Notable points not included in the original commentary that allowed it to focus on the larger issue.
After the Great Lakes Compact became a federal law, Waukesha, Wisconsin’s request to tap the Great Lakes was the first major test of the agreement.
The process took approximately six years, the request received scrutiny from the eight Great Lake states at the highest levels and two Canadian provinces contributed in an advisory role.
The request was modified along the way when Michigan, represented by Gov. Rick Snyder’s Office of the Great Lakes Director Jon Allan, insisted that Waukesha drop its request to provide water to towns outside its service area. Michigan lead negotiator Grant Trigger told me at the time that the request by Waukesha was a deal breaker. Waukesha acquiesced.
And Waueksha was required to return the amount of water withdrawn to Lake Michigan as treated wastewater, minus an amount for consumptive use.
Chicago’s sale to Joliet received no such scrutiny from the other states, it allows for provision of water to five other communities and Joliet is not required to return water to Lake Michigan.
The net result, shipments of Great Lakes water outside the basin based on the Supreme Court decree v. the Great Lakes Compact are easier to secure, and put the region’s credibility about conservation at risk.
Chicago hints at additional water supply deals; but regional water commissioners warn of the peril of financialization of Lake Michigan. Call for the Great Lakes to be a Public Trust.
In my early days of involvement with Great Lakes issues, I attended regional conferences with a name badge that ID’d me as from Chicago. After a glance at my badge, it was not uncommon for another attendee to ask, so, is Chicago still tapping Lake Michigan for a billion gallons of water each day?
The inquiry came with a tinge of sarcasm as the person asking already knew the answer. I’d respond, well yes without explaining or nod and change the subject.
The issue of course is that much of greater Chicago is not in the Great Lakes basin and would not be allowed to take from Lake Michigan if not for a decades ago Supreme Court decision in its favor. That decision allows Chicago to draw from the lake and even send water to the suburbs as long as overall withdrawals do not exceed established limits over time.
And the Chicago diversion issue, as it’s known, is more relevant today as increased consumption, declining aquifers, contaminated wells and climate change put pressure on communities to find water. Toss in our never-ending quest for growth and it’s a fast approaching problem.
Last month, Chicago and the city of Joliet, Illinois announced a deal whereby Chicago would supply water to the town via a pipeline. Joliet, population 150,000, is 50 miles southwest of Chicago and in the Mississippi River basin. The agreement includes five nearby communities in what will be known as the Grand Prairie Water Commission.
The transaction is important for a number of reasons but most notably for the selling and buying of Lake Michigan water. Joliet will be “buying water from Chicago for the next 100 years,” the Joliet News-Herald reported.
Bloomberg News’ Environment and Energy section reported the deal for Chicago to “sell its water elsewhere” is valued at $1 billion and “the city expects more to come.”
In its announcement, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot referred to Lake Michigan as a “precious asset” and Chief Financial Officer Jennie Huang Bennett said the Joliet deal “puts the water system back into a growth mode.” To sell even more water, I presume.
The language is worth noting. An “asset,” as Lightfoot referred to Lake Michigan, is defined generally as “something that is owned… regarded as having value to meet debts and commitments.” It sounds like Chicago is implying if not expressing that it owns Lake Michigan water and can sell it.
The sale of water to Joliet will generate $30 million annually for Chicago, according to the city’s press release.
The Chicago, Joliet deal didn’t go unnoticed by prominent Traverse City environmental attorney Jim Olson.
The agreement “needs to be carefully examined,” Olson said in an email, for compliance with existing laws governing water allocations like the Great Lakes Compact, the federal Water Resources Development Act, known as WRDA and Public Trust Doctrine principles.
Simply, the Public Trust Doctrine states that natural resources, like water, are held in trust by the state for the people. Translation, they are not owned by any entity, state or city and worth noting, the Great Lakes are a shared resource with Canada.
