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Greenpeace: tactics not so clear cut anymore Add to ...

Shortly after she had moved her family from their isolated cabin on British Columbia’s tiny Cortes Island to the biggest city in the most densely populated country in Europe, Tzeporah Berman’s seven-year-old son, Quinn, had a moment of culture shock. His mother, exhausted from the move and the controversy that forever swirls around her, had picked up the phone and ordered a pizza. “What’s going on?” the boy asked, bewildered. She explained what she’d done. “Hold on a moment,” he said, dumbfounded. “You can just call someone and they bring a pizza to your door?”

It was not only her family that had found the move out of the woods last year jarring. The decision by Greenpeace to appoint Berman, famous among Canadians as the face of the British Columbia anti-logging movement in the 1990s, to head its largest project, the international climate and energy campaign, marked a stark shift. It was an acknowledgment that the failure of the December, 2009, Copenhagen summit on climate change meant that the old government-focused approach to climate was no longer working. Something very different was needed. And what Berman brought was an approach, evolved over two decades, that has turned environmentalism on its head: Instead of simply trying to shut down or blockade offending industries, her method is to invite their chief executives into the office, negotiate with them, and find ways for tree-chopping, smoke-belching companies to continue operating while satisfying green activists—and their own customers.

This sort of direct engagement is not new to Greenpeace, the world’s largest environmental organization, but Berman has made it central to the operation, giving consumers and companies a prominence they’ve never had in climate politics.

Berman, 42, has long been the most business-savvy of ecological leaders, her cool articulation and financial smarts often making her seem more managerially competent than the CEOs she has battled. One morning, after she has bicycled to the headquarters of Greenpeace International in a grotty part of western Amsterdam, Berman strides across its woody expanses of cubicles and briefing rooms, showing an easy command of a fiendishly complicated multinational organization with 2,400 employees and 15,000 volunteers, and explains why the market, rather than the state, is now the focus of global-warming pressure. “Governments are motivated by two things: money and votes. And so we will influence both,” she says. “I believe that we can have an influence on major corporations, and therefore on the money that goes directly into those governments and those individual leaders’ campaigns.” Berman is using Greenpeace’s brand-name clout—and the equally formidable threat of consumer boycotts and embarrassing publicity—to target the specific products and brands that have the most impact on atmospheric emissions. “Our support and our brand is one of the most important things we have,” she says, “and it’s not to be given away lightly.”

By moving the focus of her activist energies from the forest floor to the boardroom—the result of a life-changing epiphany—Berman has not just shifted her attention from forestry executives to the far less amicable heads of coal-mining and oil-sands companies, but she has expanded her ultra-pragmatic philosophy in ways that have shaken members of the traditional, anti-capitalist ecological movement even more deeply. Privatized utilities, she has realized, are sometimes better ecological players than state-owned ones. It is sometimes worth messing up an ecosystem, as with some hydroelectric megaprojects, if the result will turn back global warming. And sometimes it is worth opposing left-wing parties like the NDP if parties further to the right are able to deliver better ecological results.


Berman’s methods are, to put it mildly, anathema to some environmentalists. She is probably the first major Greenpeace hire to have a public lobbying and petition campaign directed against her appointment in March, 2010. The Save Greenpeace campaign claimed to have attracted 118 signatures, including “just under a dozen” of the organization’s staff and one founder, on a petition to have her hiring revoked. It got nasty: Activists appeared on radio and TV in Canada to denounce her, to call her a toady for having given an award to B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell during the Copenhagen talks, to accuse her of favouring privatization and capitalists and empty statements.

“The philosophy of Berman and people like her is one of accepting power and attempting to persuade it, rather than confronting power and dismantling it,” says Macdonald Stainsby, the Edmonton-based activist who was a co-founder of Save Greenpeace. “And in an era of climate change, confrontational, no-compromise environmentalism has never been needed more, and yet has also never been under greater threat.”

Environmental politics has long been divided into factions of purists for whom capitalism is a basic ecological wrong versus pragmatists willing to compromise and cut deals in order to achieve concrete goals; those camps, referred to by some in the movement as “fundis” and “realos” (for fundamentalists and realists). Berman, who made her name with direct action at Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, is now the quintessential realo, focused on results.

