May Boeve On Confronting Personal & Cultural Challenges In the Climate Movement
May Boeve knew early on that she wanted to make a difference for our planet. Her passion for climate justice developed throughout her time at Middlebury College, when she first attended a Bioneers conference. It wasn’t long before she knew this would be her career.
After graduation, she co-founded the Step It Up 2007 campaign to raise climate change awareness across the globe. A year later, Boeve co-launched 350.org, an international climate change campaign whose creative communications, organizing and mass mobilizations strive to generate the sense of urgency required to tackle the climate crisis, and she continues to serve as Executive Director for the organization. With the support of social movements and organizations like 350.org, Indigenous Nations and communities have won major victories against mega pipelines across the continent. She is also the co-author of Fight Global Warming Now.
But Boeve, like her fellow climate activists, knows that there’s still much work to be done—not only to stop destructive projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline and drilling in Canada’s tar sands, but also to confront and address some of the uncomfortable truths within the climate movement in order to make it more inclusive and self-aware. In her keynote address from Bioneers 2018, Boeve discusses how she was forced to confront some of these uncomfortable issues head-on, and shares what she considers the way forward.
We are witnessing the dying gasps of the fossil fuel industry and the tyrants they support. We are witnessing the unfolding of a just transition, a new way of making energy. And we may be witnessing a new way of being with and among each other.
The main milestones of my life as a climate activist coincide with Bioneers. This makes me very honored to be here, since what I want to talk to you about today is transformation. I want to tell a little bit of that story.
In 2004, I had a friend crush on a group of rock climber environmentalists, whom I went to school with at Middlebury College in Vermont. I joined them on a veggie oil road trip around the US. It was called Project BioBus. We visited 62 schools across the country giving presentations about climate change.
Project BioBus made a stop at one of the Bioneers satellite conferences in Fairfield, Iowa. We all attended the conference, and everyone thought it was cool—but I was awestruck. Here were my people. There were solar battery chargers everywhere, all the stickers and tote bags I could ever want, and Amy Goodman was the keynote speaker.
350.org launched here at Bioneers in many ways. In 2009, we set out to organize a global day of climate action to show world leaders that we needed a climate agreement that would uphold what science and justice required. Bioneers helped inspire our recruitment strategy. I remember getting goosebumps sitting in this very room when Paul Hawken’s slideshow scrolled the thousands and thousands of names of social movement organizations worldwide through his Wiser Earth Project. We emailed every single one of them to recruit for 350’s first global day of action.
Together, organizers held 5200 events in 182 countries. It was a massive outpouring of support. However, we did not get that climate agreement. A few years later, we were back at Bioneers, recruiting for another day of action, and next October, we will celebrate 10 years.
Confronting the Power Structure
Through it all, I remain a very proud Bioneer, which I define as solutions-oriented, creative, and ever evolving. And I fit the demographic. I’m white, from Northern California, I went to private schools, I’m reasonably new agey. Or at least that was the demographic I remember. Bioneers is changing. And we are changing.
Just as Bioneers, through the leadership of people of color and Indigenous People, like board members Clayton Thomas-Muller and Eriel Deranger, has centered people of color, women, and indigeneity, 350 is attempting to learn this too. The climate movement is as well, and I’m trying to do this myself. Part of that includes understanding the privilege we use to get to where we are now.
Picture a similar group of young people of color doing what we did. Could they have taken time off of school on a bus? Could they have partnered with a major author to launch a global day of action to widespread support? Would people have picked up the phone and donated? Of course they could have, but how much more easily were we given attention and resources?
When I began to realize this, I became somewhat immobilized about what to do with the information. It was especially jarring because as a young woman in this movement, I thought I didn’t have very much power or privilege. It may have been easier to see the dynamic because of course there are inequalities that impact young people and women. I began to grapple with how much power I actually had, and I didn’t feel good about it.
I thought the solution might be to shut our doors. It’s taken a long time, and a lot of allies of color taking time to explain things to me, that I can see the solution isn’t nearly so binary. In fact, staying engaged, becoming more effective in our mission, and becoming a better ally is much harder than throwing our hands up and walking away. It is complex.
But being daunted by complexity is quite a lot easier than, say, being a target of state violence. Yes, it’s challenging to navigate complexity, but walking away doubles down on the same privilege that got us here. Staying in the fight and learning how to do things differently, and trying to build power together to win—this is our task.
The climate crisis is front and center in the mess we are living through right now. The climate movement is a vital part of the resistance when we can see how it connects to everything else. We are in an epic battle to see if we can avoid what we’re on track for, a planet we don’t recognize, a democracy in name only, and a set of relationships among each other and the creatures we share this planet with that are degenerative. It is an epic battle to create a just transition to 100% renewable energy.
As a young activist, I was drawn to that epic battle since it was a story I could relate to. I was desperate to belong to a movement, and to feel that I could do something about all the problems I saw around me, and so I jumped in with both feet and I’m really proud that I did. Perhaps this is true for other white people in my demographic here today.
Climate change changed me. When we started 350.org there were already many people organizing in this movement, but we did not always see them at first. We had a very big, ambitious idea, we could attract funding for it, and I believe in what we’ve been able to do: the trillions divested, the pipeline projects cancelled, the clean energy coming online, the scale, the identity, the worldwide network embedded in our approach.
