The Great Lakes as Great Uniters Can Turn Disruption into Opportunity

By Mike Shriberg 

Throughout my career, I’ve challenged countless people to name a topic or issue that can garner as much sustained bi-partisan and cross-cultural support as the Great Lakes. No one yet has taken me up on this challenge successfully.  

I was fortunate enough to experience this collective buy-in first-hand early in my career as one of the environmental NGO stakeholders in the original Great Lakes Regional Collaboration (GLRC) Strategy formation process in 2004 and 2005. Business leaders, environmental advocates, government officials, Indigenous leaders and many others put their heads and hearts together and their differences aside to build what ultimately became the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as my long-time colleague Cam Davis so aptly described in previous Voices. This unity of purpose largely remains today, and during my tenure as Great Lakes Regional Executive Director at the National Wildlife Federation, I worked to capitalize strategically on it for nearly every issue that we led or were involved in. In my current professional role, I was reminded of this same unity last month when representing the University of Michigan, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) and Michigan Sea Grant during Great Lakes Day as leaders of all stripes renewed their omnipresent “pledge of Great Lakes allegiance” without a crack in the armor despite the turbulent times in Congress and around the country.  

The Great Lakes are truly the Great Uniters of the region. 

But unfortunately, we don’t need to look far beneath the surface to see major fissures in our united Great Lakes protection and response system. There are at least three great disruptive forces that pose challenges not only to protection of the Lakes themselves, but the underlying unity and wealth of our region as well.   

  1. Climate Change is wreaking havoc on shorelines by increasing the variability and intensity of changes in lake levels and precipitation. It’s changing the fundamentals of our ecosystems – for example, our planting zones were just officially shifted northward at the same time as we recorded the hottest year on record (yet again). Climate change was explicitly not discussed in the original Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy as it was deemed too controversial and not “ready for primetime.”  
  1. Invasive Species continue to alter the Great Lakes’ food web. The Lakes’ ecology is fundamentally different than when we gathered in the early 2000s, in large part due to species like Zebra and Quagga Mussels.  The Great Lakes have always been dynamic, but not at this scale nor on this timeline. I get worried when I see typically stoic scientists express extreme concern and distress about these impacts and our lack of ability to predict the consequences. 
  1. Addressing Environmental Injustices and Uplifting the Role of Communities in Restoration brings a different viewpoint and set of outcomes/goals to Great Lakes protection and restoration. We cannot manage and restore the environmental features of our watershed without addressing systemic injustices and the needs of under-served communities. Again, this was nowhere on the table in the original GLRC. 

When I recently gathered with my colleagues at the University of Michigan to dig deeper into these disruptive forces and what they mean for our Great Lakes, we collectively realized that we have a deep mismatch between our institutions and policies as compared to these disruptions. Our Great Lakes protection system was designed for a Great Lakes ecosystem that doesn’t exist anymore and won’t return in the future.   

So, what changes need to be made? As relayed in our “Leadership for the next generation of Great Lakes stewardship” commentary, there are at least 4 underlying principles for change: 

  1. Managing Holistically at the Ecosystem Scale: We cannot treat air, water, land and human health/well-being separately, and protection cannot stop at political borders.  These regulatory and legal boundaries do not apply to the real world of impacts and consequences. 
  1. Planning and Building for Resiliency: The only constant is change – including fluctuating lake levels, new contaminants and altered biogeochemistry. Our goals need to be oriented toward resilience, not a return to the “way things were” or to some assumed future state. 
  1. Centering People and Communities: The water access and affordability crises in our region – the heart of the largest surface freshwater resource in the world – show how systems that aren’t focused on people and justice lead to poor outcomes. This carries through to all aspects of restoration. 
  1. Embracing the “Blue Economy” and Energy Transformation: The economic changes we are seeing are as rapid and destabilizing as ecological changes.  These systems are interdependent – economic and development policy is directly related to environmental policy, and we must work at the economic/social/environmental intersection to drive changes positively for a water-based, clean energy economy. 

Recognizing these principles leads us to an entirely different way of regulating, orienting the GLRI, and bringing together stakeholders.  The forthcoming GLRI Action Plan IV appears to be a step in this new direction, but much more must be done. At their core, the great disruptions require a fundamental reorganization of our basic environmental protection systems, breaking down traditional barriers and orienting toward an inter-dependent, unpredictable future.   

These Great Disrupters provide as much of an opportunity as they do a challenge. The time is right for us as a region to use the uniting pull of the Great Lakes that has carried us so far to overhaul our systems of protection and restoration. I see a future where the Great Lakes region leads the country once again, as we did over 50 years ago with the passage of the Clean Water Act and more recently with the GLRC and GLRI, toward a new era of environmental protection, sustainable economic development, and social cohesion. By moving strategically and boldly, the Great Uniters can overcome the Great Disrupters.  

Mike Shriberg, Ph.D., is a Professor of Practice & Engagement at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment & Sustainability. He is concurrently the Director of Engagement for the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research (CIGLR) and Michigan Sea Grant.  Previously, he served as the Great Lakes Regional Executive Director for the National Wildlife Federation among other Great Lakes non-profit leadership roles. His writing, research, teaching, outreach and mentoring focus on Great Lakes policy and management as well as sustainability leadership.