"Instead of becoming a lawyer, I went to jail"
Tzeporah Berman secured her status as one of Canada's most important environmental activists nearly two decades ago. Her role organizing the famed Clayoqout blockades—which kept loggers out of a threatened swath of British Columbia forest on Vancouver Island—helped orchestrate one of the biggest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history. It also got her slapped with over 800 criminal charges. She's remained active ever since, spearheading anti-logging and climate campaigns throughout the 90s and 00s.
She recently released her memoir, This Crazy Time, which details her life of activism. It offers a firsthand account of some of her most trying moments and sweeping victories—like waging an unorthodox campaign with Forest Ethics to get Victoria's Secret to stop cutting down old growth forest for its catalogs. And Berman's story is especially relevant now, as the looming specter of climate change is summoning a new era of activism.
I caught up with Berman, who had just delivered a keynote talk at the Social Change Institute. The conference took place at Hollyhock, an "internationally renowned centre for learning and well-being" that has a long legacy of incubating environmentalist thought in Canada.
Treehugger: How did you get into environmental activism?
Tzeporah Berman: My focus, actually, when I was coming out of high school, was art history and fashion design. And I decided to go to Europe, the summer I was 19. And I'll never forget it because that was the summer in Greece where air pollution was at a record high. People were dropping in the streets. And I went to Athens to see the Acropolis. The air was just thick and yellow. And I remember climbing up to the Acropolis, and this is before it was restored, it was literally devolving. It was just crumbling. From air pollution. And I remember getting back to my hostel and coughing up black goo. And I thought, this is insane—I've got to get out of here.
So I randomly picked a place on a map and got on a train, and ended up going to the Hearts Mountains in Germany. I was like, you know, I'm just going to go hiking for a couple days, and just get back on my Let's Go Eurorail pass and see what happens. So I end up at this place and I go hiking and I'm walking for an entire day through this dead forest, this standing dead forest. I kid you not. And I get to the end of this trail and there's this German couple there reading this huge plaque, so I ask them, what is going on? It was the creepiest, most horrible, no sounds, no birds, dead forest, dead trees. And there was this plaque saying this forest is dead due to acid rain, and has been left standing as a reminder of the impact an industrial society can have on nature.
And I came back to Canada just thankful, I think for the first time in my life, just thankful of what we have here, and with a whole new awareness of the issues we're facing. And I think that once you have that moment, once you see the world in a different way, I think it's a lens that you always see the world in that way. You can't take it away. In my book I talk about it's like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube—as much as you'd like to get it back in, you can't get it back in. Sometimes I wish I could open up a paper and not be immediately drawn to the story about mercury in fish or the dramatic increase in flooding in Sudan. But I can't now.
Has that sense ever waned over your nearly twenty-year career?
No. For me, that's entirely the lens I see the world through. So over 20 years, there are times when other issues rise to the surface, and I think are critical, and they always, for me, connect back into the way we treat the air we breath and the water we drink as an eternality. And the damage that we're doing. And it doesn't matter whether it's a social justice issue or an economic issue; that is the lens I see the world through. And increasingly, in the climate era, it's the systemic problem that relates to all the other problems.
So what led you to participate in the logging blockades at Clayoquot?
Before I ended up involved in the Clayoquot blockades, I was really debating: do I go into science or law? That's what I thought, you know, one or the other. I enrolled in a double major program, a legal degree and a master's in environmental studies, and ended up not coming back to school. Instead of becoming a lawyer, I went to jail.
That was a defining moment, clearly. You couldn't have been prepared for that—almost 1,000 charges? What was that like, staring down the barrel of the law, and yet having all these people come out and support you?
Totally overwhelming, and completely surreal. It often felt like an out of body experience that you just didn't know who—I was lost for a while in my own identity, and trying to find it again. My friends used to joke about the 'Tzeporah phenomena.' You know, it's an interesting thing. Our society is hardwired for celebrity, and that was my 15 seconds. But of course, I caught a moment, a tipping point in Canadian history. Clayoquot was a flashpoint for years and years of battles and outrage over logging and industrial development in the country. And also years of work with all these local groups, and I just happened to catch that wave.
And I was 23. It was scary and exciting. So at the point anywhere I went—I remember being on the ferry one day, and this woman came running up to me and said 'Oh my God, you're Tzeporah Berman, thank you so much,' and so on. And I said, 'Ok' and kind of untangled myself. I remember I was so exhausted; I was on my way to a press conference, and I had to find somewhere to get this speech prepared. So I go into a coffee lineup and the guy in front of me turns around to look at me, he does a double take, and he spits right in my face, this huge gob of spit. And he just starts screaming at me: 'who the fuck do you think you are?' and blah, blah, blah.
And it was like that for a good year. You just never knew who was going to hug you or spit on you.
We're kind of in the beginning of a new era of environmental activism right now; do you have any advice for those coming up now? Regrets?
No, no regrets. People often say to me, so you stood on the blockades, you did boycotts. But then you achieved so much in the boardrooms, working with the corporations to reach agreements. And what we like to conveniently forget is that we would never get to those boardrooms or make those agreements unless you had the blockades and the boycotts. The protest and the public engagement and sometimes, the very hard-hitting campaigns are necessary to create the power so that the industry and government will take the issue seriously enough to make changes that are commensurate with the problems that we face. And so I think that we need all of the tools in our toolbox.
So does that mean more civil disobedience?
There's no question. You know [with the tar sands pipeline], they may actually distort these energy board hearings in Canada, and shrink them enough that they have muted the voice of civil society and they'll push forward with approval. The fossil fuel industry may have enough of an influence over the Obama administration that they'll push through the approval of Keystone. I think both will end up in the courts, whether first nation sovereignty issues or land use issues. But the judicial system may fail us. And then, I will be there. And I think thousands of other people will as well.