Fundis like Stainsby represent a small but significant faction within groups like Greenpeace. But the idea of compromise is likely to attract wider resistance when it comes to signing up for specific compromises. Friends of Clayoquot Sound, Berman’s first organization, declined to sign the forest-saving agreement she helped negotiate. Such dissension is likely to continue.

Berman has little patience for it. “Campaigning without being willing to create dialogue isn’t campaigning; it’s complaining,” she says. “It doesn’t lead you anywhere, and the point is to lead you somewhere. That’s how I’m different.”

A larger struggle, over this past year, has been within Greenpeace itself, to win over those traditional environmentalists who see the Earth’s ecosystems, and the species of animals that live within them, as the key target for its activism. Greenpeace has made climate change its largest and most well-funded focus (but far from its only focus), and that means that Berman’s work on moving industries and governments toward carbon-reduction deals takes precedence over, and resources from, other things. “That certainly was a struggle,” she says. “If you work on overfishing in Asia and that’s all you’ve worked on your whole life, then it’s going to be difficult when you find out that the majority of resources are going to go into fighting against coal, for example.”

Such struggles against the shopworn habits and expectations of her own movement have been central to Berman’s approach from the beginning. No Canadian is as closely associated with the groundswell that began in 1992 in the previously unheard-of cedar forest of Clayoquot Sound. When she first arrived in the forest, she was a graduate student in environmental studies, interested only in examining the rainforest nesting habits of seabirds. Activism was not in the picture.

“You can go to school and get an MBA; you don’t go to school and get a degree to be an environmental campaigner,” she says. “When I started this work, I was an academic. I had no intention when I went to Clayoquot Sound of leading those blockades. I was there to write my thesis!”

But when she returned one summer, she was horrified to discover that the nests were gone, as were the giant trees that supported them. In their place she found clear-cut-and-bulldozed devastation extending far into the distance. The sense of grief and responsibility was overwhelming. She joined the growing protest movement, which was badly in need of leadership. Her sensible, calm language and her ease with the media set her apart. As the Friends of Clayoquot Sound launched blockades to prevent pulp-and-paper giant MacMillan Bloedel from logging the Sound, Berman became the public face of the movement, appearing on TV, debating Premier Mike Harcourt and building public sympathy for the cause. It was old-fashioned environmentalism, using thousands of human bodies to block bulldozers; at least 850 people were arrested in 1993, and it was a front-page story.

The result, five years later, was a deal negotiated between MacBlo (which was on the verge of being bought by the American pulp-and-paper giant Weyerhaeuser) and the activists, with Berman playing a key role in the negotiations. The company agreed to get out of Clayoquot Sound, and hand its logging rights over to native-controlled companies that pledged to keep the first-growth valleys intact. It also polarized the logging industry against the activists, and did nothing to change the volume or nature of first-growth logging in Canada or the demand for its products. It was a victory, but it felt to many activists like a long-term loss, to others like a waste of half a decade. A poll conducted by Greenpeace found that only 14% of Canadians supported the MacBlo deal. The activists were dispirited: It seemed that democracy had failed, and nothing had changed.


For Berman, who was now working for Greenpeace’s Canadian branch, the faint victory at Clayoquot showed that a completely different approach was needed. No more chaining yourself to a tree. It was time to step into the boardroom.

“What that proved we needed to do, is in fact influence the marketplace,” she says. “I mean, governments should be leading on these issues, but certainly in my experience, in the last 18 years, it has been frequently the marketplace leading, and then the governments have had to respond.”

By the late 1990s, Greenpeace already had a Political and Business Unit devoted to lobbying governments and working with corporations to improve their practices. The group had achieved great success in the United Kingdom, for example, by running consumer-shocking ad campaigns to persuade biscuit companies to stop using oil from endangered sand eels as an ingredient. Berman learned from these European campaigns, and the backroom deals behind them, and decided to branch out on her own.

