Big trees and grizzly bears drew Tzeporah Berman to environmental advocacy. Twenty years later, a conversation with a Liberian man is uprooting those assumptions, and providing new juice to her work.
The co-founder of ForestEthics and a campaigner against Canada’s Northern Gateway pipeline presented her journey to author a new book This Crazy Time at Social Change Institute June 9.
The book is the culmination of Berman’s inquiries and reflections after taking part in the Copenhagen climate change debates, where she met Liberia’s chief negotiator. The two were on the same plane to Copenhagen, and he asked her what Canada was doing in regards to climate change.
Berman launched into the public debates taking place across the country — in Ontario over wind farms, renewable power in British Columbia, and of course, Alberta’s tar sands.
Berman recalls his response as imbued with mourning.
“He looked at me with the strangest smile on his face and he said ‘That’s so nice that you still have time for those debates. In my country, people are dying every day as a result of climate change, we don’t have time for those discussions anymore.’”
During the Copenhagen summit, Berman did her best to discard her Canadian perspective, engrossing herself deeply in what was happening with emerging economies. It was that year, 2009, that one million people had been displaced in Sudan as result of flooding, the United Nations released a report stating Africa would produce 50 per cent less food by 2020, and already more people were losing their homes globally as a result of climate change than war.
“I came to this work because of a love of nature, and wanting to conserve forests. I started to realize these are in fact the moral challenges of our age. That I am not an environmentalist anymore, that this was, in fact, about social justice, it was an economic issue, it was much bigger,” she says.
Berman wanted to figure out what the solutions were, and was shocked to learn we have the technology today to address our needs. She adds that renewable energy, which is decentralized, is not only sustainable but a more equitable solution.
Despite this, the fossil fuel industry is winning the debate by controlling the conversation, she says.
“I started realizing that they are framing the conversation around the world on values, and we’re debating issues in our silos,” says Berman.
Drawing on her more than 20 years of successful environmental advocacy, a career that led to major victories such as Victoria Secret stopping the production of more than one million catalogs a day from old-growth forests, to the creation of the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement , Berman offers lessons for the current climate movement.
She says there is a need to be bold and take risks, to capture an audience and hold its attention, and to frame sustainability in economic terms. When she’s had success in the past it’s been when she’s looked beyond people’s positions to see the good in people, and partnered with them to craft solutions.
While Berman says it’s going to get “a whole lot worse before it gets better,” she does believe change is afoot. She’s walked through a concentrated solar plant in Spain that provides the power for 250,000 homes. In the Sahara desert, a solar plant is being built that will feed one sixth of the Earth’s electricity.
Across Europe, more coal, fuel oil and nuclear has been decommissioned since 2009 than built.
“There is no doubt that we face challenges right now. But this is our moment. The moment where we are re-envisioning the world, where we are re-making industrial society,” says Berman.
While debates over pipelines and oil spills makes this new reality seem far off, Berman shares wisdom her 92-year-old grandmother gave her a week before she died. She told Tzeporah to hold onto the fact that the world can and will entirely change in her lifetime, just as hers did growing up without a phone, car or computer, let alone the Internet.
It’s the dream of telling her grandkids about “this crazy time,” an era where we destroyed some of the world’s last old-growth forests for catalog paper and clawed at the Earth to find new oil, that’s keeping Berman pushing forward.
“And they will barely believe me because the world will be such a different place,” she says.