Saving the Great Lakes: It’s Up to Us, Not Our Leaders
At a news conference at the Capitol, [Governor Jennifer] Granholm said the Legislature should enact a comprehensive water withdrawal statute requiring permits for large-volume water users before the end of the year. Doing so, the governor said, would protect against threats to divert Great Lakes water to more arid regions, threats she suggested were increasing. “Why are we waiting for a doomsday scenario to happen? We need to move now,” she said.
State Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, who has been working on water resources issues for the last two years as chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, was one of those who did not sign [a pledge to support the statute]. The state is in the process of compiling data needed to protect Michigan’s groundwater under Republican-sponsored legislation Granholm signed last year, Birkholz said. And preventing diversion to other regions isn’t something a single state can do on its own, she said.
Michigan, the Great Lakes state, is facing the most difficult choices in its history. And what are our political leaders doing about it? Mostly posturing.
Now this may seem unsurprising. Most pundits assume Americans are cynical about their political leadership, and expect few results. I disagree.
At a recent public event, not long after my book On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century was published, a kind reader said she had enjoyed it. But she also found it surprising. “Dave,” she said, “until I read this book, I thought the government was protecting the Great Lakes.
Unfortunately, it appears that while we are cynical in general about government, we assume the beauty and majesty of the Great Lakes are so apparent even to politicians that they would never do anything to jeopardize them. But history -- let alone current events -- shows otherwise.
In 1981, a consulting firm retained by the Canadian government analyzed the risk of alien species hitchhiking aboard oceangoing vessels and entering the Great Lakes. Finding more than 150 distinct genera and species of phytoplankton and 56 aquatic invertebrates in the ballast water of the 55 ships it sampled, the firm warned of a potential upset of the Great Lakes food web. It specifically warned of the possibility of the establishment of a species known as Dreissenia polymorphus -- the zebra mussel -- in the Great Lakes.
The report languished on a shelf. Its implication that governments should take action to control alien species in ballast water was not welcomed by either the shipping or port lobbies. Five years later, the zebra mussel entered the Great Lakes via an ocean-going vessel’s ballast water. Today governments spend $100 million annually controlling the alien mussel, and its harmful impact on the Great Lakes food web and ecological integrity is significant.
Recent history bristles with similar examples. Governor John Engler warns off a New York town that wants to sell Great Lakes water and gives tax breaks to a multinational company that wants to bottle and sell water from Michigan, which lies entirely in the Great Lakes Basin. President George W. Bush appoints an election-year task force to coordinate federal Great Lakes programs but brushes aside proposed legislation earmarking a badly-needed $4-6 billion for Great Lakes restoration. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, while declaring its desire to reverse a long history of abusing the environment, recommends an expensive study of how to manipulate and alter the Great Lakes to permit large ships -- and more alien species -- to enter the ecosystem.
Obviously, government officials and agencies are much more inclined to talk about the wonder of the Great Lakes than they are to restore it. And that’s where citizens come in. Although thousands of Great Lakes Basin residents in scores of communities are fighting hard for restoration of their piece of the Great Lakes, far too few are clamoring at the state, regional, national and international level for the system as a whole.
It’s not so much the fault of citizens. The fact that two nations, eight states, four bilateral commissions and dozens of federal agencies claim some responsibility for the Lakes makes advocating for them difficult. In my book I sketch a few proposals for bringing Great Lakes governance back to the people through such means as e-mail sentinel systems, a Great Lakes Internet “Capitol,” and a Great Lakes assembly of citizens with power to make decisions.
But it’ll take more than government reform to save the lakes. It’ll take a revolution of ethical consciousness and behavior among all of us.
In a paper that resulted from a March 1983 “ecosystem approach workshop” convening 56 participants from “a diverse spectrum of backgrounds,” authors W.J. Christie and J.R. Vallentyne -- respected Canadian government scientists -- and Mimi Becker and J. W. Cowden of Great Lakes Tomorrow catalogued a sweeping array of policy proposals, most still far from implementation. But their most valuable contribution was a simple description of environmental reality and how it might quietly revolutionize our nature.
The ecosystem concept recognizes that you are new, yet not new. The molecules in your body have been parts of other organisms and will travel to other destinations in the future. Right now, in your lungs, there is likely to be at least one molecule from the breath of every adult human being who has lived in the past 3,000 years; the air around you will be used tomorrow by deer, lake trout, mosquitoes, and maple trees. The same is true of water, sunshine, and minerals. Everything in the biosphere is shared.
. . . There is a simple, yet profound difference between ‘environment’ and ‘ecosystem.’ The notion of environment is like that of house -- something external and detached. In contrast, ecosystem implies home -- something that we feel part of and see ourselves in even when we are not there. A home has an added spiritual dimension that makes it qualitatively different from a house. It is a happier place because of the caring and sharing relationships among its inhabitants.
This may sound “soft” to you or to our policymakers. But after 20 years of watching bold promises but poor government performance on the Great Lakes, I’m convinced it’s the only way we’re going to make this home of ours one that can endure.
As a female activist I met while book touring said, “I grew up with the lake. I will always love it. When I moved away from it to Grand Rapids for another job, I could not stand to be away -- the air was not good, the water was not the same either. And just to be by it, it truly is one of my best friends. How could I not stand up for it?”
That’s right. How can we not stand up for it -- and how can we not demand, forcefully and unfalteringly, that governments do the same?