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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

We share all this "in common"

Updated: May 15, 2020

This morning, I came across the latest update on a lawsuit brought by a few land owners along Lake Michigan in Indiana, asserting that the beach adjacent to their property is really their private land and not public land. You can read more about this lawsuit here.

Robert La Salle County Park; Door County, WI

I’ve been following this story for a while, partly because I’m from Indiana, and partly because this concept of publicly or commonly held land and property is important, both from a legal and a spiritual standpoint.

This idea that the air, land and water belong to all of us, or at the very least portions of it do, dates back centuries and is supported legally in the Public Trust Doctrine. Starting with ancient Rome, moving through British Common Law, and finally finding its place in Federal and State law in this country, many individuals and organizations, like FLOW (For Love of Water), see the Public Trust Doctrine as a practical way to protect the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.

This idea of a Public Trust Doctrine, of creation being held in common, can be found in our spiritual traditions as well. For example, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, creation belongs to God, as Psalm 24:1 says:

The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,

the world, and those who live in it.

Further, in Psalm 155:16, the Jewish scriptures say:

The heavens are the LORD’s heavens,

but the earth God has given to human beings.

However, the Creator has not given humans the earth to abuse it, but rather to be caretakers of this world. In the second story of creation, Genesis 2, the first job given to humanity is to care for creation, not to take permanent ownership and control of it. According to Leviticus 25:23, God said:

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine;

with me you are but aliens and tenants.

Today, this understanding of creation being held in common can be seen in the Public Trust Doctrine. Drawing on indigenous and other traditions, however, that understanding is being expanded to see that all parts of our ecosystem, not just humans, have rights within this Commons of creation. The push for a Lake Erie Bill of Rights by Toledo, OH residents is a practical example of this.

After reading about the beach property suit in Indiana, I came across a recent study showing the dire consequences of continued climate change if we continue with business as usual. Humans have evolved, the study says, to live within a certain temperature range. However, if current practices continue, the study predicts that one-third of the people on the planet will live on land outside that temperature range, with extreme heat similar to the Sahara Desert.

Such predictions are unfortunately becoming too familiar, but they also serve as a powerful global reminder that we indeed live in and share this Commons. We are not just bound together legally, or even just spiritually, but also environmentally.

Martin T. Auer, Alexa Bradley, and Nancy A. Auer wrote an editorial that was published on-line in June of 2015 in The Journal of Great Lakes Research, titled, “Growing the Seed for a Great Lakes Commons.” In that editorial they write:

“Change is needed at two levels to create ‘a way where there is no way.’ At one level, humankind must be encouraged to develop, perhaps re-establish, a reverence for the Great Lakes. This perspective must resonate within us at a much deeper level than do commodity-based concepts such as ‘beneficial use’ or ‘ecosystem services.’ We must recognize that the Great Lakes are a gift and a responsibility ‘held in common’ by the peoples and communities of the Lakes. On a second level, humankind must come together as a community, as representatives of that Commons, bringing reverence, knowledge, experience and insight to bear on matters of Great Lakes management and governance. It is of value to the Commoners to realize that their voice matters and that their actions are vital to how we care for the Lakes, the entire ecosystem and its connection to the whole Earth.”

We must see that we are together in a Commons with the entire Great Lakes ecosystem and beyond; we must reverence that Commons, and then we must act to care for that Commons.

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