Olson is the Founder of FLOW, a non-profit Great Lakes law and policy center and is best known for his legal fights in Michigan courts against Nestle Water over the taking of groundwater for bottled water.
Who is entitled to tap the Great Lakes is a complex question governed by the aforementioned laws and legal rulings. It’s not my intent to take a dive into the legal weeds here. That would take a few thousand words that you probably wouldn’t want to read. I’ve included links below to resources for those who want a closer look.
My purpose is to put a spotlight on the increasing talk by responsible parties, like Chicago’s mayor, who refer to water as a commodity, an “asset.” Potentially something to be bought and sold, or traded on a water futures market.
Canada’s Maude Barlow told me that at the recent U.N. Water Conference there is an emerging “deep divide” about who should control water in a world with dwindling supplies. See the Colorado River for a U.S. example.
The divide is between those who see water as a commodity like oil and gas that are traded on open markets, and those who see water “as a public trust and human right that must be a public service,” Barlow said.
Barlow is a veteran water rights advocate and former adviser to the United Nations on water issues.
Traverse City attorney Olson basically wants a timeout. A pause that would allow for Great Lakes governors who have responsibility on diversions and water takings to engage on the issue.
Olson has alerted Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Great Lakes counterparts “to investigate the matter and put Chicago and the state of Illinois on notice to hold off further agreements with Joliet so that the governors can fulfill their duty to analyze the details surrounding the sale, and laws that prohibit export of water outside the Great Lakes basin.”
The city of Chicago did not respond to questions that included whether it would pursue other opportunities to sell Lake Michigan water as a means of generating revenue.
In response to questions, Joliet’s Utilities Director, Allison Swisher, referred to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as the responsible agency for diversions of Lake Michigan water based on the Supreme Court decree.
For a Great Lakes region perspective on the Chicago and Joliet deal, I checked with Pete Johnson, the Deputy Director of the Chicago-based Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors & Premiers.
Johnson is an expert on the provisions in the Great Lakes Compact and has the long view of its complexities as he helped the governors successfully navigate the high profile Waukesha water diversion.
Johnson refrained from taking a position on the Chicago, Joliet agreement, instead pointing to the provision of the Compact that refers to the Supreme Court decree.
He did offer, “to be clear, water isn't being sold. Service, including delivery, is what gets sold.”
We batted that around via email with me essentially responding that to say the deal was not a sale of water was a parse, but Johnson was adamant in his push back.
Joliet’s Allison Swisher did not respond when asked if the city is “purchasing” water from Chicago.
My take is the die has been cast on this one. Joliet will get the water it needs and Chicago will pocket the revenue it desires, hoping it leads to more.
This should be a wake up call for the water intelligentsia of the Great Lakes region, starting in Chicago. For Chicago-based environmental groups like the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the Environmental Law and Policy Center that have been advocates for the Great Lakes.
A red flag and a prompt to start asking the hard questions of the governors and other elected officials, like what is the region’s 10, 20… 50 year plan to conserve Lake Michigan and Great Lakes water? How will water be protected from commodification, from being traded on futures markets?
If activist groups need inspiration they only need to look at greater Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District for guidance. In 2021 their former colleague and now water commissioner, Cameron Davis, led a move that prompted the MWRD to formally resolve that commodification and financialization of water leads to neglect of the resource.
Further, MWRD affirmed that the water of the Great Lakes “shall remain in the public trust for the people of the Great Lakes region.”
That's a start.
Great Lakes for Sale - Updated Version, Dave Dempsey
Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin
Great Lakes Compact
Lake Michigan Diversion, Supreme Court Consent Decree
My commentary as the crisis was unfolding.
An event designed to be a positive step for the embattled city of Flint nine years ago eventually led to a health crisis of epic proportions.
The event was the switch of Flint’s water supply from the Detroit system to the Flint River. The outcome is well-known and well documented.
