The Pointy End

Tzeporah Berman speaks at protest of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline proposal in Alberta and British Columbia. Photo Deborah Jones © 2013

The effects of human-caused climate change are already evident on all continents and waters, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said in its latest report, released March 31. The report is, undeniably, grim: agriculture, human health, water and land-based ecosystems, water supplies, and some livelihoods are already affected. There is much we don’t know, it said. Surprises are in store, it warned. Some analysts forecast wars, famine and massive destruction.

But the report also held out hope: there are opportunities, it said, to take action — albeit challenging ones. The following essay is by Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman, an expert on finding hope after years on the front lines as co-director of Greenpeace International’s Global Climate and Energy Program, Executive Director and Co-founder of PowerUp Canada and Co-founder and Campaign Director of ForestEthics.

Excerpt from This Crazy Time
Published on F&O April 8, 2014

“To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing” — Raymond Williams

The most heartbreaking question I get, and I get it all the time––at the end of my speeches, or from people calling in when I’m being interviewed on the radio––is “Do we have a chance?”

Sometimes people ask in other ways.

“Can we really do something about global warming?”

“Do you really think it’s possible to move away from fossil fuels?”

And, “Is it too late?”

I always give the answer many people don’t believe, but I still do. Yes, I think we do have a chance. We can win this fight. But there’s a catch: only if we live every moment intentionally. Only if we organize.

We have to engage our friends and family, our synagogues, churches and schools. We have to acknowledge that we have the capacity and the right to demand that our politicians act, and we have to find a way to get to work. That’s going to require widespread action and citizens’ engagement. Together we can have a bigger impact than apart. But together for what? What are we actually doing? What are we calling for at any particular moment?

Years ago in a strategy meeting, Chris (Chris Hatch, my husband and fellow campaigner) referred to our campaign’s end goal and the need to focus and direct our efforts as “the pointy end.” The term has always resonated with me because social organizing and campaigns should act like a funnel, and they need to funnel into something at every particular moment; if they don’t, you’ve got a whole lot of good intentions and not much of anything else. Finding a clear focus for your work, a clear goal to set your sights on, that’s “the pointy end” of the work. Without it we are all bark and no bite. I expect I may be jumping into hot water again, but I would offer that the incredible organizing and protests around the World Trade Organization in 1999 (the infamous Battle in Seattle) or the G20 protests in 2010 in Toronto are a good example of initiatives with no pointy end. Thousands of concerned people were in the streets, but I have heard from more than one confused politician and political pundit trying to understand what the protesters wanted.


Often when we talk about global warming and climate change, people’s default reaction is guilt. And that makes sense because ultimately it is our lifestyle and our dependence on fossil fuels that has created the problem. So people automatically think, Oh my God, I’ve got to change my light bulbs, I’ve got to walk to work, I’ve got to save for a hybrid. It’s my fault, it’s all my fault.

What we see in social movement theory and psychological studies is that if a problem is so big that it cannot be easily understood, or the risks are overwhelming, people will make some changes to their lifestyle but try to forget about the actual problem. You’re walking to work once a week, you’re using your canvas bags for groceries, but the problem is getting worse. So eventually you get off your soapbox and go back to a “normal” life.

There are a million things you can do and, yes, you should do all you can to change your lifestyle. Yes, if you can afford it, you should drive a Prius––though it would be a lot better if you could cycle, take public transit or at least drive the car you already have until it’s no longer fuel-efficient because building that shiny new Prius produces a whole lot of carbon. Yes, we should change our light bulbs. Yes, we should walk to work. All those energy-saving lifestyle tips are true.

But here’s the thing: the majority of North America’s as well as the globe’s emissions come from heavy industry. So while we can and should change a lot of key aspects of our lifestyles, changing our individual actions alone is not enough to correct the course we’re on.

“I have come to realize that we do not have environmental problems, we have human problems. Human problems that create environmental disasters.”

