Tzeporah Berman’s Green Idea

November 1, 2009

At 650 feet Above the waters of Georgia Strait, Easter Bluff is not exactly a lofty peak. It’s basically a rocky bump dotted with moss, lichen, fir, spruce, arbutus—all the usual coastal temperate rainforest accoutrements. Still, from here, the highest point on Cortes Island, you can see for miles in all directions. Lie flat on your back and an eagle might swoop over you, so close that you can count its wing feathers.

Tzeporah Berman hasn’t taken me up on this cold, clear March afternoon to point out the sights. She wants to show me what isn’t in this picture. “As a result of community opposition, we don’t have a wind farm right off that point of Quadra Island,” she says, pointing. Then Berman—one of Canada’s most successful, and controversial, environmental campaigners—tracks her index finger across a sweep of ocean teeming with salmon, orcas, otters, and sea lions. “And we don’t have a tidal-power operation right there, in the Georgia Strait off Campbell River. Both were proposed in the early 2000s and late ’90s.”

You may remember Berman. Back in 1993, at the tender age of 24, she inspired some 10,000 people to travel to the west coast of Vancouver Island to protest logging practices in Clayoquot Sound, the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Leonardo DiCaprio later invited her to appear in his 2007 documentary The 11th Hour. But here’s the thing. As she stands on Easter Bluff, tracing the imaginary outlines of industrial projects that might have placed spinning turbines in the waters surrounding her island home, she doesn’t see victory. She sees a tremendous loss.

“Globally, we need every country in the world to harness the ecological capacity they have to be creating green energy,” she says. “That means Denmark doing offshore wind, it means California scaling up solar as quickly as possible, and it means B.C. investing in energy from falling water, wind, and tidal.”

Fair enough, a casual observer might say. But to many of Berman’s one-time allies and supporters, her words smack of treason. For while she says there is “no question” that we should be ramping up renewable-energy production, quite a number of people do, in fact, have questions. And for the better part of a year they have been asking them, loudly, at public meetings from Pitt Meadows to Powell River and all points in between.

THE CONCERN CENTRES around the current push to build “run-of-river” power projects, which temporarily divert river water through large pipes to spin turbines and generate electricity. Some of these projects are under construction in high-alpine valleys, at the foot of glaciers well above the reach of fish; others are sited farther downstream. Opponents question the very need for these installations, which they insist will end up running air conditioners in California. Others cut YouTube videos deriding the deregulation that gave rise to them in the first place. But the loudest outrage may be coming from environmentalists. Like Berman, these greens have spent decades fighting to protect watersheds such as those in Bute Inlet north of Powell River—site of a proposed 1,027-megawatt run-of-river power project that would divert 17 rivers into 85 kilometres of pipe, string kilometres more of new transmission lines, and allegedly fragment habitat for grizzlies and marbled murrelet seabirds.

But that’s where the common ground ends. Because while Berman longs to hear the hum of spinning turbines drifting across these alpine valleys—the sound of near-zero-carbon energy feeding into the grid—many of her peers do not. “I am disgusted by her stand on run-of-river,” says Donna Passmore, a campaigner with the Fraser Valley Conservation Coalition, a grassroots group fighting the proposed Gateway project. “I have been a huge admirer of Tzeporah for 20 years, and I am devastated.”

The history of B.C.’s environmental movement is a Norse saga riddled with emotional splits and bitter feuds. But this dust-up is different. For one thing, it’s getting vitriolic. “The run-of-river debate has become extremely unpleasant, slanderous, and full of false truths,” says a member of the environmental nonprofit community, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Then there are the stakes, which grow higher with every gram of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that we send into the atmosphere. “The last thing I want to do is get upset at the environmentalists,” says Andrew Weaver, a professor at the University of Victoria’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, and co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “The climate-denial industry loves this divide-and-conquer stuff. But the environmentalists have to realize that we’re talking about the survival of human civilization here.”

