A Conversation With John Francis, 'Planetwalker' and Conservationist

john-francis_sized.jpg You might say that the whole point of being an activist is to be heard, to shout your message from the rooftops. John Francis took a different approach and didn't speak for 17 years. In 1971, after two Standard Oil of California tankers collided near the mouth of the San Francisco Bay, Francis joined other volunteers to help clean up the spill. But he felt the need to demonstrate his connection to the planet in a more unusual, more personal way.

Francis stopped using mechanized transportation and began walking (and occasionally sailing) everywhere, a habit he continued for 22 years. Soon after, he took a vow of silence--a decision that began as an act of protest against pollution, but which evolved into an experiment, an example of a new way of interacting with the world. Francis is a National Geographic Education Fellow; the founder of Planet Walk, a nonprofit devoted to improving peoples' awareness about the environment; and the author of Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking; 17 Years of Silence and The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World. Here, he discusses the value of getting lost, nuclear energy, and how respecting the environment begins with respecting each other.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

I say I am a Planetwalker. Then I have to explain that a Planetwalker is anyone who walks the planet as a lifestyle choice, as part of an education in the spirit and hope of using the journey to benefit the world. For me my walking journey has been a sort of rite of passage and part self-discovery. I started off walking as a protest, but that changed into walking without the angst and became a way of life. I began observing, making paintings of my surroundings, taking a vow of silence, listening, composing music, writing, and making time for formal education. Then I started telling stories.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainability or the environment?

While loss of habitat and species, pollution, and what we typically think of as environmental problems remain important issues for me, after walking across America listening and studying the environment for 17 years I realize that people are part of the environment. If this is true, then our first opportunity to treat the environment sustainably, or even understand what sustainability is, can be found in our relationships with ourselves and each other. So this is definitely a change of consciousness and practice that will allow us to address the great environmental difficulties that we face. It may come simply from each person's heart. The environment is therefore also about human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic and education equity. It is about all the ways we relate to one another because how we relate to each other manifests itself in the physical environment around us.

What's something that most people just don't understand about what you do?

Ultimately when I gave up the use of motorized vehicles, I walked everywhere, from town to town, across states and two continents. When I stopped talking, I mean literally I stopped speaking. I took a complete vow of silence. I did not speak, no words. I practiced listening, a very important part of communication. I was also able to go to university, teach, and receive a doctorate in environmental studies.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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