In 2000, she co-founded ForestEthics, a group devoted to this new approach. Their goal was to protect Canada’s virgin forests from logging, but their targets were remote from the chainsaws. After some research, Berman decided that the best way to reach the loggers would be through Victoria’s Secret, the frilly-undergarment company. After all, she discovered, the company was printing a million copies of its famous glossy catalogues a day, entirely on paper made from first-growth timber. It was one of the largest single printing jobs in the world, and almost all of it wound up in landfills. ForestEthics launched a campaign to embarrass the undie giant with street-theatre demonstrations and fake fashion ads. After a few weeks, Berman was sitting down with its executives and talking about wood-pulp sources. Campaigns also aimed at Staples and Office Depot led them to switch their ordering away from pulp from first-growth forests.

In the process, Berman realized that she had to learn the art of saying “yes.” Companies didn’t just want to know what they should stop doing, but what they should continue doing and start doing in order to stay in business but avoid protests.

“We’re pretty good at saying ‘No, this is wrong, we oppose this.’ But identifying solutions that we can support is a very difficult thing,” she says. “You know, it’s easy to say, ‘In this area, there should be no logging.’ But then you’re sitting down with Home Depot in Atlanta. And they’re saying, ‘Okay, so you want us to shift that to the Amazon? Do you want us to buy more from Indonesia? What exactly do you want us to do?’

“When you’re running in front of the bulldozer, you know that their decision to not buy from the Great Bear rainforest [in B.C.] might mean that that road might not be built into pristine areas, but you don’t want to be giving them an okay for illegal logging in Indonesia,” she says. “What we were asking companies to do was to increase the good and get rid of the worst. So we were forced to look at not just where logging should happen and where it should not, but how logging should happen.”

Part of the solution was to demand the imprimatur of the Forest Stewardship Council, an industry-environmentalist body whose stamp of approval went on wood and printing paper from “good” sources. But the definition of “good” wasn’t clear enough. Without firm agreements on which forests could be logged and which couldn’t, the ecologists would face the impossible task of blockading everything, the forest companies would never feel secure and the certification would be meaningless.

A moment of truth arrived when Berman appeared one day on the Bill Good show on Vancouver’s CKNW radio, where she was debating Avrim Lazar, the chief lobbyist for the forest industry. She found him delivering a line that sounded exactly like hers: “We need more conservation, we need to protect endangered species, we need to identify those areas where logging can and can’t happen so we can practise sustainable development.” The host noted that the guests seemed to be making the same argument. Yes, Berman told Lazar, that’s all good, but then why are you still clear-cutting and logging in the habitats of endangered species? Nevertheless, she and Lazar hit it off. She was surprised to meet an ecologically fluent vegetarian and former environmental bureaucrat representing the loggers. He was surprised to find an economically literate woman in a business suit without a scent of patchouli. They began to meet and make larger plans.

“Our relationship started out quite adversarial,” says Lazar, who is still the head of the Forest Products Association of Canada. “Eventually, we began to have real conversations: What does change take, what would it require for something to change? With her acknowledging that the industry’s change has to be in the context of our economic realities, and the industry acknowledging that our future requires that we acknowledge environmental realities. And then it became a policy riddle as opposed to a fight, a problem to be solved rather than a tug-of-war to be won.”

Such informal openings led to large-scale, behind-closed-doors negotiations between the major forest companies and several environmental groups, including ForestEthics. The first result, after years of talks, was the Great Bear Rainforest agreements, which oversee the swath of old-growth cedar stretching down the Pacific coast. It leaves a large amount of this forest—as much as a third, by some estimates—untouched and untouchable, and the rest subject only to “sustainable” forestry practices. Clear-cut logging can still be conducted in some areas, including parts of Clayoquot Sound. It’s a classic Canadian compromise: In exchange for leaving a huge area of primal forest untouched, the deal also keeps thousands of jobs intact and provides enough loggable forest to provide “yes” answers to the urgent queries of protest-hit printers. A number of environmental groups criticized it. The larger groups, including Greenpeace, hailed it. It was a moment for the realos.