Berman’s opponents—groups like the Friends of Bute Inlet and the Wilderness Committee—insist they know this. But they have a different strategy for getting us out of this mess, one that might be called the “power down” approach. They tend to embrace a kind of voluntary simplicity, the belief that “less” is good and “more” is bad, be it energy or anything else. They argue that only a mainstream culture of conservation—a sharp realignment of societal values—will turn back global warming, and that run-of-river projects will only feed our ever-growing consumer lifestyles.

BERMAN AGREES THAT we need a massive ramp-up of conservation programs, but she also wants to purge all the fossil fuels in the regional grid and replace them with clean renewable juice. She won’t rest until we completely decarbonize the energy system—a goal that her critics might call pie-in-the-sky. But if we don’t, she says, we can say goodbye to all the fish, bears, trees, and everything else we’ve spent the past 30 years plastering on T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Berman represents the rapid evolution—and increasing split—under way in the environmental movement both here and abroad. She’s gone from blockading logging roads to blockading coal plants. She’s less concerned with saving this furry mammal or that one, and more concerned with pricing carbon, expanding transit, and tightening up building codes. To her, the ideologically driven fight over “wild” rivers is a costly diversion we simply don’t have time for, especially given that many of the proposed projects in question, like Bute Inlet, will be built in previously logged and industrialized valleys. “Wars have been lost,” she says, “because the generals were still fighting the last war.”

Tzeporah Berman didn’t always want to save the world. At first, she wanted to be a fashion designer. Born Susanne Faye Tzeporah Berman, in February 1969, she and her siblings—sisters Corinne and Wendy, and younger brother Steven—grew up in suburban London, Ontario. Dad owned an advertising business; mum ran a small enterprise that manufactured promotional flags and pennants. The family would help out at synagogue, participate in bake sales, visit the cottage, sign up for school plays—the usual faded-Polaroid trappings of a Canadian Gen X childhood.

Then Berman’s story took a tragic turn. When she was 14, her parents died within a year of each other. Her dad passed away during a heart-bypass operation, and her mother succumbed to cancer nine months later. With Wendy just old enough to assume guardianship over her younger siblings, the family stuck it out. The kids survived on their mom and dad’s modest life insurance policies, by working part-time, and by selling off just about every asset their parents owned. “I think that’s where the part of my talent as an organizer came from,” recalls Berman. “We used to have family meetings every Friday night. We’d decide what to spend money on, and who’d do what. We ran our household as a council.”

Following high school, Berman moved to Toronto and enrolled in Ryerson University’s fashion arts design program under her Hebrew name, Tzeporah, which means “bird.” She had an eye for drape and cut, and a way with scissors and thread, and she thrived. “I was getting honours,” she recalls. “Harry Rosen judged our final show.” He called her a “bright light on Canada’s fashion scene.”

But a different kind of light went on inside her head that year, and it was flashing red. She dropped out of Ryerson and enrolled in environmental studies at the University of Toronto. Her research eventually took her to Vancouver Island’s Carmanah Valley, where she spent the summer of 1992 conducting fieldwork on threatened seabirds. A year later, she returned to continue her survey, only to find that a logging crew had clear-cut the hillside. It was devastated. So was she.

MEANWHILE, not far away, a small group called the Friends of Clayoquot Sound was engaged in a long—and largely fruitless—effort to bring change to the forestry sector. “We wanted to run a campaign that raised a profile beyond Vancouver Island,” recalls Valerie Langer, one of the organizers. “We wanted to run it in a media-savvy style, one that your grandma would feel comfortable joining.” Langer had met Berman and been struck by her potential. “She was very articulate, politically astute, and strategic, and was committed to this idea of movement-building, of bringing people together from all walks of life.”

Within days Berman was working a new blockade at Clayoquot Sound, and taking its profile to a level Langer couldn’t have dreamed. Media flew in from all over the world; at one point, Australian rockers Midnight Oil held a concert there. And when the Globe and Mail ran a front-page story about the protests, it was Berman holding her fist high in the air in the photograph above the fold. She’d discovered what she’d been born to do.

