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.Report Typo/Error
Follow us on Twitter: