At the core of its plain meaning, public trust means that future generations depend on us – trust us – to protect the water, air, and land upon which their wellbeing will depend. Public trust principles are enshrined in law. The people who serve in positions of leadership and authority are legally responsible to all of us and to our children for protecting the vital natural resources that we all own in common. It’s really not that hard to understand. If only being able to grasp the principles of the public trust doctrine was the end of the story.
Here’s a big-picture story that, for me, underlines the value and importance of public trust principles and public trust law to help protect the natural, social, and cultural resources upon which healthy and prosperous human communities depend:
The global population is booming. The global climate is changing, becoming warmer. Demands for fresh water are increasing and fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce. Water is becoming increasingly commodified, monetized, privatized, and politicized. Not every influential leader and organization believes that water is a human right, so there is a real and growing struggle for simple access to water. Even if people believe that access to fresh water is a human right, we don’t have in place shared protocols that will protect the water commons from tragic misuse.
We read this story locally in the affronts to public health, social justice, and responsible leadership that the water debacles in Flint and Detroit have tragically revealed. We read it in proposals to operate concentrated fish feeding operations – fish factories – in our lakes and rivers. We read it in actions by Nestle and other water-raiders that come back again and again to capture and carry off Great Lakes water. We read it in the protection of land-use practices that contaminate groundwater and feed toxic algae blooms in the Great Lakes. And we read it very clearly in the lethargic leadership that seems more willing to protect corporate interests in using Great Lakes water as a host for oil pipelines than to protect Michigan’s public interests in the ecological and economic value of water itself.
It is clear that many of the most important chapters in the story of water are being written right here in the Great Lakes basin. The Great Lakes encompass 20% of the fresh surface water on the planet. The waters of the Great Lakes directly service 40 million residents of the U.S. and Canada. Risks to the integrity and viability of the Great Lakes as a hydrological system are increasing. Those of us who live in the Great Lakes basin today have an affirmative duty to protect water, and the risks to that water are global and systemic. Public trust doctrine and law are tools for the execution of that duty.
The public trust doctrine tells us and empowers us to act as stewards of the unique and irreplaceable repository of fresh surface water. The Great Lakes watershed, in a very real sense, is a proving ground on which human leaders and communities are testing the proposition that it is either possible or not possible to create water-smart blue communities and vibrant blue economies. The proof of the proposition and the story of water that we leave to our children rests on our ability to empower ourselves and our fellow citizens to become water-literate lovers of waters, to educate and support water-responsible leaders, and to demand that decision-makers in the public and private sectors exercise their duties as trustees to protect the natural resources and public beauties that future generations will inherit.
What do you think?
Mike Vickery serves as vice-chair of FLOW’s board and as an advisor on strategic environmental communication, community engagement, and organizational capacity-building. He is an Emeritus Professor of Communication, Public Affairs, and Environmental Studies at Alma College where he was founding chair of the Department of Communication and served as Co-Director of the Center for Responsible Leadership.
Mike holds a PhD in Communication. His graduate work focused on public discourse and controversies related to technical and social value-conflicts. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses at the University of Texas-Austin, the University of Arizona, Texas A&M University, and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. His areas of teaching, consulting, and applied scholarship include environmental rhetoric, risk communication, public health communication, and organizational communication.