 “Tzeporah really speaks to people,” says her sister, Corinne Berman, an executive with a Toronto consultancy that works with nonprofits. “There is a difference between those who have a cause and talk about it, and those who make others see it through their eyes. She has a way of commanding and enthralling an audience, and really engaging them. And then they make their own decision.”

That summer of 1993, some 10,000 people travelled to Clayoquot Sound. Mounties began arresting them, hundreds every week, for sitting down in a road and preventing logging crews from doing their work. Berman was charged with 850 counts of aiding and abetting.

The charges were eventually thrown out, but not before Berman became something of a local celebrity. “I would go out to a restaurant, and people would either spit on me or hug me,” she recalls. “It was exhausting. My nerves were shot. I was flying by the seat of my pants.”

When Greenpeace offered her a gig in Europe, she jumped. Years later, in 1999—after pitching in behind-the-scenes on campaigns from New Orleans to Japan to the Bering Sea—she landed in San Francisco, as cofounder of a new organization called ForestEthics. The group worked conservation from a different angle. Rather than lie down in front of bulldozers, it went after the demand side, pressuring the biggest pulp consumers—phone-book publishers, catalogue companies, and so on—to stop buying paper pulp from old-growth forests. Again she thrived, hammering out the key Victoria’s Secret win after hundreds of hours of negotiations with the company.

SHE'D ALSO JUST had her first child, Forrest, with her husband, Chris Hatch—whom she’d met years earlier at the Clayoquot Sound camps. The young family moved to Cortes Island, a remote under-the-radar jewel of a community two ferry rides from Campbell River. She was still working with ForestEthics, but she also knew that for practical reasons, she needed to dial back on all the air miles.

It took a few more boarding passes before Berman hit upon her transformation moment, which she can trace to a date—December 3, 2007. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, she’d been invited to speak, as a representative of ForestEthics, about the logging industry’s contribution to global warming. Sitting in the audience, she listened to the opening remarks from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. He described the climate crisis as “desperately serious,” and stated bluntly that civilization had reached a crossroads. One path leads to a comprehensive international agreement to reduce carbon emissions, he told the delegates; “the other one, to oblivion.”

The word struck Berman like a speeding coal train. Oblivion? Compounding matters, John Baird—then the federal environment minister and head of the Canadian delegation—spent the remaining days of the conference trying to do everything he could to stave off any agreement that involved hard commitments. “I came home embarrassed, and outraged, and scared,” Berman recalls. “I decided to change my entire work and everything I do.”

She made climate her new crusade, and created PowerUp Canada to deliver it. Though fundraising is proving a challenge—“launching a national initiative two weeks before the bottom fell out of the market was not the smartest thing I have done,” she says—she has big plans. She hopes the group will serve as a lobbying organization, but also a decentralized network that will allow Canadians to connect with their leaders and one another on the most important challenge of our age. “We need to change the public dialogue,” she says, “so that it is accessible and not focused on guilt and lifestyle decisions.”

And while she is clearly a dynamic leader, this time out she doesn’t plan to be the only one holding her fist overhead. “My hope is that eventually there will be people across the country who are doing this work. Having one figurehead travel to each town is not what needs to happen. We need to provide resources and tools to people all over the place. I want to see PowerUp Guelph, Power­Up Burnaby. The idea is we can create chapters where people can help each other.”

The response from her peers has been positive. Mostly. In January, broadcaster Bill Good invited Berman to speak on his popular CKNW call-in show. After first explaining that we should reduce enormously the amount of energy that we’re consuming and focus on efficiency, she said that the science of global warming compels us to also ramp up low-carbon electricity generation—including small hydro. “The whole kind of ‘save our rivers’ piece needs to be rethought,” she told Good. “And this is from someone… I suddenly…” She hesitated. “The majority of my adult life I’ve been working to protect those valleys and those rivers.”TO BERMAN, it was a candid admission of readjusted priorities. To many greens, who have spent thousands of hours campaigning against projects that they call “ruin-of-river,” it was a nuclear first strike. One outspoken activist emailed Berman a few weeks later and threatened to pull the rug out from under her if she didn’t take back her words.

