paths:  zombiehood and courageous re-invention.

Zombiehood is a mode of living death in which people mindlessly repeat old advocacy forms that clearly aren’t working.  This is the fate of much environmentalism today – a professionalized, bureaucratized sector that is afraid of taking risks, innovating or defying respectable opinion.

It is refreshing, therefore, to recognize a notable departure from zombie-environmentalism, the Great Lakes Commons, a new cross-border grassroots campaign catalyzed by On the Commons to establish the Great Lakes as a commons.  Here is a bold idea with the nerve and intelligence to strike off in some new, experimental directions without any assurance that it’s all going to turn out.

For the past 40 years, environmental activists have looked to legislatures, regulators and international treaties to “solve the problem.”  Guess what?  It’s not working.  Governments are too corrupt, corporate-dominated, bureaucratic or just plain stalemated.  The Great Lakes Commons is an attempt to launch a new narrative and activist strategy based on some very different assumptions.  It’s trying to organize people in new ways, through commoning, and to imagine new forms of governance that will actually protect the Great Lakes.  It doesn’t just want to raise money and collect signatures for petitions.  It wants to nurture new types of human relationships with this endangered regional ecosystem.

Image Removed


As the Great Lakes Commons website points out, Great Lakes policies are biased toward private and commercial interests.  The political management regimes do not reflect ecological realities.  And the people living near the Lakes are treated as bystanders who have little power to affect government decisionmaking.  For all these reasons and more, the ecological health of the Great Lakes has deteriorated over the past several decades, and now there are new threats from hydro-fracking, radioactive waste shipments, copper-sulfide mining and invasive species. 

The conventional activist response to such a situation is to hold rallies, file lawsuits, give testimony and raise a publicity ruckus.  All of these remain vital, yes.  But the more elemental problem may be that people have no emotional or personal connections to the Great Lakes.  That’s seen as something for “the authorities” to take care of.  The project writes:  “Stunning, we appear to have forgotten that we too are part of this ecosystem, not outside it, and that our lives and those of future generations depend on the Lakes.” 

So the Great Lakes Commons is attempting to re-engage people’s inner commitments and establish the Great Lakes as a commons.  Mind you, the Great Lakes themselves are not the commons.  The commons is that vast natural resource as managed by an active community of stewards committed to developing rules, procedures and ethical norms for managing use of the Lakes effectively. That is the commons.

In other words, the Great Lakes Commons wants to establish new types of governance that precede or complement government.  Over time this commons-based governance will surely make new, more forceful and organized demands upon government.  But the point is not simply to make government do its job; it is to re-configure the very governance of the Great Lakes by integrating the commons into it. 

This means that the usual cast of managers must go beyond the elected officials, appointed regulators, and industry lobbyists and lawyers.  In a sense, the commons is a way to reconstitute the bedraggled body politic known as “civil society.”  It’s a way for environmental and social justice activists, legal advocates, indigenous leaders, academics, artists, students, municipal staff and others to work together directly and personally to incubate new cultural and management forms.  This, and perhaps only this, will be able to break through the corporate-dominated machinery of government and law that elevates the market economy over the ecology.    

As I said:  A bold departure.  Can it work? 

The very fact that the Great Lakes Commons breaks with the zombie-logic of conventional environmentalism and plunges into a big zone of uncertainty, may be its most attractive aspect.  It is trying something new and ambitious.  It is trying to re-imagine governance precisely because the existing structures of governance have failed so miserably.  Respectable opinion is too fearful to acknowledge this reality and too anaesthetized or demoralized to imagine alternatives. 

The other interesting dimension to the Great Lakes Commons project is its brave alliance with First Nations and Native American peoples who have long histories with the Great Lakes.  This is difficult business, the bridging of indigenous knowledge and culture with that of mainstream American political culture.  For more than a generation, the standard activist style has been the professional-style public interest group acting as a proxy for citizens as it does battle in Washington, the state capital or the courts.  I think that maybe this form of advocacy has reached its limits – or at least, its political efficacy. 

Which is why I am encouraged by strategic self-awareness of the Great Lakes Commons:

We created an organizing approach congruent with our vision.  A commons requires the leadership of many.  So rather than base this effort in one organization or even a coalition, we have intentionally created an open network capable of catalyzing and supporting broad, unlimited and unexpected leadership.

This Initiative is growing.  It is not the work of any one organization or group of leaders but of many people in many places.  You can become part of this unfolding story, of people who have decided the Lakes are too important to leave up to others.  In fact a Great Lakes Commons isn’t possible without you, your voice, ideas and energy. It truly is up to us – us all.

It will be interesting to see how the Great Lakes Commons unfolds and grows in the coming months and years. 

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: civil society, environmental activism, governance, indigenous peoples, policy, the commons