Berman also played a leading role in the years of talks that led to last year’s even larger Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement, which covers roughly 100 million hectares of northern forest stretching from B.C. to New Brunswick. It protects almost 30 million hectares from any logging or road-building until April, 2012, and places 72 million hectares under the tenure of Lazar’s timber and paper companies, under sustainable-forestry conditions. It, too, has divided eco-activists.

But before that hard-fought compromise was reached, Berman had changed the focus of her activism. The moment, another one of her epiphanies, came when she flew to Bali in December, 2007, to take part in talks—largely unsuccessful—to replace the Kyoto treaty on climate change. She gave a speech, and then listened to the new United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon give an address, describing climate as “the moral challenge of our generation.”

“The situation is so desperately serious that any delay could push us past the tipping point, beyond which the ecological, financial and human costs increase dramatically,” Ban told the gathering, and the world. “We are at a crossroads—one path leading to a comprehensive new climate agreement, the other towards oblivion.”

Berman remembers sitting there, in the South Pacific heat, and marvelling: “Did he just say ‘oblivion?’ I’ve said some far less radical things, and have been called an enemy of the state. That was my climate reckoning point, and I came home from Bali and honestly couldn’t work for a couple of months—and then decided that I needed to change entirely what I do. I started working on renewable energy.”

And so it was. Berman decided, after hearing global-warming experts in Bali project that there were perhaps 3,000 days left to settle the Earth’s fate, that climate takes precedence over everything. It meant, with her typically manic energy, she would quit the forest campaign in the midst of the Boreal negotiations and start a new group, PowerUp Canada, devoted to alternative energy and reducing carbon emissions, built on making the sorts of deals that won her victories in the forest campaigns.

This would run Berman into more controversy. She concluded, along with many environmental groups, that Canada needed to make a major investment in non-polluting electricity generation. Key to this, in B.C., would be “run-of-river” hydroelectric generation, in which the natural flow of mountain rivers is diverted through pipes and into turbines. Some of these projects would pass through forest areas, and involve disrupting them. This was worth the damage, Berman felt, if it took coal generators offline. And, furthermore, she agreed with B.C.’s Liberal government that these projects should also be developed by private energy contractors: The public utility, BC Hydro, did not have the wherewithal or the budget to do the job itself in a reasonable time frame. This put her at odds with many eco-groups, for whom the pristine ecosystem and the public sector were sacrosanct.

“Their argument was that we should not expand any development, and certainly no corporations should be allowed to produce renewable energy, it should all be run by BC Hydro. That’s not an environmental issue, whether it’s public or private, and I have yet to find a single jurisdiction in the world that is rapidly expanding renewable energy without it being primarily through private investment,” Berman says. “It’s diversified technology, it’s diversified places, and public utilities are not set up for that kind of expansion.”

The final straw, for some, came during the 2009 B.C. election campaign, when Berman denounced the provincial NDP for having abandoned the idea of a carbon tax—a Liberal policy, and one that groups like Greenpeace considered vital to climate change. “I feel deeply betrayed,” Berman wrote to NDP leader Carole James in a letter that made the front page of The Vancouver Sun. “You are playing partisan politics with our children’s future.” The New Democrats, Berman says, were simply “fear-mongering on price increases in order to get the labour-union vote…it was reprehensible.”

She later gave Liberal premier Gordon Campbell her praise, and presented him with an award on stage during the Copenhagen conference, for “acts of climate leadership.” The award was supported by the left-leaning Pembina Institute, the David Suzuki Foundation and others, but some groups, including the Sierra Club, stayed away. Berman considered it an important severing of the ancient, and sometimes limiting, links between ecologists and the partisan left.

“There are certain factions in the environmental movement that believe that to be an environmentalist you need to be left, and I firmly believe that these are not right or left issues,” she says. “We should be giving every politician the opportunity to do the right thing. I mean, who would have thought that Arnold Schwarzenegger would be our climate hero? Or Angela Merkel?”