“I am giving you until 5 p.m. Monday, March 2nd, to publicly recant your position on run-of-the-river power projects and privatization of B.C. energy,” the campaigner wrote. “If you do not, I will be…urging people to write to your influential supporters urging them to withdraw their support for PowerUp.” The source then rattled off a few names of people who have allegedly backed eco-campaigns in the past, including a successful Canadian novelist and two former prime ministers. “I’m sure you get the gist,” the individual noted.

Needless to say, Berman recanted nothing. So far, at least, she says she hasn’t seen any of her funding evaporate. In fact, she says she’s received donations from people who specifically said they want to support her for endorsing the judicious expansion of renewable power.

In Berman’s realm, it’s all par for the course. “If you want to be a force for change in the environmental movement, you have to give up the idea of being liked,” explains Valerie Langer, now a Vancouver-based campaign director for ForestEthics. “You want to be respected. The likelihood is that you’ll piss a lot of people off. There is a lot at stake, and a lot of vested interest in play.”

Berman puts it another way. “I didn’t get into this work for a popularity contest. I got into it to save my kids.”

Those boys—Forrest is 10 and Quinn is five—live in an unremarkable house on a beautiful Cortes Island property where deer dance on their hind legs to grab the apples and pears that grow in the front yard. The boys attend Linnaea, a nearby progressive school that the family learned about from an old friend and former Cortes resident named Gregor Robertson, who at one point sent his own children there.

Like many families, Berman and her partner—Hatch works part-time from home as a strategist for PowerUp—try to do the right things in their own lives. “I really struggle with travel,” Berman says. “Our family has made a commitment to dramatically reduce ‘pleasure miles’ and that has been really hard, especially in winter.”

THOUGH THE COUPLE  installed a salvaged-wood floor when they bought the place five years back, and heat their place with a wood stove, they haven’t yet done many energy-efficiency upgrades. “We are two adults on one-and-a-half nonprofit salaries,” she explains. They make up for it by eating as locally as possible. “Most of our protein comes from neighbours,” she says. A friend bakes and sells bread out of her home, and the couple sometimes gather oysters on a nearby beach. They grow many of their vegetables in summer, while occasionally indulging in tropical fruit.

Berman watches television for the same reason most of us do; it helps her forget. “I didn’t watch TV before I started working on climate,” she confesses. “Climate is so big that you can never quite do enough. So I would be going to bed every night with these lists in my head, and wake up feeling like I’d worked, if I’d slept at all. So I reintroduced television into my life, in order to have sanity.” On the watch list: The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica, House, and many others.

She keeps an office on Cortes and gets to it on her mountain bike, a half-hour in each direction. The walls are packed with books and files, and a silk blouse hangs on a coat rack next to the door; she conducts most of her meetings and negotiations via videoconference, and strives to look professional while the little green light is on.

Cortes is a beautiful place to raise a family, but Berman knows her days there are numbered. For one thing, there’s no high school on the island. For another, her job increasingly calls for the kind of networking that Skype can only support so much. To fight this kind of a battle, you need to be on its frontlines—in the thick of the fray, in the heart of the city. That’s why they’re now building a passive-solar EcoDensity-compliant triplex home in Kitsilano, which they plan to share with members of her husband’s extended family. The home should be ready in late 2010. It will, of course, be fossil-fuel-free.

On a warm day in April, Berman is again speaking live with Bill Good on CKNW. But this time the setting is different. Good has set up his broadcast in the middle of Yaletown’s Roundhouse Community Centre—in the hallway outside Berman’s inaugural PowerUp Canada green-energy conference.

The exhibition hall is packed with hundreds of academics, politicians, civil servants, green-energy entrepreneurs, First Nations leaders, and policy wonks. Invited, but absent, are the various politicians and organizations—including Save Our Rivers and the Watershed Watch Salmon Society—that oppose private green-power development in the province. Deals are discussed in the halls, strategies debated from the stage. Over in a corner, provincial environment minister Barry Penner confers with an aide, while moms wander through the throng on their way to a hatha class in the building’s dance studio.