Residents complained about brackish, discolored water coming from their taps followed by illness. Debates ensued about whether Flint’s water was safe to drink. The inevitable finger pointing followed with Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality blaming the city of Flint.
Then came discovery of high levels of lead in the water. Executives in Michigan and the USEPA were eventually fired for their role in the debacle, lawsuits were filed and are still unresolved. Criminal charges were brought against members then Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration including the governor and many of them are unresolved too.
I could go on but if you’re reading this you likely know the story. If you don’t, an easy Google search for Flint water crisis will take you to a trove of information.
As the crisis began to unfold and became a prominent story in 2015, I was doing a monthly commentary on Great Lakes and water issues for public radio’s WKAR Current State program in Lansing. The program was hosted by Mark Bashore.
Below, four commentaries beginning in January of 2015 before the lead issue was known, at least publicly. I recently went back and listened to them, always risky as I’m inclined to do a story and not look back.
Each segment is 10-12 minutes and part of a broader show with Flint being about 5 minutes. Sometimes Flint is the lead topic and others it follows the lead. I’ve given each segment a short topic for perspective.
Heads up, I’m reporting but also commenting so you’ll hear my opinions.
Here we go.
Flint- Current State January, 2015 Flint Mayor calls for Gov. Snyder involvement
Flint- Current State March, 2015 Trust is lost
Flint- Current State November, 2015 Lawsuits aplenty
Flint Year in Review 2016 Current State Top execs fired and Gov. Snyder’s mea culpa
EV’s are still cars and they come with all the problems of cars, says University of Toronto transit expert, other critical thinkers
The headlines on the nascent hyper-transition to EV’s come at a dizzying rate.
It’s hard to go a day without seeing a story about billion dollar taxpayer subsidies to support EV production. Or a politician talking about setting aspirational climate goals, referring to them with the obligatory “bold” descriptor, to end the manufacture of fossil-fuel powered cars by a date certain in the near future.
EV’s are touted as emission cure-alls, the Toronto transit expert said while advocating that investing in public transit is the better option.
Deep-down, I suspect politicians know that climate change won’t be solved by our continued addiction to cars, but they have to do something as they’ve been doing nothing for twenty years or more.
So off the production lines come electric SUVs replacing the gas-guzzling SUVs that we love to drive, even though it takes many two or three attempts to get them into a parking space. And electric SUVs are heavier than existing ones and will still require road repairs, drive new road construction and retain all the ills of their predecessors.
The result, implied, if not stated, is that EV’s are a panacea. And if we can just get enough EV’s on the roads all will be ok. No sacrifice needed.
There are critical thinkers out there who aren’t following the masses over the EV’s can save us cliff. Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Kolbert is one.
In an interview, Kolbert told me last October that the climate deal President Biden negotiated with West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin “offers a lot of tax breaks for electric vehicles without addressing the fundamental problem… our car culture, a country built around everyone owning basically a car per adult,” Kolbert said.
New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo was an early critic of the rush to EV’s as a climate solution when he wrote in 2021 that “electric cars are merely a power source, not a panacea.”
“Fixing the problems caused by cars with new and improved cars and expensive new infrastructure just for cars illustrates why we’re in this mess in the first place — an entrenched culture of careless car dependency,” Manjoo said.
That Biden, Manchin deal is the Inflation Reduction Act, so called because it may not have become law if its title reflected that it was climate change legislation. The shorthand is the IRA and you can hear cabinet officials and its enlightened supporters referring to it repeatedly, like it's something from Chairman’s Mao’s Little Red Book.
To be sure, elected officials are not just focused on EV’s to combat climate change. Michigan, for example, wants to resurrect an aged and shuttered nuclear power plant that rests on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office called the plant a “critical energy source” in calling for the re-start.
There’s a certain irony in play here.
Whitmer ordered the aged Line 5 oil pipeline that traverses the Straits of Mackinac to be shut down as it is a threat to the Great Lakes in case of a rupture. But she apparently sees no such threat from the aged nuke plant on Lake Michigan’s shore.
