Protecting the Great Lakes for Everyone

Debra Shore
Commissioner, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago

Happily we are coming to recognize that not only do we depend on the lakes, but that they depend on us. We are the stewards of this precious resource and, vast as they are, they are not inexhaustible. They are not eternally resilient.

The photographs in this book vividly display that challenge. We witness a splendid and stunning beauty, in waters filled with microscopic plastic particles that can become embedded in the skin of fish and with pharmaceutical compounds mixing in a chemical stew not found anywhere in nature. 

Just as harm brought to the lakes is the work of people, so is the task of protecting them and restoring them. We have a complex and contentious history of efforts to do so. Bi-national cooperation and collaboration is essential and we have already demonstrated in numerous treaties and accords the ability to reach agreement and put the health of the lakes first. 

Scarce water supply elsewhere will only intensify focus on the Great Lakes. Their protection requires constant vigilance – and collective action. We are the proxy votes for nature.

In 1968, philosopher Garrett Hardin published an essay called “The Tragedy of the Commons.” In it, Hardin invites us to consider a pasture shared by numerous herdsmen as a commons. Each herdsman grazes as many cattle as possible in this shared space to maximize the benefit to him and his family, but the numbers are kept in check by disease, poaching, disputes and so forth. At some point, the “rational herdsman” decides to add one more cow to the pasture. The benefits of the additional cow accrue to him, but the costs – the effects of additional grazing on a finite pasture – are shared by all.  Soon each herdsman does the same, wanting to increase his income while the degradation to the pasture seems only slight. Eventually, however, the ability of the pasture to support many more cows – the carrying capacity of the land – is exceeded and the “commons” is ruined. Hence, the tragedy of Hardin’s title

The Great Lakes are our commons. Millions of us – Canadians and Americans alike – share in their bounty. Indeed, our lives are utterly dependent on freshwater – for drinking, for industry, to support the plants and animals that provide us with food and shelter.