Tooker Gomberg R.I.P. 1956-2004
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
I really don’t mean to keep running tributes and obituaries in Fish Piss, honest. It’s just that between every issue, either an old contributor, local luminary or legend seems to pass on.
This time, we’re sadly compelled to remember activist Tooker Gomberg, a native (but well-travelled) Montrealer who started his activism here by beginning Canada’s first curbside recycling program.
After parking his bike on a Halifax bridge last winter, he took his own life by jumping into the river. Tooker had been depressed for some time, and some friends believe he had an adverse reaction to anti-depressants he was taking. He always maintained that garbage was just a misplaced resource, once writing that “In nature, garbage doesn’t exist.” We can only assume that the stretch of river which became his final resting place agreed.
He had a simple sense that modern life just didn’t have to be wasteful or damaging or bad at all. The fact that most people didn’t notice it was that simple was the spark that burned activism in him from childhood onwards.
I interviewed Tooker for Fish Piss during the summer of 1997 at the Open da Night café. I’d met him during an action in the Milton-Park neighbourhood that resulted in an alley’s asphalt being dug up and replaced with grass (see FP #4 for that story.) A short time later, he ran for the NDP in a federal election. Not long after that, he went on his “Greenspiration Odyssey” bike tour of Asia. Sometime later still, he moved to Toronto, ran for mayor in the 2000 Megacity election and came in second. I never did catch up with him to continue our interview, and what I’d transcribed from the first session just sat there.
Reading over it after he died brought back the energy and determination he had brought to the environmental movement throughout his life. It also seemed somewhat dated: this was awhile before anything like a recognized “anti-globalization movement” existed, before the APEC summit and way before Seattle. I was in my mid-20s, going through my post-University realization (or “un-learning” as it was called in the 90s) that the world did NOT work according to the logic we were taught in school. I was impatient with any incremental solutions to things, thinking the severity of how broken everything was demanded BIG changes NOW.
Tooker supported the then-topical Kyoto talks (which later led to the Kyoto Accord.) I was appalled at the notion that agreeing to slightly reduce the GROWTH of emissions within 10 years could be considered anything but a failure. But he astutely saw that it was an accomplishment to have world governments talk about these gases at all. His realism kept him focused on what was more achievable, more quickly, a characteristic that, along with his sheer enthusiasm, is evident in this fragment from our 1997 interview.
Tooker Gomberg: You were talking about the amount of garbage that a wealthy family puts out compared to a poor family? Consider this: a family moves from Mile End, you know, a central city triplex, living there, to a house in the suburbs. Their energy consumption goes up by how much? Give me a wild guess.
FP: Three times?
TG: Ten times. Ten times. Recycling just a bit of garbage, in the big scheme of things, it’s not that massive. But if we’re talking about moving to an ecological society, it’s all in the suburbs. It’s the fundamental ecological issue. First of all, we’ve got to stop building more of them, that’s the first step. The second step is figuring out how to replace them.
In the meantime, the fact is, a simple composting program in the neighbourhood would turn all that garbage into a resource. Not this disgusting stuff you want to get rid of, but something useful you want to collect. That’s hopefully where we’ll be in five years [by 2002– unfortunately we aren’t there yet.] That’s my wish, that we’d have composting in the city. You can employ a thousand people transforming easily a third of the garbage being thrown out right now in the neighbourhood. It’s so easy to do. I used to think it was technological reasons why these changes weren’t happening. No.
FP: It’s political changes at this stage. Any local initiatives like this, any efforts towards local self-sufficiency are exactly what they don’t want, in an age of globalization. They want some megacity with industrial and residential areas sprawling further still, more cars all over- they seriously want people to drive more cars. A little garden village in the middle of downtown would fuck up their plans.
TG: See, but I don’t think they’re really complicit in this scenario. When I was in city council, there was just ignorance, essentially. I’m prepared to cut them a bit of slack. I mean, maybe they’re bad people, maybe they’re bought off or whatever. But let’s go on the basis that it might be ignorance, and try to convince them.
And that was the amazing thing about being on city council in Edmonton. The opportunity to sit down with these people, in a room, talking in public, with the media there, and proposing things. And trying to do it in a way that didn’t get their backs up. That was the key to it for me. If I could just put an idea out there, and not have them freak out– then we could potentially push something through. It’s a trick, not alienating them too much. I used to be right in their face, making noise, getting them pissed off. “Well, fucking right, you should be pissed off, I’m pissed off!” And getting into that stance, really, there’s no room to move. You’re locked in.
FP: I guess it just reinforces any walls that might already be there.
TG: Yeah. But make the case. I’ll sit down with the city councillor and the mayor, and we’ll calculate it out. OK, what are we trying to accomplish? We’re trying to get rid of the sludge. We don’t want this stuff rotting and stinking up the neighbourhood. Your system is stinking up the neighbourhood– my system works. What are you paying for this system? Pay less. OK, that’ll cost some jobs –well, somewhere in the process we’ll create more jobs. “But the unions won’t like it.” That’s the big one. So you sit down with the unions and say “OK, look, we’re gonna have a transition here. Like it or not, things have to change, in ten years they’re going to be different. I’m letting you guys get ahead on it, we have to figure out a transition.” Now, are the unions going to be a part of the transition or are they going to be the ones blocking us?
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