One of the major fallacies of our age is that we are besieged with “environmental problems” that are overwhelming and unstoppable. The nature of the term denies human agency and distances us from individual and collective responsibility. It separates environmental issues from social issues in our minds, language and policy formation. I have come to realize that we do not have environmental problems, we have human problems. Human problems that create environmental disasters.

I have listened to foresters and corporate officials refer to “slope failures” and discuss technologies and restoration to overcome massive soil erosion. I have heard various Canadian environment ministers refer to “grave environmental problems” as if the environment itself were to blame. But the soil is not eroding on its own; it is washing down the slopes and into the salmon streams because humans have removed the trees and vegetation on the mountainsides. That is not a slope failure, it is a human failure. Yes, solving global warming is going to require some changes, but those changes are possible. If the problem resulted from some bad human decisions, it stands to reason that some good ones can solve it. We need to remember that a problem without a solution is a tragedy. A problem with a solution that is not being implemented is not a tragedy, it’s a scandal.

Once we realize the magnitude of the problems, we must cope with the stages of despair and denial––an emotional and intellectual trajectory. Stage one after my climate reckoning was that if it’s one or the other, I’m going to choose a normal life because it’s too soul wrecking to worry about what I’m doing or should be doing all the time. Then I went through my potato chips and Battlestar Galactica phase, when I tuned out the world, popped in DVDs and played Lego with my kids.

After that I tried to figure out my place in the problem, what I could do, how I could reach people, how I could find a community to have these discussions with. I found friends who were going through the same thing I was––and they were all relieved that they weren’t crazy either, but freaked out that they weren’t doing enough. Together we found some things to do that felt meaningful and, even better, we were all regularly inspired by stories of other organizations and groups around the world who were moving the dial too. Change is happening. In our homes, our schools, our workplaces and our legislatures.

In writing about this journey, I find myself flashing back to a speech I gave at a rally on the steps of the provincial British Columbia Legislature. I was asked to “inspire the crowd,” and right before I spoke I realized I had nothing left to say. I had spent the summer being horrified and depressed by the extent of clear-cutting logging I had witnessed and our seeming inability to even slow it down.

Closing my eyes to over a thousand people on the legislature lawn, I grabbed the microphone and gave it everything I had––lamenting the loss of these majestic thousand-year-old trees and decrying the tragedy of our ancient forests being destroyed to make phone books and toilet paper. I spoke from the heart and talked about how, at twenty-five years old, I was afraid to have children because I didn’t want to bring them into a world where this kind of devastation was not only possible but predictable and acceptable. I talked about all the amazing people I had met that summer and how together I hoped we could make a difference. I opened my eyes and looked out at a sea of people whose fear, anger and caring were palpable. I ended my speech by saying, “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds it.”

The roar of the crowd was deafening, and when I stepped off the stage I was shaking. Standing by the steps was an elderly couple, clearly moved. They stepped forward and told me they had known my mom and dad well and that my parents would have been very proud. That day I realized that beyond the pain, fear and anger was a place that sparkled with purpose, pride and honour. 

Over the next decade I would remember that moment over and over again. I would remember how I could channel despair and anger into action and how good it feels to know you’re part of a powerful community and contributing to something that will have an impact beyond your own lifetime.

In Bali and Copenhagen, Canada, the United States and Amsterdam, I have been reminded that despair is a powerful place from which to step forward. There are times when it feels too big, too overwhelming, and I feel too small and insignificant. But every day I look at my children and know that I need to find ways to contribute to raising awareness and finding solutions. I need to continue to find my voice and allow myself to feel the pain of despair to motivate a new strong commitment and voices for change.

Choosing to combat climate change is like deciding to exercise––we need to figure out how it becomes part of our daily practice. If I commit to exercise every day, whether practicing yoga or taking a walk, it becomes part of my life; if I don’t, finding the time for it becomes impossible. If we are serious about making real change in the world, we have to treat our time like that; we have to be intentional about how we intervene. For a while I was telling myself I just had to write one letter a day––and on the days I didn’t have time I would go to an environmental group’s website and click where they wanted me to click. It was an incredibly satisfying feeling, and it was important to contribute. If we all started to make that commitment, to carve out a couple of hours a week to meet with a group of concerned people or an organization, or, better yet, created a daily habit of volunteering or engaging in the issues that became second nature like checking our Facebook page or a necessity like packing our kids’ lunchboxes, imagine what a different world we’d have.