But in many ways the past 10 years have been about learning how to see differently. We saw a change in climate, a set of organizations who hadn’t solved that problem, and saw ourselves as much-needed, hard-working activists who could finally do something about it. We had blind spots about who was already out here, how hard it is to actually challenge the fossil fuel industry, build coalitions and run organizations. So many organizations and movements have started this way.
What becomes of them now? What is the path to evolve and build power together, and heal the wounds of the past, to listen to those we didn’t see—chose not to see—and sometimes still fail to see today? I think this goes much deeper than the idea of privilege.
The Promise to Protect
I am here to tell our story, to try to be honest, and perhaps clumsy, about finding my own place in a movement where the power imbalances we’re fighting in our campaigns exist among us as individuals. There’s a story that I think encapsulates this nicely—the journey from the Tar Sands Action to the Promise To Protect.
The climate movement was in a lull in 2010. Much hard work had gone to essentially nothing in the form of a cap-and-trade bill, and that may have done lasting harm anyway. We asked: What might revive us in our movement and give us momentum? How might President Obama become a more central character than Congress in the play that is politics?
Bill McKibben started paying attention to the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline, as he so often can sense an idea and a narrative that will rally people around it. We had a good idea. Galvanize the public around a tangible symbol of climate change, shift the zeitgeist, force Obama’s hand and make him be the first president of a major economy to stop a fossil fuel project because of climate change.
So we invited people to risk arrest in Washington, DC. We assembled a team of some of the most skilled civil disobedience organizers we knew, and some we didn’t. And 1,253 people were arrested. It was the first major protest targeting Obama after his election. It’s been exactly 10 years since TransCanada requested the permit for Keystone, and there is no pipeline built.
Our movement did that. It did all these beautiful things. Of course there were also problems. Not all of us knew how to listen to requests, to work differently with tribes along the route. The story that captured public attention did not adequately explain that this fight began with Indigenous Peoples protecting their treaty rights and sacred lands in Canada. Funding poured into our organization to expand our efforts because we had a big profile, despite our late entry into the fight.
I remember one particularly difficult lesson: I was asked to call together a meeting between a coalition of tribal leaders and large environmental groups. I hadn’t prepared very much, and as I noticed, we were running out of time at the meeting. I cut off a core Indigenous leader as she was speaking. She checked me in the moment by reminding me that my people had been cutting her people off for generations, that we’d invented an entirely different definition of time, and wielded it as a tool to silence.
I was so embarrassed, and I could only understand part of what she was saying in that moment. It took me about two years to move beyond my humiliation, let alone apologize to her. It took even longer to begin to understand that this was mostly structural, much less personal. She was drawing my attention to a pattern of power dynamics that need to be addressed at a personal and systemic level. That was just one day, one of many times interventions have been made to teach, and it was one of hundreds we had to encounter, and that our partners were gracious enough to give us to learn. It was leadership of frontline communities, communities of color that have not only created landmark wins in our movement, but also guided our growth.
That intervention had an impact, and it was part of a long journey whose current expression lies in what’s called the Promise To Protect, one of the ways we all can continue to stop Keystone XL. Currently we’re in partnership with Brave Heart Society, Indigenous Environmental Network, Native Organizers Alliance, and Dakota Rural Action. If Keystone is approved, 15,000 people have agreed to come and perform creative resistance along the route. Similar to Tar Sands Action, there will be civil disobedience of an even higher level of risk. But we are in a different partnership this time. This is not the power dynamic from before. If you have not yet signed up, you can do so at NoKXLPromise.org.
The Fight to Move Forward
Time is not on the side of the climate crisis. We all know this. It is devastatingly clearer every single day with each new hurricane, flood, and fire. Is our movement big enough to hold the idea that we are running out of time, but not run away from each other? To hold onto the urgency that animates anyone who believes in something deeply, and the compassionate ability to listen and stop sometimes? I really do wonder, because I’m more comfortable moving fast than slow.
My colleagues are teaching me that being impatient for justice is a gift. Our impatience is needed more than ever, but that’s a lot different from being impatient with each other, especially people who challenge us, people whose perspective doesn’t match our own, and people with different amounts of power. Being impatient with people who ask you to do things differently isn’t the same as wanting to move fast to solve a giant problem like climate change. My colleagues around the world and our movement allies are deep in this work every day.
The Pacific Warriors are invoking and embracing their traditional heritage, dances, songs and ways of being, while they fight the coal expansion from neighboring Australia. In South Africa, the DeCOALinise campaign is just what it sounds like. The coal barons are the colonizers of today, and fighting them engages us with our sister struggles to decolonize culture and defeat white supremacy. In Brazil, 400 municipal fracking bans have been passed by an unlikely alliance of mayors, Indigenous Peoples, and the Catholic Church. These are just three of many stories about change taking place around the world.
There is an unfolding taking place amidst the deep pain of the Trump era. We can all feel it. It leaves a space for the old way to be challenged, and some of that old way lives on in the climate movement.
I would like make a request of all of you: We want to be continually willing to do things differently, we want to stop the worst effects of climate change, we want to see every fossil fuel project on Earth stopped, and the just transition take hold. We want the social license of the fossil fuel industry gone forever. And we need this to happen soon.
We need to build a movement that is massive and that shakes the foundations of power and money and greed that seem to hold all the cards right now.
This isn’t about being called out less by being more careful and doing better agenda planning. We will lose if we don’t address the power imbalances, share resources better, and make sure that those on the frontlines have access to all the resources they need to win. We need massive movements that win, and we must move with grace and patience with each other to build lasting relationships that truly build power.