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.
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.