More important, you need to join an environmental group––especially a local one where you can take part in actions meaningful to your community––and engage with your elected decision makers. Send your support cheque to that group. Write those letters, make those phone calls. It takes only thirty seconds to click “send” every time one of the environmental groups working on vital issues initiates an e-campaign.

There’s always a decision to be made about your own activities, about what you buy or don’t buy, about whether you fly for pleasure or for work or stop flying altogether. Ultimately environmentalism is about trying to figure out how we can each have the least possible impact. It’s critical that we all do everything we can to eat locally and organically, to consume less, to use less energy.

I know we can’t all work on these issues all day, every day. We have busy lives, bills to pay and our own individual fires to put out. But each of us can dedicate some of our ingenuity, some of our resources, some of our time. And we have to. Because today we’re all responsible not only for what we do but for what we don’t do.

“I feel like I’m going crazy. I had to stop reading about it.”

Half the people I talk to after my climate speeches say, “I feel like I’m going crazy. I had to stop reading about it.”

I’ve met people who’ve stopped working on environmental issues because of climate change. I asked one friend why he’d walked away from a local climate campaign he had been working on and he said, “Because my soul hurts too much.” There are going to be climate-reckoning self-help groups in a couple of years. I’ve already heard of a counsellor in Canada who works with couples in crisis because one of them is more worried about the climate than the other.

When I had my climate reckoning, I delved into the writings of experts like Monbiot, and I was the friend you didn’t want at your dinner party. I remember New Year’s Eve 2008 when someone asked me about the work I was doing. I started discussing the dramatic impacts of climate change that we are already seeing in vulnerable countries, my fear about the unsustainable path we’re on. Before I knew it, the party had gone silent, and the two people beside me had tears running down their faces and I thought, Oh crap, I’m the bummer girl. I’m the channel you change because you’re too tired, so you flip to a rerun of Friends.

It’s true: you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Our world has changed permanently, and for many of us the way that we look at the world has changed forever. However, when I think of giving up, I remind myself that we have done this before. The Montreal Protocol worked. Today the holes in the ozone layer are smaller, and in some places they’ve even healed. I remind myself how much has changed for the positive in just the past couple of years and that we have the technology for economically viable solutions at hand.

“The global project to fight climate change is doable … It’s not such a big ask as people are making out.”

New Scientist ran the numbers on what it’s going to cost consumers to have a clean energy transition and projected that radical cuts to the UK’s emissions would cause barely noticeable increases in the price of food, drink and most other goods by 2050. Electricity and gasoline costs would rise significantly, but with the right policies in place, the modellers believe this increase need not lead to big changes in lifestyle. “These results show that the global project to fight climate change is doable,” said Alex Bowen, a climate policy expert at the London School of Economics. “It’s not such a big ask as people are making out.”

Though the results spoke directly to UK consumers, previous research came to similar conclusions for Americans. One study found that if Americans were to cut their emissions by 50 percent by 2050, prices of most consumer goods would increase by less than 5 percent as a result. These findings were consistent with analyses by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change in Washington, DC. “Even cutting emissions by eighty percent over four decades has a very small effect on consumers in most areas,” says Manik Roy of the Pew Center.

How do we convince our governments that they have the social licence––that we will support them if they make these changes? We need to start with a vision.

A well-known pollster told me that travel agents don’t talk about the cost or the flight to Hawaii; they talk about the beach. And one of the most inspiring speakers I know, Van Jones, is fond of saying, “There is a reason Martin Luther King never said, ‘I have a kvetch, or I have a problem.’ Because the problem rarely inspires action and commitment––it’s the dream.”

And that’s why we need to talk about the dream.

Shock and horror rarely seed engagement. They seed helplessness in our souls. We need to stop talking about global warming and deforestation without talking about responsibility, engagement and identifying what we can do to create the world we want.