With the gravitas of the U.S. government and the billions of taxpayer dollars going to jump start EV’s as the primary climate remedy, the die has been cast, there’s no turning back.
But as the Toronto transit expert referenced, “cure-alls cure nothing.”
The Great Lakes region rightly wants to keep its water in the region, no matter the dire straits the American west finds itself in. But we may want to tidy up our own conservation house too.
An article last week in USA Today set off a minor tizzy in my social media account. It touched on shipping Great Lakes water westward to help California and Arizona, et al, deal with their looming water shortages..
Diverting water west, or anywhere, is generally considered like touching the third rail in the Great Lakes region, you don’t do that.
It was a quick hit piece, it’s USA Today, so no depth or context. Therefore, my comments will be similarly brief.
The essence of the article was the Great Lakes, the Pacific Ocean (desalination) or harvesting icebergs could be a solution for California and Arizona’s water problems. The author then listed how the diversions could work and why it probably wouldn’t, fair enough.
It’s the type of article that has appeared a number of times previously and will be reconstituted again, and probably again. I gave it a glance and moved on.
Then came social media comments and the reactions from some Great Lakes defender types. No way will it happen, one post said, because if there’s one thing that brings people together in the region, it’s protecting the Great Lakes. Especially from the greedy, water-gulping western states who have a bad reputation on water conservation.
What’s ours is ours and we have a document, the Great Lakes Compact to prove it, was the message on social media. The compact is the eight state agreement codified into federal law in 2008 by President George W. Bush’s signature. Canada has a matching agreement
But let’s beware of regional sanctimony. The let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone mantra applies. Great Lakes defenders are aghast at water diversion attempts, except when they’re not.
Some background is relevant.
The architects of the compact - the eight states and two Canadian provinces - and their supporters felt the need to get something codified into law around 2002. It didn’t have to be perfect and they realized it had to be approved by eight states, so there would be compromises. And there were.
The consensus thinking was that if it didn’t allow for an out of basin diversion for Waukesha, Wisconsin, Wisconsin would reject the compact. So the authors concocted a straddling county provision. Meaning, if a city that wanted a diversion was in a county that straddled the basin divide, it would be eligible to tap a Great Lake.
Plus, included was a greenlight to divert water if in a container less than 5.7 gallons, essentially bottled water. It made no sense but again, a concession to business interests designed to secure approval.
The greater good theory in play on both, I guess. Accept a couple of bitter pills for the greater good of securing the Great Lakes Compact.
When challenged about the necessity of the straddling county and bottled water exceptions, compact advocates acknowledged them but said they could be addressed later. But we know how that goes, later usually never comes, and it hasn’t.
But what about the notorious Chicago diversion where Chicago takes about 2 billion gallons of water a day from Lake Michigan? If you look at a map, very little of Chicago is in the Great Lakes basin. Surely crafting of the compact, a document for the ages, will want to address that glaring drain on the lakes.
Nope. That diversion was approved by a Supreme Court decree and to go anywhere near it would have guaranteed years of litigation with uncertain outcomes. The Chicago diversion was hands off.
So, before getting all sanctimonious when the drought-stricken American West floats a plan to tap the Great Lakes, we ought to make sure our own conservation house is in order.
Because it’s not.
Links below to resources if you want to take a closer look at the Great Lakes Compact.
Great Lakes for Sale - Updated Edition, Dave Dempsey
The Great Lakes Water Wars, Peter Annin.
While Michigan prepares to dole out big bucks to profitable corporate entities, basic services like reliable electricity and water affordability are low on the priority list, if they're on it at all.
The sorta mission statement of this site focuses on Great Lakes and related issues, plus "other things." Today, a few comments on those other things. Specifically, Michigan and its subsidies for profitable businesses, its infrastructure and the role of government.
In the past month, with a seemingly unlimited trove of cash on hand, the state has proposed doling out billions of dollars to business interests, specifically General Motors and Ford among them.
