Institutional Compost

Last week, I presented some of my research to a new audience: environmental scientists and policy analysts. It was a ‘lunch and learn’ talk for staff at the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, a very different gig from my usual history conferences. They’re the present-day version of the people I’ve been writing about for years, so I was pretty excited.

As it turned out, they were interested in me, too. I gave them a quick overview of the history in my dissertation - how residents’ experiences of environmental change influenced how they managed the lower Great Lakes - and then some thoughts about what it all means for current water management.

They had a bunch of questions about archival research, which I didn’t expect, but what really stuck in their heads was a concept that I invented to describe a very important process: ‘institutional composting’ or ‘institutional recycling.’ Here’s a quick description of what caught their attention:

As I see it, our water management tools aren’t adequate to cope with the problems of our time. The Great Lakes are a massive hydrological system, heavily used by a wide variety of people and industries. The trans-boundary arrangements for managing their water quality and ecosystem health are among the most effective in the world, but they aren’t even close to adequate. The changing weather patterns that climate change is bringing, the costly efforts to contain invasive species like phragmites, and the over-fertilization of our waterways are just a few of the things that we’re trying and failing to keep under control.

This would be very discouraging, but in fact, I think that we were in a similar spot before and succeeded in improving a very bad situation, in part by re-purposing treaties, institutions, budgets and staffing arrangements around the watershed (hence ‘institutional recycling’). Even failed treaties, ignored studies and mothballed commissions and committees have sometimes played important roles in later arrangements. In the case of fisheries regulations, for example, multiple failures of regulation slowly created the ‘soil’ from which a shared body of knowledge and a pattern of informal cooperation eventually blossomed (hence, ‘institutional composting’).

At the turn of the twentieth century, people in the United States and Canada were eager to develop hydroelectric and transportation infrastructure around the Great Lakes basin. Industrialization, urbanization and the shift from a coal- and steam-powered economy to a petrochemical energy regime were transforming the region, and the two countries created a set of joint water management institutions to hasten those transitions. This first generation of shared water institutions included the Boundary Waters Treaty, the International Joint Commission, a variety of engineering studies, four failed fisheries regulation agreements, the Niagara Treaty, jointly funded dredging projects, and a dense network of informal professional connections between engineers, hatchery officials, scientists, sanitation managers and civil servants.

By the middle of the twentieth century, however, it was more and more obvious that those first institutions couldn’t cope with a new set of transboundary water issues, pollution and invasive species. Public health laws didn’t cover industrial pollution, regulations were minimal to nonexistent, scientific understanding of the problems was rudimentary, and engineering solutions were scarce and costly. However, pollution was a visible, smell-able, taste-able problem for many people and a response gradually took shape. Beginning in the mid-1940s, people living around the Great Lakes gradually began to monitor the extent and sources of transboundary pollution, and evolve new ways to cope with it. Governments at every level began to devote staff time, revenue, and political capital to the problem.

In 1972, Canada and the United States signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This arrangement represents many of the changes in water policy that had taken place since the end of the Second World War, including the entry of state, provincial and local governments into the arena of transboundary pollution management, the creation of new civil society groups to represent different stakeholders, and new knowledge about the extent and character of the pollution problems. However, it also drew upon old institutions and treaties, revisited old proposals for joint water quality regulation, and tapped the vast network of informal cross-border water experts to create a new framework for action. The agreement, which has been revised many times since then, continues to form the basis for binational water management in the Great Lakes.

When I consider the new problems that the Great Lakes are facing, as well as the continuing issues that haven’t yet been resolved, like eutrophication, legacy pollutants, and habitat destruction, it is easy to feel that we won’t be able to maintain the current level of environmental quality, let alone improve it. At the same time, I’ve spent the past few years documenting the wealth of data, expertise, laws, formal structures, dedicated funding, and public education that we already possess, and it seems clear that we have a better foundation to build upon than most places in the world.

People around the Great Lakes are already beginning to repurpose water management tools to serve the new goals of climate resilience and adaptation, and I think that if the potential for institutional recycling is more widely understood and acknowledged, the process could be even more efficient.

More Articles →