A Great Commons Narrative for the Great Lakes

A few days ago, the International Human Rights Law Clinic at UC Berkeley School of Law released its report on the Human Right to Water Bill in California. Directed at State agencies, the report discusses the obligations these agencies have to consider the human right to water, as required by California Assembly Bill 685. Specifically it outlines what the duty “to consider” entails, discusses the human right to water, and offers some guidelines for implementation of AB 685.

Not every state has California’s water problems, but all states need to recognize the human right to water and put it on the public agenda. “The human right to water,” in the words of the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity” and (to continue with the language of General Comment No. 15) “a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

And yet even where water is abundant, we find this basic right threatened and compromised when it should be respected and protected. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the UN High Commission on Human Rights expressed concern on a recent visit that in some regions of the United States, mining and extractive industries are compromising the human right to water; that concern now must extend even to the Great Lakes area, where one of the biggest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around Lake Superior, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world.

A 2011 report issued by the Council of Canadians finds that “the human right to water is being violated in a number of communities around the Great Lakes,” especially but not exclusively in indigenous communities. The report, entitled Our Great Lakes Commons [pdf], lays out “a people’s plan” to remedy this situation and to save and protect Lake Superior and all the Great Lakes as our “common heritage.” I came to the report after reading an op-ed in the May 1 edition of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel by its author, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and Chair of the organization Food and Water Watch. In her thought-provoking piece for the Journal-Sentinel and in this passage from her 2011 report, Barlow roots the human right to water in what she terms a broad “narrative” of the Commons:

The notion of the Commons is a very old one. A Commons narrative asserts that no one owns water. Rather it is a common heritage that belongs to the Earth, other species and future generations as well as our own. Because it is a flow resource necessary for life and ecosystem health, and because there is no substitute for it, water must be regarded as a public Commons and a public good and preserved as such for all time in law and practice. Embracing the Commons helps us to restore to the centrestage a whole range of social and ecological phenomena that market economics regards as “externalities.” A language of the Commons would restore more democratic control over the Great Lakes and establish their care and stewardship the joint responsibility of citizens and their elected governments based on the notions of social equity, ecological survival and governance by the people most impacted.

The Commons approach is based on the belief that just by being members of the human family, we all have rights to certain common heritages, be they the atmosphere and oceans, freshwater and genetic diversity, or culture, language and wisdom. In most traditional societies, it was assumed that what belonged to one belonged to all. Many indigenous societies to this day cannot conceive of denying a person or a family basic access to food, air, land, water and livelihood. Many modern societies extended the same concept of universal access to the notion of a social Commons, creating education, health care and social security for all members of the community. There are many working examples of Commons in North America today that include systems of national, state and provincial parks, cooperative fishing compacts to protect local stocks from depletion, and public libraries.

A Great Lakes Basin Commons would reject the view that the primary function of the Great Lakes is to promote the interests of industry and the powerful and give them preferential access to the Lakes’ bounties. It would embrace the belief that the Great Lakes form an integrated ecosystem with resources that are to be equitably shared and carefully managed for the good of the whole community. In a Commons framework, water is a fundamental human right that must be accessible to all. Private control of water cannot address itself to the issues of conservation, justice or democracy, the underpinnings of a solution to the crisis of the Great Lakes. Only citizens and their governments acting on their behalf can operate on these principles. Under a Commons regime, all private sector activity would come under strict public oversight and government accountability, and all would have to operate within a mandate, whose goals are the restoration and preservation of the waters of the Basin and water justice for all those who live around it.

At the same time, it is not a return to the notion that the Great Lakes are indestructible due to their size, or what has come to be known as “the tragedy of the commons.” It is rooted rather in a sober and realistic assessment of the true damage that has already been unleashed on the Great Lakes as well as the knowledge that they must be managed and shared in a way that protects them now and for all time.

2 thoughts on “A Great Commons Narrative for the Great Lakes

  1. tizzielish

    I agree with what you say about water, altho, of course, water is a huge, looming problem.

    Are you aware that one South American country actually sold its rainfall to a corporation and it became illegal for the people to catch rainwater in cisterns or pitchers because the water belonged to the corporation? The people rebelled and got that corporate grab overturned.

    California’s biggest water problems, of course, are about growing food.

    Do you know about the Ogallala Aquifer? It is a vast underground ocean that spans much of the Great Plains and Texas and parts of the Southwest. It is expensive to have the equipment to draw up vast amounts of water for vast corporate crops — small family farms can’t do it. We charge oil companies pitifully nominal lease fees to siphon our common oil and gas. We let corporations destroy our groundwater with fracking. But you don’t hear much sbout the Ogallala Aquifer and it is a vital part of the Commons and our ecosystem.

    I know, sadly, because my ex-husband was general counsel of what was, in the early eighties, the world’s largest cattlefeeders. It’s not just water for 500,000 head of cattle but water to grow the food to grow the beef. The company only grew beef. They actually made all their profit on the grains futures exchange and the guy who had turned a small cattle ranch into the world’s largest cattlefeeder told me at a company picnic that beef was over and he could make just as much money just trading grain futures so he was slowly pulling out of beef. He said in the future, it will be mostly vegetarian diet. It makes no sense to grow food to grow food. This from the world’s largest cattle feeder!!! He had massive ranches, where his cattle lived their whole lives in tight boxes and all they did was eat. He saw 30 years ago that his biz was unsustainable.

    But he siphoned a lot of that Ogallala Aquifer and used its water to water his cattle. And ConAgra and A.E. Staley and other massive corporate farmers siphon our heritage, out underground aquifer, our commons. And I imagine other continents have underground oceans, too. We let big business just take that water, no leasing fees as there is in oil (and don’t get me going on oil leasing — BP makes billions and pays pittances for the rights to take our commons oil!).

    Here is a great talk on the law of the commons by Professor Louis Wolcher. This confernece took place a few years ago in Seattle. All the speeches are on youtube, including the one by historian Peter Linebaugh who has written extensively about the commons. Here’s a link to Wolcher’s talk:

    Sometimes Seattle is ahead of the Bay Area curve! Seattle is developing a gigantic, public park into all edible forest and dale. I digress.

    It’s not just the water that is our commons. The air is too. And the things in the earth. Yet we let some humans buy tracts of lane and then dig irreversible scars in it to extract minerals, paying no tithe to the commons for doing so.

    My friend Leif Utne just posted this link on his FB wall: it shows just some of the many scars to the commons in the name of profit. The whole earth is OUR commons. Take back the commons, eh? (In the UP — you probably know that’s how many refer to Upper Peninsula Michigan, eh? and that lots of folks in the UP say ‘eh?’ a lot – they say hey a lot in WI and MN too):


    The photos in the above link are photos of our commons.

    If only it was just water, eh?


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      Thanks for this, and especially for the link to Wolcher’s talk. I will have a look this weekend. My main question about ‘taking back the commons’ is simply, how? By what legitimate, achievable, realistic, practicable means or mechanism? I see how something might happen very slowly, over time, but worry that there is not enough time left for it to happen; I see how it might happen in the wake of a great catastrophe, but I wince when I consider that that’s what it might take. This is the question most discussions of the Commons raise for me.



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