The purpose? To jump start electric vehicle production in the state. To keep and increase jobs in Michigan. A marginally worthy venture since these companies are profitable and could fund or finance the EV ventures themselves. And an important point, the EV's taxpayer dollars are boosting production of cost in the $50,000 to $100,000 range.
So a wide swath of the public will be shut out of the market based on cost. But that's the market today, pay up or GM and Ford will take their business to a state that will pony up the mega-millions of dollars in start-up money. Capitalism has never pretended to be fair.
While Michigan's largesse toward corporations plays out, the state and its biggest city, Detroit, are experiencing yet another round of power outages. This isn't the summer storm that blows through type of outage that lasts for a few hours or overnight. It's days long and they've been occurring for years. And they're dangerous especially in the summer heat wave season when the most vulnerable aren't able to cool their homes.
Put this on top of the decrepit roads in Michigan that have no funding solution, and a reasonable person might ask, what if we invested the corporate subsidy money in fixing the grid including investing in solar and really fixing the damn roads this time?
Which takes me to the roles of government, writ large. What the heck is the government supposed to do with all that taxpayer money it takes in?
Channeling my many decades ago classes on civics and governance, plus an internet search on the role of government, I came up with the following. Michigan, in this case, should provide leadership, maintain order, provide economic assistance and public services. Yeah, probably a few more but they're the core, the essentials.
The easy ones first -- leadership. That'd be the governor, legislature and a few other entities, check. Maintain order -- state, county and municipal police departments plus the National Guard if necessary, check. Economic assistance -- unemployment benefits and welfare assistance for the needy are examples, check.
Finally, provide public services. The most every day visible are water and sewage services. Clean, safe drinking water plus sanitary and proper disposal of our waste.
This is where Michigan should take a broad view of its role. A view that if any business entity should be subsidized, why not the power companies, even with all their faults and their reliability difficulties. If the state is going to prop up a business, why not one that benefits everyone and provides a public health benefit, not just the few that can afford a $70,000 SUV.
And because I mentioned water as a public service of the government, why not jump start a statewide drinking water affordability plan at the full $100 million amount that experts say is needed. Not the paltry $25 million that is in the governor's budget. Think about the disparity, $25 million for water affordability v. the multiple $100's of millions for auto companies like GM who had a $9.9 billion profit in 2022.
I'm not naive, I get it. There may be times for the government to bail out an industry, like it did with auto under the administration of President Barack Obama in the great recession. It saved the industry and the jobs and families from extreme hardship. It made sense, unlike today's spending spree on corporate support.
Maybe it's time for Michigan's executive and legislative leadership to take a refresher course on the role of government. They seem to have lost their way.
State of the State address focused on tax cuts and economic development; no mention of long standing water inequities for communities like Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor and more.
Sometimes what’s not said in a political speech is as important as what’s said. That was the case recently with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her annual State of the State speech.
Talking points in a high-profile speech reflect priorities and Whitmer talked about lowering taxes and providing tax credits. A plan to bring manufacturing to Michigan, some minimal action on gun control, the state paying for universal preschool and more.
As always, the devil is in the details and there could be quibbles or disagreement with Whitmer’s proposals depending on your political affiliation. But in general, there’s a lot to like or minimally be worthy of serious consideration by the legislature.
However, this site focuses on the Great Lakes and water-related environmental issues including justice and equity. And Michigan is a water-wealthy state so as I read the speech, I watched for their mention. Ok, I understand that she wouldn’t lead with them, the reality of politics. But surely they’d be included.
But they weren’t unless I skimmed over them.
That caused me to do a word search for environmental justice, environmental racism, water affordability, equity, Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor.
Also no sale which was curious as a focus on environmental justice and equity were pillars of her 2018 election campaign and supposedly, her first term.
