“I Have a Dream that Our Water Will Be Protected as a Commons Under the Public Trust Doctrine”

FLOW founder and president Jim Olson delivered the following remarks — inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — on January 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse.

By Jim Olson

I had a dream in 2009 and 2010. I had a dream to bring the public trust doctrine into the debate over the battle for control of our world’s water commons and what to do about the challenge to halt its destruction and control by private corporations in an increasingly intense world water crisis.

This dream grew out of the legal battle here in Michigan over the privatization of water and damage to our headwater creeks, lakes, and wetlands by Nestlé. For the first time, corporations like Nestlé sought to convert what all understood as a right to reasonably use water, to the sale of water. This was, in effect, an unprecedented massive scale of the privatization of the commons in water for exorbitant profits without paying anything. Nestlé and other corporations around the world (check out the World Water Forum) wanted to take over the public’s sovereign water—which, if it succeeded, would make every person and living being on the planet its slave.

I had a dream that our water commons would be protected by the framework and principles of the public trust doctrine—an ancient doctrine dating from days of Justinian in Rome, 1,500 year ago. The public trust doctrine puts our commons and the fundamental relationship of water to life paramount to all else, meaning it must be protected from one generation to the next. The public trust doctrine would transform us to protect the gift of water first, which in turn would sustain and foster and assure access to clean, safe water for all humanity, all living beings on this planet. Thus was born FLOW (For Love of Water).

Today, that dream is a reality because of the dedication, help, and support of many people who understand that at this time in history we cannot afford to view the natural world, especially our common water, as apart from us. It is a common gift from the creation. It preceded the human mind. The human mind is a tool, not an end in itself. If we honor this dream of the public trust in the water commons as part of our own beings, paramount to all life, we will then defeat our human desire to control, at short gain, and convert everything it can to profit, at tremendous cost to all life, the natural world, the hydrosphere itself.

I have a dream that this commons will be protected by this public trust doctrine, which many of you who have followed FLOW have heard us speak about and apply to the challenges we face here in the Great Lakes. This dream started centuries ago.

I have a dream that this commons and public trust, buried like an underground stream beneath the industrialization and capitalization of the planet in the past 200 years, will resurface and become central to our understanding and protection of the integrity of water as paramount, intrinsic in its own beingness. It will become part of our everyday life. We will then understand that if we do not protect water and all life as a commons under public trust principles, that private property and the accumulation of massive capital and wealth really has no value of all.

I have a dream that we understand that the hydrosphere itself is a being in a sense, a living water cycle in which we live will be seen as a commons.

I have a dream that this commons in the hydrosphere and the beings and life it supports are protected by the public trust doctrine, that government and personal decisions will put the commons and life first, as a primary public purpose, and that government and personal decisions must assure the protection of water from impairment from one generation to the next.

I have a dream that this will lead to dignity and respect for others and water. By following this paramount public trust framework, we and government will make very good decisions about water, health, land use, food, energy, environment, and economy.

I have a dream that if this public trust framework is not followed, that people will remove those in power by their voice, their hearts, their votes, or protest. If necessary, they will file lawsuits to stop the tyranny of private corporate control of our water commons, our health, drinking water, sustenance for life, that this will halt the tyranny of climate change, the tyranny of fires and death in Australia, California, around the world, the tyranny of massive storms, flooding, landslides.

I have a dream that this commons and public trust will stop the tyranny of the shutoff of water for more than 100,000 people in Detroit and across this world. I have a dream that there will be no water shutoffs for any person, child, or grandparent on this earth, because they don’t have the ability to pay for water.

I have a dream that this public trust and protection of the water commons will stop the destruction of lives like the exposure to lead of children and citizens of Flint or other cities and towns.

I have a dream that this public trust doctrine will assure that water is always public, that we will preserve water and treat it with dignity for all.

I have a dream that this public trust will assure that this water is a generational commons and public trust, serving all on earth for generations to come.

I have a dream that it will apply to and honor all people.

I have a dream that people will understand that we are a relationship to water, that the public trust doctrine does not just protect the water, it protects all life; that it protects the relationship between people and life.

I have a dream that if we understand this relationship between beings and life, we can protect our Great Lakes like Lake Erie, one-third of which is a green toxic soup, and our groundwater from toxins that should never be tolerated in the water we drink or use for food and bathing.

I have a dream that we understood that this water commons is us, and that in the future because of this, we will come to a peace on this earth—a peace that was created and continues in the relationship between the commons and us when the earth was formed, when we entered this earth, however that happened.

I have a dream that we can move forward together to accomplish the protection of water as commons and public trust because we come to understand that is what’s in our hearts.

Thank you.

Watch the full video below (Jim Olson begins speaking at 40:12).

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