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May Boeve: Friendship to Carry Us Through Crisis

15 extraordinary people transforming the way we live: The worldwide climate-change movement started with the dreams of a few college friends.
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May Boeve photo by Lane Hartwell

HOW TO BREAK THROUGH
“Believe that the world can change, and commit to your part of the solution. Look at the world with clear eyes, but remain hopeful, and celebrate! When you feel challenged, reach out and reach in.”
May Boeve

Photo by Lane Hartwell for YES! Magazine.

15 logoMeet 15 extraordinary people transforming the way we live.

Four years ago, after despairing over the U.S. government’s failure to act on climate change, I found myself demonstrating with thousands of people in all 50 states. I wanted to know who had organized “Step It Up,” which was, at the time, the world’s largest action on climate change. When I dug around, I found it was a small group of, well, kids— May Boeve and a circle of 20-somethings—friends from Middlebury College who would soon go on to build an activist network that has organized record-breaking global protests.

What on Earth made May and the rest of the Middlebury group think they could accomplish such mass-scale actions? How did they not become paralyzed by the scale of the task? What makes May and the rest of the 350 kids heroes to me is that they never waited for an answer. They built a movement based on the desire to grow their friendship and concern for the world to include an ever larger circle.

Colin BeavanSelected by “No Impact Man” Colin Beavan: “The global climate protests of 350.org grew from friendship among May Boeve and a group of college kids who wanted to help the world. They show us what we, too, can achieve through community.”

“I wanted to be surrounded by others who wanted to change the world,” May told me. Back in college, she had, in some ways, felt isolated: It had taken her much of her college career to find a community that shared her concerns. Once she found it, she didn’t want to let it go.

While some students bond and form groups around rockclimbing or chess, May and her friends formed a community while working together to force Middlebury to reduce its carbon emissions. When they graduated, they planned to move together to Billings, Mont., to help stop the building of new coal-burning power plants. But author Bill McKibben, who brought world attention to climate change with his book The End of Nature, approached them and asked if they might instead turn the power of the group friendship to the task of building a national and, later, an international climate movement.

With McKibben’s prestige behind them, they used phones, email, social networks, web pages, and community connections to reach every grassroots and impromptu citizens’ group they could.

On April 14, 2007, their nationwide coalition mounted Step It Up—simultaneous actions in 1,400 communities across the country. Next, the group formalized itself into the organization 350.org, named for the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide that the atmosphere can safely contain, according to models by NASA scientist James Hansen.

At first, 350’s goal was to mobilize world opinion in advance of the 2009 United Nations negotiations in Copenhagen, where activists hoped world leaders would forge a binding international climate-change agreement.

On Oct. 24, 2009, they organized people in 181 countries to stage 5,200 demonstrations demanding global action on climate change: CNN called it “the most widespread day of political action in our planet’s history.”

The group succeeded in producing an incredible show of grassroots strength, but it was not enough to stop the negotiations from falling apart. When it became likely that Copenhagen would deliver no meaningful action, May and a group of other American youth attended a meeting with the United States’ chief negotiator, Todd Stern, and other members of a U.S. State Department delegation. May was crying so hard about the failure of the negotiations that she almost could not speak. She kept thinking of a group of 6,000 schoolchildren in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, who had participated in 350’s first international day of climate action: They reminded her how many lives were at stake all over the world.

She realized that there was no policy point she could make that would have an impact. The only thing she could do was appeal personally on behalf of the global movement of friends she and the 350 team had built. “I want you to know, if you fail to rise to the challenge,” she said to Stern, “that you are personally responsible to all the millions of people who have tried to let you know how important this issue is.”

Moving Planet Day video still
A Moveable Planet:

Video: In more than 175 countries, people found creative ways to show they're ready to move away from fossil fuels.

Despite the disappointment at Copenhagen, the climate movement has only gotten larger and stronger. The 350.org group has continued to organize major worldwide events: a global work party in 188 countries on Oct. 10, 2010, and Moving Planet, more than 2,000 events to show the world that it’s possible to stop using fossil fuels (by traveling by bicycle, foot, boat, and other means).

This year, 350 merged with its sister grassroots organization, 1Sky, which worked exclusively in the United States. The organization itself has little official hierarchy—everybody pitches in. May has become its executive director in part because she is good at building partnerships.

Thanks to May and her crew, millions of people in thousands of locations around the world have come together to express the depth of their friendship to each other and to all of us. It is the friendship of humanity.


Colin Beavan wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine.Colin speaks widely to audiences around the country. He is founder of the No Impact Project.

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