Though the EJ community has said Whitmer’s first term related to EJ issues was lacking. The focus was on processes - like creating the position of an EJ advocate and advisory council - not outcomes that would actually better the lives of people in those communities.
Perhaps only Whitmer and her political advisers know why EJ went from the front to the back burner. But I’ve got a theory based on her administration’s handling of the Benton Harbor drinking water crisis.
Which was Flint redux in spite of the vehement denials that came from Whitmer’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy, the successor to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s much vilified Department of Environmental Quality that botched the Flint crisis.
Following Flint, one water crisis in an environmental justice community was enough for the state, and Whitmer wanted no connection to another. That was the Michigan of the past. Whitmer’s administration did all it could to distance itself from responsibility for Benton Harbor, even though the facts said otherwise.
Facts that caused community and environmental activists to formally request a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervention, as it did in Flint.
Facts that generated a lawsuit against the state not dissimilar from the one where the state of Michigan settled with Flint residents for $600 million.
But publicly talking about environmental justice issues in communities like Detroit, Flint and Benton Harbor doesn’t fit with the public image Gov. Whitmer wants to project for the state, or herself.
That of a progressive governor leading the way. Leading by lowering taxes, by protecting the rights of women and positioning Michigan as a leading economic development state.
An image of Michigan as a desirable, progressive state to a national audience, given that Whitmer now has a national profile and potentially national political aspirations according to recent Detroit News reporting.
The reality is that the environmental justice issues facing Detroit, Flint Benton Harbor and other communities require the attention of the governor and legislature.
Especially issues like water shutoffs and affordability where activists have been pleading for a state-wide plan. And if the Lansing political establishment needs a basis for action it can easily be found in a November 2021 report by the University of Michigan’s Graham School.
The report called for prohibition of “water shut offs for economically vulnerable households” and for the state to embrace a role with authority that ensures public health protection, appropriate rates, water quality regulation and more.
There, the University of Michigan has done the research for the state and has provided a blueprint for action.
Michigan’s government is controlled by progressive Democrats, has a wealth of water and is flush with cash. Protecting the vulnerable on water equity issues should be a slam dunk but it’s not a priority.
But there’s still time to make it one.
Bureaucratic Overload: Newly-minted Great Lakes Authority adds to long list of commissions, councils and initiatives
Ohio legislator’s vision is based on an outdated model, adds to an already burgeoning bureaucracy
When I first got involved in Great Lakes issues twenty years ago, a common complaint among advocates was that for environmental protection and restoration, there were too many cooks in the Great Lakes kitchen.
That is, responsibility was diffused over multiple entities plus the state and federal governments. The various states, agencies, councils and commissions could have differing priorities and agendas. In short, no one was in charge. A plan with an overseer was needed.
*As I thought about this post I jotted the entities down off the top of my head and they’re listed below for ease of reference. And I may have missed a few.
But in 2010, that started to change. The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) began funneling money to the region and it was designed to clean up legacy pollutants and provide a host of other benefits. GLRI also had a de facto economic mission. In simple terms, if you cleaned up a toxic hotspot like Muskegon Lake, the area could then support the economy with development and recreational opportunities. GLRI is complicated like most federal programs and needs a significant update but, writ large, it has worked. And the beauty of the program is that it is region-wide.
So now comes Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, (D-OH) with a new Great Lakes region initiative titled the Great Lakes Authority. It was recently signed into law to promote regional economic development, transportation and environmental protection.
But here’s where I’m confused. Kaptur wants her Great Lakes Authority, which will be two years in the making, to be modeled after the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), according to Toledo Blade reporting.
The TVA was the depression era program in the 1930’s championed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was designed to provide basic services - running water and electricity - to rural areas in the expansive region where people lived on poverty level incomes. And it was successful. A total of 54 dams were built and the TVA was seen as a model of what was possible, 90 years ago. The model is outdated now.
But the Great Lakes region is not the rural, impoverished Tennessee Valley of the 1930’s.
