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From the archives

The (Other) October Crisis

A new book revisits one of Canada’s most traumatic and telling moments

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Joy in Battle

An activist’s voice soars, from the blockade to the boardroom

Alanna Mitchell

This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge

Tzeporah Berman with Mark Leiren-Young


348 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780307399786

When I joined a choir recently, I was such a musical idiot that I had to ask which of the four notes at the beginning of a bar the alto is supposed to sing. Ah, said the music director, widening and then swiftly narrowing her eyes, that would be the bottom note in the treble clef.

Later, when she started tossing around the word “descant,” I was baffled again until a fellow alto revealed that it is when, during the song’s final verse, a few of the sopranos lift their voices away from the rest of the others, up high, in counterpoint to the melody. I was still trying to imagine what that would sound like when the descant started and my own throat closed in awe. Those soaring, searing voices gave new meaning to the notes the rest of us had been singing. They took the song to a new plane, a place of far greater beauty. A place past hope and into the powerful arena of certainty.

In our paralytic international discourse over the high-carbon world we have made, a few descant voices have emerged that are beginning to take that discourse to a surprising new place. Instead of the dominant melody saying we ought to do something about carbon—or the few, mainly American, ill-advised voices saying all the science is faulty and we do not have to worry at all—these new notes are telling us that we can fix the problem, and we will. They kick up against the denial and the anger, the guilt and the blame, the fear and the sense of personal futility that characterize the rest of the song right now. They tell us that we are rising to the challenge to cut carbon, that we are succeeding and that if enough of us start singing these notes we can come back from the brink of mass extinction.

With her book This Crazy Time: Living our Environmental Challenge, Tzeporah Berman joins her powerful voice to the descant. This is a book filled not so much with hope as with the joy of battle and the promise of winning it. It is one of the few books I have read that maps out a plan for how to make the obligatory changes happen. It takes hope as a given and then leaps past it.

It is really the story of Berman’s life so far, literally beginning in the first line of Chapter 1 with her own birth in 1969 on the same day that an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara gave birth, she says, quoting the Los Angeles Times, to the environmental movement. And that tells you all you need to know about the book’s tone of breezy confidence.

The tale of how Berman became the international face of British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound civil disobedience movement a quarter century later follows a movie script arc. Coddled, good-looking, middle class kid from southern Ontario who tragically loses both parents in her teens but has strong, loving siblings to help her through. Dalliance with academia—shall it be scientist? lawyer? university prof?—that ends when she sets foot in British Columbia’s old-growth forests and falls in love with large, charismatic trees. Stumbles into organizing protests against clear-cutting in the sound and meets, instantly falls in love with and eventually marries the very first—very first!—hunky guy to show up. Finds her voice with a megaphone at logging blockades. Becomes photogenic sound-bite–whiz media darling. Is threatened by every bad guy imaginable, including the nasty B.C. government that tries to throw her in jail for years, callers who promise death, loggers who try to run her off the road, arsonists who burn down her apartment. Prevails. Saves Clayoquot Sound. Moves on to bigger and better battles.

The descant always happens in the last verse. It is a sign that the old song is ending and a new song must begin.

If it is sounding as though Berman’s song is set relentlessly in the key of D major—the one reserved for tunes expressing warlike joy and triumph—that is pretty much the case. There are a few tiny, perhaps unconvincing key changes that descend into notes of fear, despair and a mere dash of self-analysis. For instance, in 1994, a year after the blockades and arrests and after a high-profile trip through Europe dogging Premier Mike Harcourt, who was trying to prop up B.C.’s battered international image, Berman writes that she could not walk into a restaurant in Victoria without being recognized. Heady stuff. Her colleagues intervene. “You’re turning into an asshole,” they tell her. She listens, changes, produces an obligatory lesson for the readers on the great leader’s need for humility.

This is not to be critical. Even Achilles had that heel. And Berman is unquestionably a hero at a time when heroes are in short supply and absolutely necessary. First it was stopping logging in Clayoquot Sound. Then it was saving the old-growth forest on B.C.’s mainland that was once known, boringly, as the “mid-coast timber supply area.” Berman writes about sitting at dinner in a cheap Italian restaurant in San Francisco with colleagues and a great bottle of wine and trying to figure out a better name. They came up with “Great Bear Rainforest,” by which it is still known today. And, of course, they went on to save all its 69 watersheds, limit logging in other parts of the area and eventually persuade some logging companies to stop clear-cutting, once an unthinkable proposition in Canada.

But this is more than the story of Berman’s life. It is also the story of how environmental battles went from, as she says, the blockades to the boardrooms. Berman explains how she and others figured out how to identify and put pressure on the people who buy the things that get produced in an unsustainable way. The textbook case is the saucy targeting of Victoria’s Secret, the lingerie firm, that was using logs cut from the pristine boreal forest to make a million glossy catalogues a day. They called it Victoria’s Dirty Secret, made a full-page ad of a scantily clad model holding a chainsaw for The New York Times and that, as they say, was pretty much that. Then came certifying lumber as sustainably logged and promoting the use of recycled fibre. Each of these was unthinkable just a few years ago. The breakthrough, she writes repeatedly, was realizing that the people on the other side of the table were real human beings.

Today, Berman is turning her considerable energies and talents to the issue of carbon. She writes of her epiphany in 2007 at the international climate conference in Bali, when she realized that all those trees she had been saving could die off in the carbon-altered climate. (Okay, she came late to that party.) She sank into despair and then swiftly pulled out of it, finally moving her young family (and the hunky husband) to Amsterdam to be Greenpeace International’s big cheese on the climate file. A huge job. And she does not know exactly how she is going to do it, or exactly what she is going to do, but somehow, after you read about all those inventive romps saving trees, you know she is going to manage what so many others fear can never be done. She has started singing the descant.

And that is the great gift of this book and its appearance just now. Its significance is larger than the stories and lessons and even the how-tos in the book itself. The thing is, the descant always happens in the last verse. It is a sign that the old song is ending and a new song must begin. Think of the riotous power of a gospel number and how it feels when the energy of those notes builds and lets loose wildly above the tune.

It is not despair that fuels the descant. It is not tentativeness or guilt or blame. It is joy. It is promise.

Alanna Mitchell is a journalist, author, and playwright who specializes in science.