Common or Commons: looking at how we look at water

What is water? A seemingly simple question but the impacts that flow from your answer shape our delicate relationship with this blue earth.

The "common" ways of looking at water are all around us. Bottled water commercials, conservation campaigns, government plans, purification technologies, recreational dreams, and scientific discoveries all talk about water as a commodity, a resource, a playground, and a chemical bond known as H2O.

For the past 500 years, a European worldview has conquered (most of) the world. Severed from its own indigenous past, Europe's most powerful set out to measure the worth of the world. The golden rule was division.

They divided humans from the earth and then further divided the earth into the useful and useless. The value of trees, animals, soils, and water were calculated for their human utility, not their beauty, intelligence, or roles in the ecosystem -- our larger home.

Looking at the state of oceans, lakes, rivers, icebergs, and aquifers on this blue home, what remains after all this division?

I work for an organization called Great Lakes Commons. We are joined by many who understand that water is worth far more than its exchange value as a resource for our energy and agricultural systems or as a service for our sanitation.

Rippling lakes are more than reservoirs. Cold rain is more than city stormwater. Vital tap water is more than a chemistry challenge. Our GLC community also understands--rationally and emotionally--that the current patchwork of water-resource management and treatment is a dead end for a living planet.

These "common" ways of knowing water turn our attention and energies into water management and water treatment. Power drains into professions and processes that exclude the public's thirst for participation and filters out broader and deeper public attention and care about our water world.

Just a few weeks ago, a federal panel approved burying nuclear waste (forever) beside Lake Huron (part of the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world). Confined to the common roles of management and treatment, the panel used logic like this to defend its approval:

"The Panel is of the view that the relative position of the proposed project within the spectrum of risks to the Great Lakes is a minor one, albeit one that demands strict attention and regulation," it said. (1)

But what kind of attention would approve this risk? Can we turn our attention to another way of seeing water?

Our organization no doubt understands water to be a commons. The real tragedy is that most of us don't know what a commons is, nor how people's ancient and modern commons customs and laws are the root for what many now call "sustainability." As a commons, water is a gift, a sacred source of life, a public trust, a right and responsibility, and an indivisible part of our identities.

As a gift, water is relational. Whether you believe it was left to us by a magnificent creator or mighty glaciers, shouldn't we be more thankful? How many generations of your ancestors cared for water so that our lives are possible? How we respect water shows what we think of the giver. Think about some of your most precious possessions. How many of them are gifts from loved ones?

These gifts also help define our identity. Where and how we belong in this world are intertwined with our connection with the water around us--water marks us and so how we leave our mark on water calls on a deeper sense of care.

With this gift comes a responsibility as we pass water on to future generations. Water is a legal public trust, not owned by any government or single generation. When our governments give permits to consume and pollute water, are they acting as short-term owners or timeless trustees? Do people leave their plastic trash at the beach because they feel it's not their responsibility, not their inheritance?

As a source of life, water flows through all of creation and cleanses our body and soul. No wonder it's considered sacred across the world. If something is sacred, its value is not through utility or "passing" grades for purity. A tombstone that's been spray painted and then scrubbed clean is not the same stone. This relationship is obvious, but is commonly wiped out from our personal choices and shared policies.

If water is the source of life, why should anyone be excluded from it? While the United Nations has agreed that access to water is a human right, more than a billion people struggle daily, including many disadvantaged people here in Canada. People in the Great Lakes and across Canada are left with not only an abundance of water, but also a reciprocal responsibility to protect it as a commons.

If your organization wants to broaden and deepen public attention and participation to water issues and campaigns, Great Lakes Commons has a few strategies and is building more. We would be honoured to work with water protectors and co-create better ways for sharing this water-commoning work.

Paul Baines is an animator for the Great Lakes Commons. His work was featured in our May 21, 2015 webinar "Fresh Ideas: Commons Connections".