One of the most important pieces of theory behind my work has been Bill Moyer’s “Movement Map,” in which he outlines the stages of social movements. Moyer says that in order to move issues, goals need to be framed in terms of widely held values. When you speak to values, you go from having an issue that someone cares about to having a movement that a lot of people care about. It struck me when I started working on climate issues that the climate movement has been exclusive, complex and based on science and policy that speaks to policy wonks, not civilians. I’ve spent my adult life working on environmental issues, and it took me six months of intensive research to even begin to figure out what I was for. That’s why I made it my goal to talk about these issues in a way that everybody can understand, and from that understanding, act.

Regardless of where you live, your government’s inaction in the face of workable alternatives is a scandal, and we have to show that most governments are out of touch with widely held values of clean air, clean water and livable cities––that they are out of touch with our values.

We have solutions at hand. In 2009, for the first time in human history, the combined new investment in renewables, wind, solar and water power was greater than the combined investment in dirty fuels––oil and gas and nuclear combined.

I dream of a world where we all have access to clean water, clean air and healthy food

I dream of a world where we all have access to clean water, clean air and healthy food––a world where the rich countries that have been spewing pollution into the atmosphere for decades take responsibility and help the emerging economies leapfrog over the dirty-fossil-fuel era and develop renewable energy systems. I don’t dream of us all going “back to the land” and living in cabins without running water and electricity. And I know we can’t all live in places like Cortes Island. I dream of a high-tech world with sleek urban design, smart electricity grids, rooftop and community gardens, bike lanes and high-speed trains. I dream of a world where governments regulate and control pollution, never use taxpayers’ money to subsidize dirty fossil fuels, and come together internationally to sign an emergency agreement for a fair, ambitious and binding treaty to protect what’s left of our intact forests and stop climate change.

We need to create a collective vision that gives us all hope and inspires us to action. We need a process that creates a conversation. These are issues that need to be brought out of the domain of the experts, that cannot be addressed behind closed doors by stakeholder representatives. These are issues that will not be dealt with by one party, one government, one environmental group or any one person. We can no longer afford partisan squabbles that result in no climate legislation being passed. We cannot afford to wait and hope that any one government will do the right thing, because no one will have the courage to make the changes necessary without knowing we are all on the same page.

The changes required will not always be easy, or necessarily popular at the polls. People do not appreciate paying more for energy, do not like having their views altered or challenged, or seeing natural areas opened to clean energy production. It is our job to communicate the imperative. That’s why we need far-reaching goals that everyone can understand and embrace. We need to stimulate tax breaks for renewables, we need access to low-cost capital renewables and low-carbon industry, and we need hard limits on pollution––and that means putting a price on carbon that polluters will actually notice. We need stronger regulations on buildings and vehicles. We have the technology to produce cars that don’t pollute, so why aren’t we producing them? Why don’t we just outlaw the cars that do pollute?

Japan has an inspiring law that I think all countries should look at adopting, which translates as “the top runner law.” The Japanese government looks at everything from dishwashers to ovens to tractors, and every three years it outlaws the bottom energy performers in each area. The result is truly dynamic competition and an industry and marketplace racing to be more efficient. That’s why some of the most efficient appliances are from Japan.

Yes, we need entrepreneurship. Yes, we need financing. Yes, we need individual actions. But it’s that law that’s changing appliances around the world. Laws make a difference. We all need to become politically active and show our governments that the future of the planet means enough to us that it’s the issue that must matter at the polls. I met with a Canadian government official recently who told me that while it’s true Canadians care, they don’t care enough for climate policies to matter as an election issue. So the Harper government figures they are doing enough. That has to change, and not just in Canada.

American voters are frequently moved to the polls en masse by a single “wedge” issue, an issue some voters feel strongly enough about not only to get them to vote but to determine their vote. Once the environment becomes that crucial an issue, we’ll see politicians of all stripes racing to turn green.

