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Tzeporah Berman (Jaime Kowal)
Tzeporah Berman (Jaime Kowal)

The Daily Review, Thu., Dec. 1

Reflections of a determined environmentalist Add to ...

For the most part, This Crazy Time, by Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman, is a rip-roaring tale that gets behind the scenes of some of Canada’s best known environmental campaigns, ranging from the Clayoquot Sound protests on Vancouver Island in the 1990s to protecting the Great Bear Rainforest in B.C. and the boreal forest in Ontario.

Berman writes about her experience on the front lines and in the back rooms of environmental organizations (including ForestEthics), concluding, “In the end it is about creativity, commitment, courage and a little bit of luck or magic.” I would add moxie to that list. For instance, the campaign that succeeded in having Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie behemoth, change its paper-buying policies was gobsmackingly good. For Berman, it was also “a critical piece of the puzzle that led to the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement.”

Coming up with a spoof ad that featured a corset-and-garter-belt-clad blonde slinging a chainsaw between her legs, and labelling it “Victoria’s Dirty Secret” was undoubtedly creative. But to spend $30,000, half of ForestEthics’ campaign budget, to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times, now that takes moxie. Berman explains that at first, the venerable NYT refused to print the ad, arguing that it was too suggestive, but gave in when ForestEthics pointed out that the paper didn’t have trouble selling advertising space to Victoria’s Secret.

Part of ForestEthics campaign against Victoria's Secret lingerie company

The chainsaw ad went viral. By some estimates, ForestEthics received the equivalent of $1.5-million in free media coverage for its $30,000 investment. The beauty of the Victoria’s Secret campaign is that the spoof ad was only part of what ForestEthics did. “We followed the ad with serious grassroots organizing around the United States,” she writes.

No kidding. They sent more than 10,000 letters to Victoria’s Secret’s CEO, staged 852 protests outside Victoria’s Secret stores, held a rally during the company’s annual fashion show in New York and sent Victoria’s Secret’s CEO a postcard bearing his photo with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, reading: “You can make all the difference. Protect our forests.”

Six months later, Berman was meeting with the company at its invitation. Eventually, Victoria’s Secret agreed that it would no longer buy paper from any company that logged endangered forests or endangered caribou habitat in the Boreal forest. If that doesn’t impress you, consider that Victoria’s Secret produces one million catalogues a day. The much-touted Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which involves 21 forest companies, nine environmental organizations and 21 million hectares of public forest, was not far behind.

It is hard not to review Berman’s actions rather than what she, with the help of Mark Leiren-Young, put in print. Most of the time, I was in awe of this relatively young woman (she’s 42.) Sometimes she came across as being full of herself – she actually describes how her colleagues took her down a notch when she got too big for her britches – but she managed to write about her numerous brushes with stars and stardom without making me bristle too much. What surprised me most is that Berman is not more of a household name in Canada.

This Crazy Time, however, is not all flash and sizzle. Embedded within these highly entertaining stories are Berman’s observations, her lessons learned and her constant search for meaning in her work. She writes, “I’ve spent my adult life working on environmental issues, and it took me six months of intensive research to even begin to figure out what I was for.”

My only complaint is Berman’s failure to follow her own lesson. In the chapter on her current climate-change efforts, she adopts a Suzuki-esque tone of doom and gloom.

But maybe that is just her age showing through. Maybe the passionate and invincible, fire-in-her-belly 20-year-old has matured. She now runs the climate-change program for Greenpeace in Amsterdam, which she describes this way: “The upraised marble reception area of the Greenpeace office had three receptionists seated at a high, high desk with their little headphones on, all saying, ‘Good afternoon, Greenpeace. Could you hold, please’ in at least three different languages.” That image bears little resemblance to the Vancouver organization of the 1970s. Then, Greenpeace’s office was likely in the rusty, damp cockpit of the Rainbow Warrior, and the radical organization’s founders were likely more familiar with handcuffs than strategic plans.

Similarly, in the dying pages of the book, Berman’s rollicking tales of audacious tactics give way to descriptions of more sober and determined campaigns. They don’t make great copy, but perhaps they are what’s needed as the environmental movement shifts from simply trying to get coverage on the six o’clock news to actually bringing about the policy changes required.

Nicola Ross is editor-in-chief of Alternatives Journal, Canada's national magazine about environmental ideas and action.

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