Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Stretching the Art of the Possible



Tzeporah Berman is a fantastic story teller.  She is engaging, passionate, and direct.  She is able to translate ideas surrounding complicated ideas like climate politics into understandable and relatable narratives.  This Crazy Time is part autobiography, part manifesto, and part public relations campaign instructional for anyone interested in changing society.  Berman shares much of her personal story as to how she has ended up as the climate and energy co-director at Greenpeace International.  She begins at her personal awakening with the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, to her work with the protests to protect Clayquot Sound, to leading protests over the logging practices of the industry as a whole, through becoming an expert on how to run an effective environmental campaign, through depression and the joys and challenges of having a family along during this trip, and finally back to a place of hope for the future of the environment in spite of the challenge of climate change.  I once heard someone describe that the basic element of a story is “a character who wants something, and overcomes conflict to get it.”[i]  Throughout this book there’s no lack of conflict for Berman to overcome, and I found myself cheering along as she fought for important things and suffered with her through the struggles that were thrown her way. 


Berman shares many lessons she learned throughout the experiences she details in this book.  One of my personal favourite stories is about her colleague, Karen Mahon, running into her “arch-nemesis” Linda Coady of MacMillian Bloedel, a major forestry company that Greenpeace was campaigning against for their practice of clear-cutting old-growth rainforest in British Columbia.  What made this interaction so memorable was that they were both pushing the exact same stroller; it was from this place of equality that they were able to sit down for coffee together “mom-to-mom, person-to-person, [and] they saw each other as people for the first time.”  Most of what Berman used to bring solutions to the issues she was fighting for was the experience of dealing with real people, rather than treating the other side as the enemy. 

...through all the posturing in any contentious issue every day, I begin to see, connect with and eventually listen to real people in government and industry.  It may sound simplistic, but my experience is that we are way too quick to slap a label on someone (corporate flack, government stooge, hippie environmentalist).  We allow such labels to get in the way of real learning and sometimes even solutions.  If you are not ensconced in the environmental movement, that revelation may even seem crazy to you; but in my twenties, in the circles I was working in, it was crazy for a different reason.  It was heresy.


This lesson should seem so obvious, but this flaw clearly exists on all sides of every environmental debate.  Each side, be it politician, industry insiders, environmentalists, and even community leaders, often come in with the view that they are right, and everyone else is wrong.  Berman shares some great stories facing intractable positions.  Berman shares about her dealings with Bill Cafferata, the chief forester for MacMillian Bloedel, and large intimidating man, who in a sense was Berman’s arch-nemesis during the Clayquot Sound protests.  During a weekend retreat where several MacBlo employees as well as leaders involved in the protests of the logging, Berman and Cafferata were sent into a room with the instructions to “be the other person”, and beer was provided.  It took some time, but the opportunity to see their opponent as a real person, really changed the interaction between these two adversaries. 


Through negotiations, discussion and creative problem solving, Berman and her team worked with MacBlo to fundamentally change their business model in the most sustainable way – MacBlo would remain profitable, but would also greatly reduce the negative impacts of their logging on the rainforests.  These types of discussions are going to be critical as we move forward as a civilization, to determine how we can work within the existing framework of the economy, but can make positive long-term, positive change. 


Throughout the process I learned that there are good people everywhere who want to do the right thing.  The trick is capturing the attention of senior decision makers and convincing them to give their staff a mandate to think creatively.


Berman shares many challenges, but some of the most vicious she experienced were caused by other environmentalists.  Every time she held negotiations she was called a sell-out, and was even threatened by former colleagues.  What is most sad about this was that the good intentions of these other environmentalists became so twisted that they ended up fighting the very thing they were hoping to accomplish.  But, unlike her work with industry, there weren’t the happy resolutions. 


Sadly all too often environmental groups take positions that shut down debate or seem so far from today’s economic and social realities they don’t illuminate a solution; they simply create a fight no one can win... So how do we stretch the art of the possible as we did in the Great Bear Rainforest, while at the same time taking a position that’s politically viable and not completely out of whack?


We need healthy debate, from all stakeholders if we have any hope to stretch the art of the possible, to stop looking at the same answers that keep coming up drastically short.  Despite all the warnings that climate scientists continue to raise, despite the fact that we are seeing affects of climate change occurring faster than even the commonly accepted models are predicting, we continue to have intractable positions, be it governments refusing to put a price on carbon[ii], and continuing policies that have the opposite effect of encouraging further consumption of fossil fuels.  To make a meaningful change, environmentalists need to let go of the black-and-white view of the other people, to accept that politicians and business leaders actually have a legitimate perspective.  But politicians and business leaders need to realize that they have to change their business-as-usual.  This is the hard work--looking for creative solutions to very large and complicated problems, and this will only happen if we can honestly work together.  If Berman was able to fundamentally change the business model of a large company like MacMillian Bloedel, and as a consequence change the whole logging industry, surely society can find a way to fight climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions.  The problem with CO2, unlike logging, is that its cause is incredibly distributed.  The bulk of Canadian emissions result from heating; a change will require all future designs of buildings to incorporate passive-solar heating and drastically better insulation, and all existing building need to be retrofitted.  There isn’t one big company to protest, despite the focus on the oil industry; all Canadians are contributing, and the solutions need to be systemic.  But, if Governments, industry, and environmentalists can sit down and have an honest conversation about the issues, looking for real solutions, I have to believe an answer exists.  Berman is hopeful that this will happen.


Practically every Earth Day speech since the 1970’s has sold the dream of a future when our energy comes from wind farms, the sun and clean hydro that will power a new economy of Electric cars and zero-impact lifestyles.  Now that the future is on its way, the clean-tech sector is booming and environmentalists like me face a moment of truth.


This book is Berman facing that truth, and offering real and honest dialog as to what will be required to find real solutions, without pretending they are easy and that she has them all.


If we can raise the issues and have a positive conversation that invites people to join, if we can act from a place of openness and possibility instead of anger and fear, we’re going to create a greater dialogue and a larger movement.  If what we do and how we do it reaches only a small segment of the population, in the end we are simply having a conversation with ourselves. It’s a messier business than righteous opposition, but the alternative is to fail at history’s critical moment. 

[i] “A million Miles in a Thousand Years”, by Donald Miller

[ii] The only proven method of reducing CO2 emissions is to put a price on emissions, either though a cap-and-trade model, or through a carbon tax.  This has been extensively studied, but the most readable evidence of this is shared in Hot Air, by Jeffrey Simpson, Marc Jaccard and Nic Rivers.