Vote for climate leadership. We’re not going to see change until politicians believe they have the money and votes to make changes

If there really is only one thing that you’re going to do after reading this, vote for climate leadership. Because ultimately we’re not going to see change until politicians believe they have the money and votes to make the difficult changes that need to be made. It just makes sense to vote for the person who’s going to save your ass.

And it’s all within our grasp.

The United Kingdom has committed to ensuring that all new homes must produce zero carbon by 2016. China has stronger vehicle-efficiency regulations than Canada. The United States is putting one million plug-in hybrids on the road by 2015. The Pew Center on Global Climate Change has laid out three scenarios for the United States to achieve up to a 65 percent reduction in transportation-related GHG emissions by 2050; however, the US government would have to stand up to the automobile lobby on fuel standards––another reason laws and lawmakers matter. Israel (population 7 million) has committed to an all-electric-car infrastructure. By the end of 2011 they plan to have electric cars in mass production and half a million charging stations.

Over one hundred countries, cities and other jurisdictions have joined the United Nations Climate Neutral Network and are implementing zero-carbon plans. Countries as varied as Norway, New Zealand and Costa Rica have committed to becoming carbon neutral. Sweden has promised to build an “oil-free society” and has already reduced oil for residential and commercial heating by 70 percent over the past thirty years.

It’s clear that those of us who want to move away from a petrol state will have to prove to decision makers that we can create an economy that can and will fuel our needs with low-carbon energy, using sources that create jobs. We have to prove to our governments that this objective represents more than a niche market, and if we’re going to do that, we have to figure out how to do it right, and stand up quickly.

Some of the people with whom I work most closely, with whom I’ve had the biggest breakthroughs, have been people who work with logging companies, who want to do the right thing. Right now, some of the people whom I think are most concerned about global warming in Canada work with energy companies. So yes, we need to call out bad decisions and name names in order to draw attention to a particular problem or intransigent decision maker, but through it all leave room for industry leaders to get creative and give bureaucrats the benefit of the doubt. We can’t be so quick to stick a label on someone and limit his actions and our relationships.

That said, collaboration and relationship building work once everyone agrees there is a problem to solve. They work once it is clear that business as usual is not an option. Great shifts in history have always required citizen engagement and mobilization. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to get out in the streets with a placard––though I hope some of you will––but it does mean you need to find a place that feels right for you and engage. It means there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy or tactic, and in most cases the strongest campaigns are, like nature, diverse. It takes a lot of strands to make a strong web.

A few years ago I was at Bioneers and met Diane Wilson, the woman who scaled the Dow Chemical building with a banner in her backpack and used a Kryptonite bicycle lock to chain her throat around poles so she couldn’t be dragged off by security guards or police. On a whim she changed the face of negotiations with a behemoth chemical company. Diane reminded me of two things: how important it is to be bold, and how important civil disobedience and protest have been to every successful campaign I know of. She reminded me how easily we can become lost in engagement and negotiations and how the controversy, the willingness to put our freedom, and in some cases our lives, on the line can move the debate forward and increase our power by leaps and bounds.

Yes, we have to negotiate in the boardrooms and be prepared to use our power as consumers through boycotts, but we still need people who are willing to risk their freedom and their lives on the blockades. I know if we look back in ten years and admit that we didn’t have the courage to stand with a placard in front of city hall, Parliament or the White House at a time when so many people and in fact our planet was threatened, we’ll regret it.

It’s not enough to sit back and let someone else decide the fate of our children’s future.

It’s not enough to sit back and let someone else decide the fate of our children’s future. You wouldn’t let someone else decide where your kids go to school, and you shouldn’t let someone else decide what kind of air they’re going to breathe. The world is changing. And it will change by default or design to a post-carbon economy. If we allow it to change by default, there will be far more casualties.

When I started this work, I thought I had all the answers. Now I know that no one does. The best we can do is really listen––to others and to ourselves. Then we need to make choices and act, guided by what we have learned, our capacity and resources, and our principles. There is no road map for social change and no single way to engage in these issues. In the end it is about creativity, commitment, courage and a little bit of luck or magic.

