• Dan Robinson

The U.S. Census & the Great Lakes: Scarcity or Abundance?

This week, the first U.S. Census numbers came out, and they showed slowing population growth in the Great Lakes region, resulting in the loss of Congressional seats by five Great Lakes States – New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois.


Congressional seats and the Census are a zero-sum game. Congress has 435 total seats or districts in the entire country, so if the human population grows in one state enough to merit an additional seat, that means another state has to lose one of its seats. The results of this latest Census show the continuing population and political shift from the nation’s northeast and Great Lakes regions to the south and west.

Warren Dunes State Park, Michigan (Photo by Dan Robinson)


From population drain to climate change refuge


I can’t help but contrast that news with a piece I wrote a few weeks ago about people studying whether or not the Great Lakes region would become a harbor for climate change refugees. In that piece I asked what kind of harbor will we be? Will we welcome new people fleeing heat, drought, fires, and other extreme weather? Or will we be unwilling to share the abundance of water and the relatively stable climate we have here?


The contrasts between the Census results and the climate refugee study are striking to me in two ways. First, obviously, is the difference in population shifts. The Census shows a present-day exodus, or at least slowing population growth, in the Great Lakes Basin, while the study is proposing just the opposite, a population shift towards the Great Lakes.


The second contrast, though, is a spiritual one. By design, the Census, and the political implications of it, operate out of a mentality of scarcity. There’s only so much political power and influence to go around, it seems, so we have to compete for the ability to impact how our government operates.


Hospitality, however, operates out of a spirit of abundance. We have the ability to welcome people to the Great Lakes Basin, if we do it wisely, lovingly, and sustainably. Water is life, so life in the Great Lakes is abundant.


Operating out of a spirit of abundance


The population shift shown by the Census raises some important questions about the future. Will funding and support for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, EPA’s Region 5 Great Lakes office, clean drinking water programs, and a host of other efforts in the region grow or shrink?


But behind these political questions remains the spiritual one... How can we approach our current situation in a spirit of abundance? Is there enough to make sure all watersheds in the U.S. – from the Colorado to the Mississippi to the Chesapeake to the Great Lakes, from the small wetlands in between to the great oceans around us – are sustained, healed, and allowed to flourish?


What responsibility does the wider nation have for a region like the Great Lakes Basin, and in turn, what responsibility do we have for these other watersheds?


My brothers’ and sisters’ keeper


In the second creation story in the Jewish book of Genesis, Cain, the first child of humanity according to the story, is found guilty of murdering his young brother, Abel. Cain believed there was a scarcity of God’s affection, so when God showed a preference for the offering from Abel over his, Cain killed Abel in a fit of jealousy. He then asked the famous question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)


I realize this is a pretty grim connection! But that can happen when a spirit of scarcity takes hold. We believe there’s not enough good to go around – be it God’s affection or government funding – so we end up doing violence to our brothers and sisters in order to make sure we have what we feel we deserve.


The political winds and fortunes shifted with this Census, as they do every election year as well. In this midst of those shifts, we need to realize the importance of caring for our brothers and sisters in a spirit of abundance, whether they be our human brothers or our sister watersheds. The Earth knows no boundaries, so we are all indeed our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.

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