DRESSED IN a black business suit, Berman sits across a table from Good and dons headphones. The talk-show guru starts lobbing questions—about her group’s funding sources (private donors and foundations such as Tides Canada), and about why her most vocal critics aren’t in the audience (Save Our Rivers executive director Tom Rankin declined an invitation, and ducked several interview requests for this story). This time, Berman doesn’t hesitate at the mic. She delivers polished sound bites and rehearsed responses in a rat-a-tat-tat style, weaving in talking points, URLs, and key messages along the way.

“I want to save B.C.’s rivers,” she tells the station’s 70,000-odd listeners. “I have spent the past 15 years fighting for them, and I think the best way to do that now is to support the expansion of renewable power so we can look our kids in the face and tell them we did everything we could to fight global warming.”

Since these two last sat down, her confidence has soared. She’s a bit like the mythological Hydra—a creature that, when attacked, only grows stronger. She is extraordinarily driven, highly intelligent, and as strategic as Patton. She can speak in bloggy blurbs when needed—at one point, when I asked her to address concerns about non-unionized workers building renewable energy plants, she didn’t miss a beat: “I don’t care if it’s built by Martians.” A minute later she’s referencing complex scientific data on polar methane reservoirs.

“I spend a lot of time with people who are really well-informed about the fact that every energy option has an impact,” says Simon Fraser University professor Marc Jaccard, another Nobel laureate and a global authority on carbon economics. “I’m amazed at how [Berman] can climb the learning curve and get to such a sophisticated level of understanding of those tradeoffs. She is a really rare resource.”

Coupled to that sophistication is a take-no-prisoners tenacity. “With big-ticket environmental issues, there are usually some major corporate forces involved, and they are formidable,” says ForestEthics’ Langer. “The people who can survive that kind of bashing-your-head-against-the-wall-for-a-long-time thing and who figure out how to work their way to meaningful change, well, they tend to be formidable, too.”

FORMIDABLE. It’s a fair description, and it makes me wonder whether Berman might one day grab the baton from David Suzuki and become the nation’s next climate champion. She may not have a national TV show or a doctorate, but she does have the credibility, influence, and charisma to transform PowerUp from a scrappy startup into a major force. She certainly has the toolbox—media smarts, upbeat persona, camera-ready good looks, and broad accessible pop-culture appeal—to pull it off. She has a big-time literary agent in Toronto and a book deal in the works. Could she become the eco version of Naomi Klein?

One thing is sure. Berman has her work cut out for her. With provincial coffers empty for at least the next year, Victoria has pushed climate programs—like its LiveSmart home-retrofit scheme—to the back burner. Meanwhile, though the province officially remains committed to green energy, the Save Our Rivers crowd appear to have the upper hand in the battle for the hearts and minds of nature-loving British Columbians. And at the federal level, Canadians keep insisting they are committed to the environment but consistently fail to carry that allegiance to the ballot box. It’s a discouraging time to be a climate warrior.

Back on Easter Bluff, Berman leads me down the knoll and around its eastern flank, to another viewpoint among the scrawny pine trees. From here, we can see across the Georgia Strait to the rugged central coast—and the hazy entrances to distant inlets that lie at the heart of her work.

“I think that one is Toba Inlet,” she says, gesturing to a gap in the mountains where, deep inland, four turbines will soon be generating about 123 megawatts of electricity. At peak flow, the two sites will spin out enough energy to power something like 75,000 homes.

Her pointing finger shifts a few degrees further north, to where rivers drain into a still-bigger fjord that could one day generate eight times as much low-carbon power as Toba. “Those heavy peaks right there are at the entrance to Bute Inlet,” she says, “just behind that island.”

I shade my eyes and squint. The hills are a long way off, but on this day they seem almost close enough to touch.

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