Beyond Zombie-Environmentalism: The Great Lakes Commons

Paul Mobbs mobbsey at
Mon May 13 17:37:43 BST 2013

For more on this see:


Beyond Zombie-Environmentalism: The Great Lakes Commons

David Bollier's Blog, 1st May 2013

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 decision-making. 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

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. 


"We are not for names, nor men, nor titles of Government,
nor are we for this party nor against the other but we are
for justice and mercy and truth and peace and true freedom,
that these may be exalted in our nation, and that goodness,
righteousness, meekness, temperance, peace and unity with
God, and with one another, that these things may abound."
(Edward Burrough, 1659 - from 'Quaker Faith and Practice')

Paul Mobbs, Mobbs' Environmental Investigations
3 Grosvenor Road, Banbury OX16 5HN, England
tel./fax (+44/0)1295 261864
email - mobbsey at
website -
public key -

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