Before the season ends I am sailing solo from Chicago to St. Joseph, Michigan. It’s about a ten-hour trip (if all goes well) and I want to devote some of the time to talking about three books I have read that address an important theme: stewardship of the Great Lakes. Western Europeans have actively shaped the region for four centuries, and the current pace and magnitude of that change demands a sober assessment of ongoing strategies.
Dan Egan‘s new book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, is an engaging biography of the lakes that looks at the structural, biological, and political forces that have altered and threatened one of the largest and most secluded freshwater ecosystems in the world. Since the 1634 voyage of French explorer Jean Nicolet, Egan notes that “we are still treating the lakes the same way, as liquid highways that promise a shortcut to unimaginable fortune.” Our desire to mine these resources led to the construction of the Erie Canal and the development of the St. Lawrence Seaway, two pathways that opened the heretofore isolated ecosystem to the global community. Not only were commodities brought out of the Great Lakes, but as we now know all too well, many invasive species were brought in. Egan does an excellent job describing the effort being made to control creatures like the sea lamprey, the zebra mussel, and the less known but more destructive quagga mussel. This development has provided opportunity — if somewhat unbalanced — but there have been unplanned costs: while the lakes are a substantial part of the North American economy, the effort to keep the ecosystem from collapsing negates much of the extracted wealth.
Reading Egan’s book took me back to an environmental history classic, William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. I first read this history of Chicago in graduate school, and returning to it did not disappoint me. Cronon, a professor at University of Wisconsin – Madison and MacArthur fellow, asserts that Chicago surpassed other competitors in the region (like my hometown of St. Louis) by extracting from and serving the hinterlands of the Great Plains. In almost mercantile fashion, resources were brought into the metropolis where they were processed and pushed back to the frontier. Value often pre-existed in the old-growth forests, the fertile prairies, and the aquatic life of the lakes. Mining these resources created tremendous wealth for those in the metropole, but only transient income to those in the hinterland. No better example of this is the logging of the white pine forests in Wisconsin and Michigan, which created fortunes for mill owners and commodity traders, but were quickly exhausted and left local economies to collapse. Cronon’s story of Chicago is a nineteenth-century tale but it resonates in the current age.
Finally, Peter Annin’s The Great Lakes Water Wars was published in between the two others, and it addresses probably the most valuable resource in the Great Lakes basin: fresh water. Annin gives us a geological summary of the basin before diving into climate issues, politics, and engineering. As the title suggests, he asserts that water will become an economic and possibly geopolitical flash point in the [near] future, and there is no greater freshwater cache on the planet than the Great Lakes basin. Although agreements have been signed to regulate water usage in the basin, their legal status is questionable and they remain in place by the good graces of the signatories (and not all the time at that.) The threat stems from a growing population and uneven distribution of freshwater across the globe. Large sections of Africa and Asia have lower water reserves per capita, while the United States obscenely wastes and mismanages its water. Add to that a capitalist desire to privatize the distribution of drinking water and you have the makings of a resource catastrophe (Annin’s chapter on the Aral Sea provides a stark warning.)
Although these books were written with different perspectives, one theme that weaves through them is the embrace of resource colonialism. Cronon acknowledges this in the title of his book, and his thesis that Chicago acts as a metropole to the surrounding hinterland. Value is added late in the supply chain, which means wealth never accumulates at the point of extraction. This has held true with logging and mining, and now the threat is to water. Lending credence to these fears is a recent comment by Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin — a Great Lakes state — who told a constituent that essentials like food, shelter, and health care were privileges, not rights. This list certainly includes water. The fundamental shift of removing water from the commonwealth and placing it in the hands of Nestlé, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi perpetuates the practice of removing wealth from the hinterland. That these products are then sold back to the people they were removed from echoes mercantilism.
The early decades of the 21st century will surely be a crucible for the lakes. Having nearly destroyed the ecosystem in the previous century, it is still not clear if the lessons learned will be enough incentive to protect one of the greatest resources on the globe. Threats from sulfide mining, water mismanagement, agricultural waste, and invasive species could quickly render the ecosystem “dead” once again. Hubris and greed are powerful forces that often overwhelm good sense. The history and analysis presented in each of these books cannot foretell the path we will take, but they do describe a detailed image of the game board, and warn us of probable consequences. The past attitude of treating the Great Lakes as a treasure trove is simply incompatible with maintaining an environment that can support the lives of millions of people in the region. Whether reading one or all three, I believe you will gain much knowledge that transcends the local region and speaks to humanity’s ecological, economic, and political future. Enjoy.