It has the feel of a calculated ideological shift, a broadening of the ecological tent (a great number of conservatives have strong environmental sentiments, polls show)—as does the denunciation from the movement’s fundamentalists, which, however painful it seems to be for Berman, has the salutary effect of purging such puritans from the activist circle and making it more welcoming to ordinary consumers.

That, after all, has been the signature Tzeporah Berman tactic, in both her political actions and in her personal comportment: to make serious environmentalism into something that can appeal to ordinary middle-class people with jobs and lives.

“I was an academic and now I’m a soccer mom. You know how it is—you don’t get born into wearing a Tyvek suit and chaining yourself to an oil rig,” she says. “There is a certain conception around it—that you have to have a certain identity in order to engage, and my point is that we all need to and we all can. We’re all voters. We all have the capacity to engage.”

A large part of this mission involves changing not just the image but the language and rhetoric of environmentalists—a big reason why Copenhagen failed, she feels, is that the climate-change push was largely expressed in the inside language of the environmental bureaucracy, with little effort to reach non-specialists.

“When I was running the Great Bear campaign and I had a microphone shoved under me, I wasn’t saying, ‘We’re calling for conservation financing and ecosystem-based management.’ That’s what we were doing. What I said was, ‘We need to save the Great Bear rainforest from clear-cutting!’ Our mistake is to talk about policy details to the public in a way that alienates them. You know, if I’m concerned about climate change and I’ve got a half an hour before I get the kids to bed before I pack lunches, I don’t want to figure out if what Harper’s saying is in reference to 1990 benchmarks versus 2006 benchmarks, right?”

And shifting the language toward consumers and markets also means steering away from the gloomy scenarios of global-warming catastrophe and instead looking at the benefits and opportunities of moving investments into clean energy, as well as the inherent investment risks. This sometimes involves making the alternatives more expensive: In India, Berman is running a campaign—successfully, so far—to keep most of the country’s coal fields closed in order to send signals to energy markets that non-fossil-fuel sources are more reliable and less risky in the medium run.


But changing the carbon-emission patterns that warm the atmosphere and melt ice caps will not be as simple as humiliating a brassiere manufacturer. Southeast Asia’s coal industry, or, for that matter, Canada’s oil-sands industry, are not as easy targets for consumer pressure; nor are they as likely to reach self-restricting agreements with environmentalists—at first, anyway. Though as Berman notes, the forestry industry seemed similarly immovable and opaque back in 1992.

“So,” she says, “we’re talking to their investors, we’re talking to people who influence the investment community; we’re doing work that illustrates the uncertainty involved in further development of oil, coal and nuclear. We’re doing work that will highlight the opportunity in expanding clean energy, both the health and the economic opportunity, and that’s very different from saying ‘We need to go to the oil and coal companies and convince them to transform themselves into angels.’”

It has taken a significant cultural change within Greenpeace, one pushed hard by Berman, to get climate crusaders comfortable with the idea of sitting down and having serious, goal-oriented talks with the corporations whose smokestacks they have been scaling (and which, she is quick to add, they will continue scaling, and hanging banners from, when the need suits). She believes that many of these companies and governments will be willing to play ball. She knows this, because she has become comfortable with the world of CEOs and cabinet ministers, and knows that they, too, are seeking a more sustainable set of rules. In this, she says, she has changed profoundly over the last 18 years.

“I’m way less dogmatic, less ideological,” she says. “I came into this work in my 20s, horrified by the extent and rate of clear-cut logging in Canada’s rainforest, and determined that not one tree should fall. I was sure the issue was pretty black and white: I was on the side of the angels, and they were bad people.”

She has gone far the other way: To the fundi accusation that she is in bed with the capitalists, Berman says yes, sure: What better place to entice them to sign up for fewer emissions, less logging, more hydro power? “I still see it in some of our younger activists; there’s a tendency to have an us-versus-them mentality, to see positions and not people, to be very black-and-white: Corporations are bad, development is bad, protection is good,” Berman says, almost delighting in the controversy of her words. “And some of the smartest people and the strongest allies I’ve met in crafting solutions over the past 10 years have been in government and industry. I am continually knocked out of my preconceptions by people.”

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