Farewell, Tooker

Master stuntman, writer and policy wonk was greenspiration to us all


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Tooker Gomberg, (1955-2004) who is presumed to have died last week in Halifax from depression-induced suicide, was one of the most optimistic and zestful social change activists I ever met. Tooker coined the term “greenspiration” to define his approach to public education, because he believed that environmentally friendly changes were also people- and economy-friendly, so change just required a liberating rethink, not suffering. He believed people would alter their mindset and their habits if eco communications were shocking but well crafted.

That’s why he became a multimedia artist of public theatre, using his craft to inscribe new possibilities and policy ideas on the canvas of the public mind.

The fruits of Tooker’s guerrilla-art approach to political art are legendary. My personal favourite was his pretend bank heist in Montreal. While running as a federal candidate in the mid-90s, he and a merry band of rascals in Robin Hood green led the media in a fake bank holdup that held up government fiscal policy as a force that steals from the poor to give to the rich. His actions were carried out with such good humour and positive energy – never with any trace of meanness, violence or destruction – precisely because he believed that people in large numbers could be won over. All he was doing with his policy art was tickling the public funny bone to loosen up people’s greenspiration.

I first got to know Tooker about a decade ago around more hardcore policy initiatives. He was a city councillor in Edmonton at the time, one of the first municipal politicians in Canada to champion the idea that cities could create jobs and save money by conserving energy.

He convinced Edmonton engineers to adopt a scheme whereby a small city investment was used to pay for energy efficiency retrofits to an energy hog of a hockey arena. In this brilliant plan, the arena’s yearly savings in operating costs were then applied to the city’s second-worst energy hog, and so on. The entire program, save for the modest initial investment, was to be financed exclusively through savings.

This program became one of the prototypes that now inspires the multi-million-dollar green municipal fund operated by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, a major vehicle delivering energy savings to meet Canada’s Kyoto commitments.

Bad-boy Mel Lastman, no slouch when it came to stunts, met his match in Tooker. As Toronto’s mayor, Lastman turned moose statues into icons. Tooker, who never met an icon he couldn’t spoof, filled a hollow moose with garbage to show what he thought about the impact of the Adams Mine proposal to haul Toronto’s garbage to real moose habitat in Northern Ontario.

It was the Coalition for a Green Economy, which I chaired, that hired Tooker to use his art to break open the public debate on the mine. He succeeded, and the deal was eventually undone after a shrewd legal exposé by then-councillor David Miller.

Less remembered is the fact that Tooker also took the lead in the quiet, reflective work of creating policy alternatives to hauling garbage hundreds of miles away to a Northern Ontario pit. He, Cameron Smith, Jack Layton and others in the Green Coalition did the development work on the idea that organic scraps – about a third of what goes into the typical garbage pail – could be converted to methane and used as the base for a relatively low-cost, renewable, low-pollution fuel source.

By making the public case for this option, which is what saved the day in terms of showing there was a positive option to replace the Adams Mine scheme, Tooker was the greenspiration behind Toronto’s new green boxes, which are now poised to transport our organic scraps to a useful afterlife. And a beautiful deep lake can now grow in the pit of the Adams Mine. I’d like to see it called Tooker Lake.

I loved talking with Tooker, but to be honest, I never felt comfortable walking with him. He deemed the car a public enemy, an enemy of public space. A person who lived his beliefs, he was not a safe person to stroll with.

I remember navigating the streets around Ryerson University with him, listening to him talk about one of his heroes, Abbie Hoffman, the original Yippie, master stuntman, comic and author of Steal This Book. Tooker wanted to write a book like that one, something that would inspire people to take control of their lives. I can’t recall too much of that conversation. My mind was fixated on dodging the cars that kept screeching on their brakes as Tooker walked in front of them, daring them to challenge his right to public space.

Tooker was a lucky man in many ways. He had a keen mind, an adventuring spirit and a wonderfully joyous and loyal life partner in Angela Bischoff.

But I talked with him a few times when he was really down during the months before he left Toronto. It was then that I understood what a black hole with no bottom really meant. It shook me to my core.

Thinking about the fate of such greats as Phil Ochs, Abbie Hoffman and Tooker, I often wonder if brilliant social change artists suffer severe depression because their gifts of acute mind-bending sensitivity come with a price – they lack the membranes to filter out the pain of the world. The incurable invasion of that pain leaves them without hope, which Tooker could not live without, for hope was at the centre of his all-too-short life.

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