It is and has been economically developed. Its gross domestic product is $6 trillion which, if a country, would make it the 3rd largest economy in the world, according to the Council of the Great Lakes Region. That talking point is regularly touted by Great Lakes advocates when pitching the importance of the region to the U.S. and Canada.
That federal Great Lakes restoration program has invested approaching $5 billion in the region since 2010 with more to come. And in recent federal budgets, the region has received $1 billion plus for a new Soo Lock plus $325 million is in the works for a new icebreaker. Not bad.
And Great Lakes states are flush with cash, Michigan for example, has nearly a $9 billion budget surplus so it’s hard to cry poor to taxpayers. A goal of the Great Lakes Water Authority would be to secure more federal funding.
And states like Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are actively engaged in competing for, and sometimes winning, private investment in emerging electric vehicle expansion. Pretty good for a region in the midst of shaking that long-eschewed Rust Belt moniker.
I’ve followed Rep. Kaptur’s Great Lakes work as her district borders Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland. She’s a D.C. political veteran who is dedicated to protecting the lake and promoting economic development.
But if anything, the region needs less bureaucracy, not more. And Kaptur’s Great Lakes Authority adds to the bureaucratic overload.
Let’s give Kaptur an “A” for effort and thank her for caring, then let the Great Lakes Authority fade away, if it’s not too late.
*The International Joint Commission (U.S. & Canada) Council of the Great Lakes Region (U.S. & Canada), Great Lakes Cities Initiative, Great Lakes & St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers, the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Lake Carriers Association and the U.S. EPA’s GLRI.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author offers hope, skepticism and a big dose of reality
I always try to have something to read when I travel and the Thanksgiving long weekend was no exception, even as our primary mission was to visit friends and family in Ann Arbor, Chelsea and Downriver Detroit.
Absent a book, I bought the most recent New Yorker magazine that featured a climate theme containing articles from notable writers on the climate change conundrum. My primary motivation was to read a long piece by science writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Elizabeth Kolbert, titled, A Vast Experiment: The Climate Crisis A to Z.
It’s 26 short takes on different aspects of climate change, writ large.
Disclosure: I recently interviewed Kolbert for Great Lakes Now and wrote a review of her most recent book, Under a White Sky, for the Society of Environmental Journalists.
The article is profound and I found myself uncharacteristically underlining key points as if I were a student preparing for an exam, and I was never good at that as a student.
Following, quotes and observations worth noting offered with hope that they will prompt you to go online or to your local bookstore and grab a copy.
“Blah, blah, blah” and more
In the “B” segment, (remember, the article is the climate crisis A-Z), renowned activist Greta Thurnberg talks about the pervasive “blah, blah, blah” rhetoric associated with climate change. She disses phrases like Build Back Better, Green economy, Net Zero and Climate neutral. “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders -- words that sound great but so far have led to no action,” Thurnberg said.
Next, a riff on capitalism. “When it comes to global warming, we know that the problem is not just fossil fuels – it is the logic of endless growth that is built into our economic system,” according to economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel. I was excited to see Kolbert include this as I’ve long been saying that our endless fixation on economic growth as a measure of economic health, no matter which political party is in power, is the root of the problem.
On making progress on dealing with climate change, Kolbert writes: “To say that amazing work is being done to combat climate change and to say that almost no progress has been made is not a contradiction; it’s a statement of fact.” There are shreds of hope in the works like battery powered aircraft, Kolbert points out, but they are dwarfed by the scope of the problem and lack of substantive progress on it.
Finally, Kolbert chronicles a trip to the Hoover Dam that when built in 1928 was seen as providing for a “limitless” future, according to a tape played for tourists and as an expression of “humanity’s power to improve on nature,” Kolbert wrote, noting that she felt otherwise about the human-made behemoth.
Kolbert closes A Vast Experiment saying that Climate change can’t be “fixed” or “conquered” as we humans like to believe about such things. There are limits, she says.
