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The Great Lakes drained dry?

Notre Dame MBA students offer ideas for a ‘commons’ approach to preserving a gigantic, but dwindling, resource

by Ed Cohen

March 27, 2011

Business Chart

Leo Burke

A satellite image and a statistic haunted a four-day interterm course taught at the University of Notre Dame this spring called The Global Commons: Shifting Planetary Paradigm.

The statistic was 2.1 billion gallons. That’s the net amount water the Lake Michigan basin is losing per day, according to a report from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes Water Institute. 

The satellite image was of the Aral Sea in central Asia. It 1957 it represented the world’s fourth-largest lake. Today, as the image shows, it’s down to about 10 percent of that size because of Soviet-era irrigation projects that diverted water from many of its tributary rivers. The disappearing lake has been called one of the world’s worst environmental disasters.

Does the same fate await Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes? Mankind had better hope not – and act to prevent it – because the Great Lakes account for more than 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, 95 percent of the United States’ supply.

The Global Commons mini-course, a first-time offering in the Mendoza College of Business’s Master of Business Administration curriculum, challenged MBA students to come up strategies to advance a proposed “social charter” for the Great Lakes. The agreement would bind residents, municipalities, businesses, government agencies and others who depend on the lakes into using the water in managed, sustainable ways instead of exploiting the resource to extinction.

Ideas put forward by the student teams included:

·         A cap-and-rent system to make industry and other consumers of water more cognizant of the resource’s value. The rent would also support administration of the commons;

·         Teaming local industry with Great Lakes-area research universities to develop new water-saving technologies;

·         Adding a Great Lakes commons unit to elementary school studies in the hope that of youngsters will raise their parents’ awareness of the situation; and

·         Supplying real-estate agents with information on the commons to pass along to newcomers.

As Leo Burke, the professor leading the course, explained, the term “commons” applies to any resource owned by no one but depended on by many. Examples include the sky, the oceans, even the Internet.

Throughout history groups of people have cooperated to share local resources such as range land for livestock grazing. The goal was to preserve the resource to meet not only current needs but those of future generations.

Key to these arrangements’ success, Burke said, was that didn’t rely on government or businesses, which have difficulty looking beyond the next election or quarterly earnings report.

“The idea with a commons is that it maximizes citizen involvement,” said Burke, director of integral leadership and the Global Commons Initiative at Mendoza. If management of the Great Lakes’ water resources has to rely on “conventional structures such as the private sector and the public sector,” he said, “we’re doomed.”

Late last year a group of regional public-interest groups formed the Great Lakes Commons Initiative to try to preserve the lakes. In addition to outright withdrawal of water, the lakes face continuing threats from pollution and from invasive fish species, which typically arrive in the ballast water of freighter ships from other parts of the world. 

As students in the class learned, the lakes were created by Ice Age glaciers that carved out basins and then melted in place. The bodies of water are replenished only by rainfall falling into them or flowing back into the lakes from nearby tributaries. No aquifer (underground water source) is involved.

In 2008 the United States and Canada signed a Great Lakes Compact, which bars the wholesale pumping out of water to other states or countries. But a loophole in the agreement allows for withdrawal of water in containers up to 5.7 gallons in size.

Small amounts of Great Lakes water continually leave the region in, for example, packaged foods or pharmaceuticals shipped to other areas. Water comes into the area in the same way. But as the student team of Jonathan Garner, Ed Kirkpatrick, John Mikols explained, water levels in the Great Lakes have been declining the past 30 years. No forecast exists for how long the lakes can continue to lose water at this rate before the situation becomes critical, they said. 

The team’s presentation focused not only on the environmental impact of falling lake levels but the national security issue. Already up to 40 percent of the world’s population is thought to lack reliable access to clean water, and the population is growing. The lakes constitute a strategic reserve.

Former Texas Rep. Dick Armey famously said in 2000 that thirsty, growing western states like his were are to come after Great Lakes water eventually. “And we're not going to be buying it, we're going to be stealing it.”

The student presentations were judged by a panel that included entrepreneur Jim Clarke, whose background is in energy, investing and risk management. After praising the Garner-Kirkpatrick-Mikols group’s presentation, he ominously predicted, “We will definitely see armed conflict over water at some point, and it will be in our lifetime.”

The Notre Dame MBA Interterm Intensives, held between the halves or modules of each semester, challenge students to solve social issues as well as real-world business problems brought to campus by such companies as GE, McDonald’s, adidas, Coca-Cola and Boeing.

The Global Commons Initiative, housed within Mendoza’s Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide, comprises undergraduate and graduate courses, research projects and partnerships with other universities, all aimed at advancing the commons as a framework for sustaining shared resources for future generations.

The Mendoza College of Business ranks No. 1 for the second year in a row in Bloomberg Businessweek’s annual survey of “The Best Undergraduate Business Schools.”