She has bright red lips, a red, disk-shaped ornament at her neck, long, curly auburn hair, fashionable layers of wool.
Tzeporah Berman is a statement of style as she takes her place at a boardroom table in her publisher’s Toronto office; effortlessly put together. And so is her confidence. The climate and energy co-director at Greenpeace International, the world’s largest independent environmental organization, and author of a new book, This Crazy Time, Living Our Environmental Challenge, talks about the imperilled planet with the sure command of a parent who never questions her method of child-rearing, even if her beloved child is still playing with fire.
“I think” is the start to many of her calm, declarative sentences as she outlines why the next 10 years are crucial to righting the ship called Earth. The would-be saviour of the planet doesn’t cometh so much as she woo-eth.
The 42-year-old has recently moved back to Vancouver from Amsterdam. Mother of two boys, Forrest and Quinn, aged 12 and 8, she is a green zealot dressed in a soccer mom’s mien. Her manner is one of serene composure, wearing her intelligence like a comfortable sweater. Paradoxically, it is her ordinariness that makes her seem extraordinary.
“The issues can be intimidating and depressing and also exclusionary,” she says with equanimity. “We approach these issues from an intellectual standpoint, and there are so many great books out there... but they scare your socks off. I’m a Mom. I’m exhausted at the end of the day, and do I really want to curl up in bed and read about the end of the world?”
The story of her activism unfolds like an autobiography of an ordinary person who couldn’t avoid her conscience. She dropped out of Ryerson University, where she was studying fashion, to enroll in environmental studies at the University of Toronto after backpacking through Europe. She and a friend hiked up to the Acropolis in Greece only to hack up “a lungful of black goo” that night.
She considered herself an academic not an activist, but then, while researching her thesis on the rainforest nesting habits of seabirds in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound, she discovered that the giant trees that supported the nests had been clear-cut. Her grief and sense of responsibility wouldn’t abate. In the 1990s, Ms. Berman was the front-page superstar of the anti-logging movement in British Columbia .
Now, after two decades as an activist, she has evolved again – and to much criticism from her own green community. In March 2010, she was appointed by Greenpeace to head up its largest project, the international climate and energy campaign. That resulted in a public lobbying and petition campaign against her called “Save Greenpeace.” The reason? She has gone from sitting in trees to sitting in boardrooms, negotiating with industry.
Many of her detractors point to her decision in 2009 when, as executive director of PowerUp Canada, a not-for-profit calling for better laws to prevent climate change, she gave an award to B.C. premier Gordon Campbell at United Nations Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen.
“Politicians need to know there are consequences for inaction, but they also have to know there’s going to be support,” she says unapologetically. “Campbell did a lot of things I didn’t agree with, but the carbon tax was a seminal policy, making polluters pay. You have to be willing to say, ‘That’s a good thing,’ and then we will see more of it.”
Like a parent giving a child a cookie?
She laughs. “Look, every management book says you have to acknowledge what your staff is doing twice as often as you criticize if you want them to act.” But she is sensitive to the vitriol. “I won’t lie to you, when people you think of as your own community attack you, it hurts like hell. But I think that the environmental movement is coming to terms with the climate era and therefore we have to change our priorities like everyone else.”
She supports run-of-river power projects, which divert water to spin turbines and generate clean electricity – anathema to many environmentalists concerned about watersheds. She works with industry leaders, such as Avram Lazar, head of Forest Products Association of Canada, someone she calls “a champion on the inside,” to reach an agreement over logging of the boreal forest.
Still, her moral touchstones for negotiation are strict. “One is, ‘Are we stopping destruction that would happen if we didn’t?’ And the other is a bit harder to gauge. It’s the question, ‘Is it game-changing? Will it have a domino effect in the right direction?’ With the boreal agreement, we not only put a fence around the caribou habitat...we also bought some time and we got the industry to commit to a process where they have to take into consideration ecosystem-based management.”
Part of Ms. Berman‘s charm is her admission of weakness. She may be called an eco-warrior but she has moments of doubt. She has been to known lose hope, as she did following Bali negotiations in 2007 that failed to replace the Kyoto treaty on climate change. Global-warming experts declared that there were maybe 3,000 days left to save the Earth from apocalyptic shifts in weather. She realized that to make a difference, she had to learn issues about climate and energy, not just forestry, wood products and biodiversity.
“It was so depressing and I didn’t know what to do. Then I heard [American novelist]Barbara Kingsolver and she said, ‘Optimism is the only moral choice,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s right.’ ” At the end of the interview, I wonder how her experience as a child shaped her sense of responsibility. When she was 14, her father died during heart surgery. Four months later, her mother died of cancer, leaving four children. Her older sister, then 21, became legal guardian. “We acted as a collective,” she explains. “My first meetings were dinner on Fridays when we would decide how much money we have and what we should spend it on.” She pauses. “It made me who I am, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.” The calm composure remains. “It was brutal.”