Benjamin May

Founder and President, ThinkOcean

Mount Sinai, NY, United StatesAge: 19

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I am an environmental advocate, writer, and speaker. Born in Pennsylvania and raised in New York, I come from a family of scientists, taught to always question what I learn and be unrelenting in the pursuit of fact. I am currently a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania where I direct the student government branch in charge of promoting campus sustainability, and am focusing my studies on the intersection of economics, politics, and science while learning six different languages.

In high school, I was a national finalist in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl and participated in science, debate, and Model UN competitions, as well as organized various environmental initiatives within my local community. At 16, I won the video contest for the inaugural Sea Youth Rise Up Campaign's delegation, and played a part in the founding of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, the first US Marine Protected Area in the Atlantic.

Currently, I am the Founder and President of ThinkOcean, a global network of college and high school students organizing grassroots movements, employing hands-on engagement, and pressing for systematic change to protect the environment. Serving as the National Communications Coordinator for the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, I speak at various summits and mentor alumni on conservation projects. I also serve as Coordinator for Sea Youth Rise Up and have spoken at various environmental conferences, as well as the World Ocean Festival and a United Nations Activate Talk.

What inspired you to become a champion for the environment and environmental education?

I rubbed my red eyes and looked over at my alarm clock. It was 6:00 AM. I had accidently pulled an all-nighter finishing my front-to-back reading of the Koran. This would not be quite so unusual if I were not a Jewish kid from Long Island who also has a copy of the Bible, the Torah, and the Avesta on his phone. Although I do not consider myself to be deeply religious, I have always been fascinated by culture. Although it is important to recognize the beauty and worth of nature, my premier captivation is with the impressiveness of humanity. For this reason, I have become an advocate for the environment. If Earth’s climate changes to where it is no longer hospitable to us or the world’s economy, and falls apart due to an ecological collapse, we could see the fall of society as we know it.

With this urgent undertone, it can feel disheartening to learn about the herculean efforts necessary to address human impacts. However, what has truly inspired me and given me hope is the power of the individual. There is a surprisingly large amount of people who want to get involved and only need someone to engage them. Everything from my personal experience in promoting environmental awareness, to witnessing the impact made by other passionate leaders, has shown that we can save the environment. It only takes one person to catalyze a movement.

What advice would you give to the next generation of leaders that are looking to bring about positive change in their communities through EE?

My advice has two parts: never stop expanding your intellectual horizons, and always challenge new information. These may sound like contrary principles, but you need both to be an effective environmental communicator.

The ability to offer a myriad of statistics, facts, and general knowledge on the environment will come in handy, giving you more to teach others while also garnering respect from experts. However, remember that no matter how knowledgeable you are on anything, there is almost always something new to learn. There is no shame in demonstrating a lack of expertise on a subject. When someone asks, “Do you know about [blank]?” it is common for people to nod without actually know about it. Do not be afraid to show that you do not know everything. Every great educator was, and still is, a great student.

I was once told, “You can practice spelling ‘cat’ as ‘kat’ a thousand times, but you will still be spelling it wrong." In a society that has progressively become more untrusting of fact and abrasive to new information, it is vital that you establish a sense of reputability in what you say. Cross examine any new information that you learn with primary sources, challenge assertions made even by those with whom you generally agree, and, most importantly, ask questions. Quality of information is of paramount importance to cultivating a societal appreciation and knowledge of the environment.

Who do you look up to as inspiration for your work?

I aspire to be a great communicator for the environment, while not being afraid to pursue things that others see as impossible. Therefore, two of my biggest inspirations are Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Elon Musk is one of the most well-founded and effective environmentalists of this generation. He has been a powerhouse by daring to invest and develop industries that others once saw as infeasible, holding an unrelenting drive to push humanity to greater heights. Whether it was jump-starting the self-driving car industry, innovating in the sustainable energy sector, or playing an influential part in making international environmental action a reality, he is someone I greatly admire.

In terms of environmental education and communication, Neil deGrasse Tyson is at the top of my list of inspirations and role models. He is one of the most respected, well-known science communicators of this era. His ability to take even the blandest of questions and provide an awe-inspiring, impassioning response is incredibly impressive. Although his focus is space, his communication skills are every bit as applicable to environmentalism and I aspire to cultivate such a powerful narrative.

What pro-environmental behavior do you think would make a big impact if everyone in the world started doing it?


Historically, only around 50 percent of the eligible voting populace in the U.S. participates in presidential elections. Local elections are even worse with fewer than 15 percent in most major cities, even though local government in the U.S. and elsewhere has major implications to daily life.

Voter participation around the world is a major contributing factor to ineffective government leadership and international action, and businesses and society can only go so far without comprehensive governmental support. Policies and economic subsidies that encourage sustainable development are vital to curtailing our impact on the world. Beyond direct environmental action, more robust educational systems and infrastructure projects are essential for future generations to be prepared to face the impending environmental issues that will arise. If everyone were to vote, actively engage themselves in politics, and keep world leaders accountable, we could shift the international community to pursue more serious, comprehensive solutions to humanity’s environmental impact.