By Gary Wilson
Another Great Lakes year is in the books and controversy over algae, pipelines, carp and diversions still roil the waters with no end in sight.
But this is a reflective time and I’ve been thinking about folks who toil beneath the radar on these and similar issues.
Perhaps they’re the type of people English novelist Thomas Hardy had in mind when he offered his thoughts on obscurity.
“Everybody is so talented nowadays that the only people I care to honor as deserving real distinction are those who remain in obscurity,” he once said.
I’m with Hardy.
There’s something to be said for working in obscurity.
It allows you to focus. You’re not wondering what others will think; you’re not selling or seeking approval.
Besides, chasing approval is like chasing money; it makes you cautious. It can divert your attention and dilute results.
That’s why I admire the Great Lakes folks who work — not in obscurity — but quietly behind the scenes on the tough issues. Most don’t have media handlers to hide behind or to spin a message. They understand that social media blitzes and collaboration are tools used in a process, not results.
The result is the reward, not 600 words in the Huffington Post or a flurry of “amazing and awesome” Tweets from a conference.
These advocates and experts are not household words in the Great Lakes community. But they are some of the people in environmental work whom I most respect.
Here are a few deserving of recognition.
A few years ago Nick Schroeck was conducting an environmental boat tour of the Detroit River I was covering.
The river has long been an environmental disaster; I know, I spent a lot of time there years ago. It’s just now taking the nascent steps toward recovery. But obstacles remain.
Schroeck runs Wayne State University’s Environmental Law Center in Detroit.
As the boat departed Windsor and turned south, it went past Detroit’s crown jewel, the RenCen complex.
It then quickly approached piles of pet coke — the toxic byproduct of tar sands oil production — on the river’s banks. I immediately detected a change in Schroeck’s presentation. It went from descriptive to visceral. These piles are 1960’s thinking; why is it still happening? Not the exact quote, but easy to discern.
A few minutes later he was back in environmental attorney mode explaining the intricacies of a permit process as I took notes.
At the south end of the river near Grosse Ile the boat turned north and we grabbed a beer. Schroeck shared his thoughts about the river and just as important, about environmental justice.
When you talk to Nick Schroeck about environmental justice you don’t have to listen to his words to get the message. You feel the intensity for the issue in his voice.
Schroeck has raised the stakes in Detroit for 2016 by hiring an executive coordinator to work on environmental justice issues.
A 1960’s pollution mentality for a 2016 Detroit, its river and citizens is not an option for him.
Lynn Broaddus isn’t afraid to defy the communications experts who say stay on message at all costs. No need for critical thinking. Develop your message and repeat. Forever.
Broaddus is president of the Broadview Collaborative, a Wisconsin sustainability think tank. She is also one of the region’s brighter lights when it comes to water policy. She has the ability to think critically and move past approved talking points to find a better way. Her recent op/ed on Waukesha’s request to divert Lake Michigan water is an example.
While both sides of the diversion argument have been recycling talking points for years, Broaddus stepped back and took the long view.
In her column she noted that the facts have changed. Waukesha doesn’t need as much water as it did when the process started eight years ago. Technology has changed making it easier to conserve. And building an expensive pipeline to be paid for by Waukesha citizens and other taxpayers is retro thinking and a bad business proposition.
Broaddus implores Waukesha and the region to look forward and embrace the changes for a better, less costly outcome. Why make a 2016 decision based on outdated information and assumptions, she says.
The Great Lakes governors who have to approve Waukesha’s diversion request would do well to check with Broaddus first. They might learn something.
It’s not just individuals who work successfully while keeping a low profile. Organizations can have the same demeanor.
FLOW (For Love of Water)
FLOW is located in Traverse City, Michigan, far from the oft-traveled Ann Arbor to Chicago Great Lakes policy path. It’s an outgrowth of attorney Jim Olson’s victorious lawsuit over Nestle Water in the landmark Mecosta bottled water case.
After a slow start, FLOW is on the cusp of becoming a major policy player on Michigan and Great Lakes water issues. It’s focused on Enbridge’s Straits of Mackinac pipeline and just released a report that says the aged pipeline is no longer necessary to support Michigan’s energy needs.
That’s an eye-opener.
Sometimes it’s best to be off the path. Good policy work comes from Ann Arbor
and Chicago but group-think in those towns is rife and can stifle original thought from outsiders. That’s why FLOW is refreshing and bears watching. They’re not bound by legacy institutions. Or perhaps it’s the clear Traverse City air that’s inspiring them.
Whatever, it’s working. Keep an eye on FLOW and its executive director, Liz Kirkwood.
Big can be obscure
Ever heard of the International Joint Commission? Can you tell me what it does? Be honest.
The IJC has successfully advised the U.S. and Canada since 1912 on trans-border water issues. No small task, yet to the public the IJC is about as obscure as an agency can be.
For those in Great Lakes circles who follow the issues closely, yes, the agency has had a reputation for bureaucracy and inertia over the years. That’s been an easy criticism, sometimes warranted and other times not.
But in the last five years it’s been on the move.
Its 2014 report on Lake Erie’s algae and water quality is the definitive document on the subject to date. If only Michigan, Ohio, Ontario and the USEPA would read it and take its recommendations. An update is scheduled for 2016.
And it just released a report on the return of the threat from mercury pollution. Off shore sources are the problem. Good work by commission staffers and props to the IJC; long may you run.
Whom did I miss?
It’s not possible to have knowledge of all the good work people are doing on Great Lakes issues. So, studious readers — tell us in the comments section who you think is doing great work in relative obscurity. But think about it… we’re not looking for the big names. They get enough praise.
Thomas Hardy’s premise reminds me of the Tao Te Ching passage that says, “Do your work then step back. (It’s) the only path to serenity.”
I suspect Schroeck, Broaddus, FLOW and the IJC are pretty serene even working in relative obscurity.
The Great Lakes are better for their dedication and service.