My words here are a tease with hope that you’ll take the leap and read Kolbert’s entire New Yorker article. At $8.99, it’s the best seasonal deal you’ll find.
Turning the sky white, climate ghosts, slow water and two veteran authors reflect on long careers
In my day job I interview authors; actually environment and science writers about their latest work. And for the most part, I get to choose the author.
It’s one of the more rewarding aspects of my job. How often have you said after finishing a book, if only I could talk with the author. I get to do that.
It’s 30 minutes of Q&A with some casual chatter as a bonus. I posted my last author interview of the year recently and it dawned on me, it’s been a great group this year. They've written in depth on serious topics and shared their learnings, expertise and candor with a bit of wit and whimsy thrown in. Think books with “darkly comic” and “quietly radical” touches.
Following, a brief commentary on the authors and their work. First, I referred to them as environment writers but they are more. Nancy Langston is a university professor and environmental historian. Canada’s Maude Barlow is internationally known for her social justice work that she blends with water activism, and Erica Gies’ travel-for-work resume would rival that of any of her peers.
Dave Dempsey is a prolific author whose resume includes international policy adviser and environmental activist and Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize winner who is a university fellow.
In chronological order, my 2022 author interviews.
Nancy Langston’s Climate Ghosts: Migratory Species in the Anthropocene, is not the type of book that I would normally gravitate to. Maybe too abstract for a big-city dweller who has spent minimal time in nature. The title refers to species - in this case woodland caribou, common Loons and lake sturgeon - that are still present but who could be approaching the brink of extinction. Langston says we can still restore them but that will require hard choices. When I turned the last page I thought, how could I have been so hesitant.
Canada’s Maude Barlow has been on the frontlines of environmental and social justice activism for decades and is best-known for serving as the adviser to the President of the United Nations on water issues. In Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism, Barlow chronicles the wins, losses and the people encountered in those decades. In Still Hopeful, Barlow relays the account of how she stumbled into water activism when she learned that water was viewed as yet one more commodity to be traded. A status it maintains today to her chagrin. But she’s not done yet.
If there was a best title award for environment books, Water Always Wins by Erica Gies should take top prize. In it, Gies asks the pithy question, what does water want? “Figuring out what water wants - and accommodating its desires within our human landscapes - is now a crucial survival strategy,” Gies’ publisher wrote in a description of the book. Gies explains the title saying that we humans have created an us versus them mentality in our attempts to control water. But there’s hope, Gies writes, in the nascent Slow Water movement, emerging groups who want to collaborate with water, not control it. Gies is cautiously optimistic.
A prolific author, Dave Dempsey is best known for books about the big policy issues that the Great Lakes and environs face. In Half Wild: People, Dogs and Environmental Policy, Dempsey takes a U-turn to focus on his 40 year career as an environmentalist, writ large, with an emphasis on the “overlapping planes between humans and the nonhuman world…” My favorite anecdote from the book describes a meeting early in his career that involved a legendary sportsman who described him as a “greenie” and environmental elitist. Thankfully, bourbon was involved and there was a happy ending, sort of. Not all authors can successfully navigate a switch from explaining environmental policy to explaining his career dealing with it. Dempsey does.
Pulitzer Prize winner (The Sixth Extinction) Elizabeth Kolbert strikes again with Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. In it, Kolbert uses human’s reversal of the Chicago River to send its waste elsewhere, then 100 years later the electrification of part of the river to illustrate the perils derived from our “control of the control of nature.” Fast forward to the effects of climate change staring us in the face and now comes a scheme to shoot particles into the sky to partially block the Sun and slow the rise of temperatures. Just one thing, the sky will be white, not blue, thus the title. What else could go wrong? It’s hard to miss when you read Kolbert and she’s spot on with Under a White Sky.
Props to the authors, good work all around. And to the folks at Great Lakes Now for the opportunity to bring them to the region and beyond.
Chicago-based environmental journalist