Global warming is real, its agents invisible, its schedule unaligned with daily human time frames. In a sense, we are all still sleepwalking through denial, unable to grapple with the enormity of the problem and the scale of changes needed. I am sympathetic to the difficulties of building a new generation of environmentalism, of coming to terms with the compromises we need to make and the speed that it needs to happen. But the laws of physics have no such sympathy. Either we make the change or we are on the sidelines while half the world’s species and far too many of our fellow humans are sentenced to oblivion.

After attending the UN negotiations in Bali, I spent a week with my ninety-two-year-old grandmother, not long before she died. One day we were sitting in the hospital and I told her about my despair. She said, “I don’t want to hear any more about how hard it is, how big it is, and that you don’t know if it can work. When your mother was growing up, when I was having my seven children, we didn’t have a phone, we had a party line. We didn’t have a car. No one had their own car. We had just gotten electricity. We didn’t have computers. We didn’t have cellphones. No one had even thought of them yet––let alone this raspberry you’re always holding,” she said, looking at my ever-present BlackBerry.

“I never would have thought that in my lifetime I would be sitting here talking to my granddaughter about what the world was like, and it would be an entirely different world. The way we communicate is different. The way we move about the world is different. By the time I was an adult and having children, I had never met anyone who had been on a plane. You need to hold on to the fact that the world can entirely change in your lifetime.”

So when I do this work every day, I’m holding on to the notion that one day I’m going to be sitting with my grandchildren telling them about this crazy time not too long ago when we were destroying some of the last of the world’s old-growth forests to make catalogues and toilet paper, this crazy time in our history when we clawed at the earth to get at the last of the oil, a simply crazy time in our history when we used to fill our cars with gas. And they will barely believe me, because the world will be such a different place.

Copyright Tzeporah Berman 2013

Republished on F&O with permission from This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge, by Tzeporah Berman, published by Knopf Canada.

Tzeporah Berman
Tzeporah Berman

Tzeporah Berman has been designing and winning environmental campaigns in Canada and internationally for 20 years.  She currently works as a strategic advisor for dozens of environmental organizations, First Nations and philanthropic advisors on clean energy, oilsands and pipelines.  She is the former co-director of Greenpeace International’s Global Climate and Energy Program,  Executive Director and Co-founder of PowerUp Canada and Co-founder and Campaign Director of ForestEthics. 

Tzeporah was appointed by the Premier of British Columbia to the Green Energy Task Force in 2009 to design recommendations for the development of renewable energy in the region. Tzeporah was one of the experts in Leonardo Di Caprio’s environmental documentary 11th Hour, was one of six Canadian nominees for the Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, has been profiled as one of 50 Visionaries Changing the World in Utne Reader and as “Canada’s Queen of Green” in the cover story for Readers Digest.  She was honored by inclusion into the British Columbia Royal Museum permanent exhibit of one of 150 people who have changed the face of British Columbia.  Corporate Knights named Tzeporah one of the Top Women in Sustainability (Canada) in 2013. Also in 2013 she was nominated for Climate Woman of the Year by Responding to Climate Change.

Tzeporah is known for her work as the coordinator of one of the largest civil disobedience in Canada’s history, the logging blockades in Clayoquot Sound during which she was arrested and charged with 857 counts of criminal aiding and abetting.  Tzeporah was one of the creators and lead negotiators of the Great Bear Rainforest campaign as well as the Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement. Her work has contributed to the protection of over 40 million hectares of old growth forests.  More recently Tzeporah helped to design Greenpeace International’s Arctic campaign, the Volkswagen campaign in Europe and the Clean Our Cloud campaign that led to Apple and Facebook becoming international leaders in using renewable energy for their data centers. Tzeporah was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of British Columbia and has been named a fellow of the Broadbent Institute. Her first book, This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge was published by Knopf Canada.

Further reading and viewing:
Tzeporah Berman’s web site:
FactsandOpinions brief on the latest IPCC report.
The March 31, 2014 IPCC press release is here:
A draft copy of the report summary is here:
Tzeporah Berman page on Wikipedia:



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