Against the Oil Industry, 350.org Co-Founder Sides with the Commons
May Boeve calls herself a commoner because she wants "to be part of a movement that’s trying to create something different than what we stand to inherit right now."
With equal parts poise and resolution, May Boeve fights climate change. Alongside author Bill McKibben and a group of college friends, she spearheaded a campaign called Step It Up in 2007 that organized creative actions across the U.S. and urged political leaders to cut carbon 80% by 2050. The campaign then went international under the name 350.org.
350.org “works hard to organize in a new way—everywhere at once, using online tools to facilitate strategic offline action.” You may have seen aerial shots of the human-made 350’s (the number that stands for the safe level of carbon in the atmosphere), or the climate street art, just two of the many ways 350.org’s organizing efforts have united individuals from around the globe in common cause.
Boeve emphasizes that the climate crisis requires us all to step up as a global community, and, today, 350.org’s initiatives are led by thousands of volunteer organizers in over 188 countries.
I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Boeve about how the commons connects to the growing global movement against climate change, 350.org’s stance against the fossil fuel industry, and the importance of the commons in her own life.
How does the commons influence your work at 350.org?
The way we try to organize at 350.org has been a commons exercise, specifically through the distributed days of action we’ve held five different times. These days are all about bringing communities together on a particular day, with a particular theme, to deliver a message about preserving the climate, which is a global commons. People participate because they understand that their actions link them in a very direct way to thousands of individuals around the world. It’s an experiment in demonstrating how the sum is greater than its individual parts.
When I read Bill McKibben’s piece in Rolling Stone called Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, I was intrigued by his belief that moral outrage might be what sparks a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. How does 350.org help people see the immorality of the fossil-fuel industry’s actions?
That’s a good question, and we’re trying to do that in a more deeply meaningful way right now. We all know that burning fossil fuels drives the climate to change and warm. That’s not news. It’s not news that the public attitude toward oil industry executives is largely negative. And we all know that those execs are the characters behind the drilling—that’s not news either. But what is new is the link: we have to make it clear that these executives are knowingly taking actions that will make it impossible for the rest of us, including future generations, to live on a healthy planet.
How do we connect the moral aspect? Our particular style of work is to influence public perception through action and global organizing. We find stories and examples of people who are challenging the system, who are seeing things in a new way, and in doing so, are changing the way the public at large understands this problem. Not as a problem about your individual actions and the car you drive and where you buy your food—which all still matters—but that this problem involves a set of actors who are making bad choices and are not being held accountable by our political system.
We must fundamentally change the way the public views the oil industry. Take the apartheid struggle: at a certain point, you had to choose which side you were on, whether you agreed that racial segregation was immoral, or whether you did not. That’s where we are right now with the oil industry.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to fighting for, and protecting, the climate as a commons?
I think a huge obstacle to building this movement, second only to our opposition, is the ability for any one person to see that he or she can do something about the problem—because it’s really big. When you read the Rolling Stone article, you have to sit with it for a while and let its truth sink in before you can ask, “Okay, well, what can I do?” The old ways of reacting to our political challenges just don’t work when our political institutions are so compromised.
Another obstacle is the inspiration factor. How do we inspire people to spend their most valuable resource (their time) working to bring about a solution to climate change? It’s a challenge in an era when there are so many problems, many of which stem from undervaluing the commons. But there are many people doing impressive work for the greater good. In their work I see incredible promise, and that’s what keeps me inspired to work on climate change issues.
What strategies do you recommend for making more people aware of the importance of the climate as a commons?
I think it’s very important to highlight “hopeful” work and stories that show how clean air is possible, even for those who don’t currently have it. I’m thinking of the work that’s been done in many parts of the globe, and here in the U.S., to close down coal plants. The campaign to close down the plant in Chicago, for example, is a great story. People were sick, they knew they were sick, and they knew why they were sick. Their neighborhood filled with smoke on a regular basis. And through community action, they shut down the coal plant. Stories like this help others understand that they can successfully confront problems where they live.
We can help more people see the possibility of clean air not just by showing how people have “taken down the man,” so to speak, but also by telling stories about people who are pioneering fossil independent technologies. There was a great New York Times piece this weekend highlighting the work of Danny Kennedy, founder of a solar company based in Oakland. It’s inspiring. This guy had been an activist against the oil and mining industries his entire life, and he now runs an incredibly successful solar company that’s breaking all kinds of records.
At 350.org, specifically, we’ve embraced social media tools as mass storytelling platforms from the beginning, and we’ve had a lot of incredible experiences. When we receive stories via email, we often write back and say, “Hey, we’re inspired by this, and we bet our Facebook followers will be too. Can we post this on our page?” Hundreds of thousands of people “Like” and “Share” the stories we post about individuals from all over the globe who are tackling seemingly insurmountable challenges for their communities.
There’s one specific example that comes to mind. A young woman from Baghdad participated in our first day of action all by herself, because her friends were afraid to cross a security checkpoint. The image of this woman standing alone with her 350 banner rose above the rest, and she wrote us a few months later to report that she had formed a local climate organizing group. The following year we hosted another day of action, and lo and behold, there she was with a group of ten. To me, and I think to many people, these stories show why it’s imperative that we work on climate change as a global community. There’s something special about knowing you’re taking the same action as someone else on the opposite side of the globe. Together we can stand as a peaceful army fighting for a different future.
What do you see as the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?
The kind of organizing we do at 350.org is opening up all kinds of opportunities for the commons. The use of new technology, for instance, has enabled so many people to connect who wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and it’s helping everyone move beyond feeling that we can only control what’s happening in our own lives. People need a tool for creating change that’s commensurate with the scale of the challenge, and for a long time, people have known that a compact fluorescent light bulb is not that tool. The tool we need is a mobilized, organized space that works and thinks like a movement. I hope that the work we’ve planned for next year enables us, as a global community, to stop the use of fossil fuels.
What are a few of the most beloved commons in your life and community?
Radio waves. I love independent radio, and I think it’s a really beautiful commons example. In fact, the first conversation I ever had with Bill McKibben was about our mutual love for the radio. That’s how we initially formed our friendship before we worked together on 350.
I’m also an avid library user. Growing up, my best friend’s mom worked in a library, so I would go there after school. And I still go every week. When there are local efforts to shut down libraries, I’m always very impressed by the extent to which communities rise in their defense. When I was still living in Oakland, a library there almost closed, and I was pleased to see how many people showed up at the hearings. The public space libraries provide is so important.
Why do you call yourself a commoner?
I call myself a commoner because I want to be part of a movement that’s trying to create something different than what we stand to inherit right now.