A Conversation With John Francis, 'Planetwalker' and Conservationist

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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.

What's are some emerging trends that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The greening of the military, the birth or rebirth of "green cities," and affordable energy technologies that are accessible to ordinary individuals and families. There are still government incentives for solar panels, and energy conservation retrofits, etc. This needs to continue and grow. But when we really decide that war is obsolete and that this is really is about how we treat one another and that we all are in this together, the technologies that come from that paradigm shift will be beyond anything that we see on the horizon today.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

While I am still in favor of nuclear research, I wish our development of nuclear energy facilities would stop. It is enough to point to the recent tragedies in Japan. In military terms, it is an invasion without an exit plan. For just plain folks it's like setting off to swim across the ocean thinking we will discover and build a boat along the way, but we don't know what exactly what that boat might look like.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Looking for and taking short cuts when walking has gotten me lost more times than not. But I would have to say that as I got into walking, getting off track was often the best way to discover where I was; it's an opportunity. I finally realized that unlike my vow of silence, which I had renewed each year after long reflection, I never questioned my decision to walk. After witnessing the oil spill in California, walking was something I just did as my way of living lightly in the environment. It was appropriate at the time. Of course, I now realize after 22 years of walking that my decision not to use motorized vehicles had become a prison, and only I could set myself free. While I still continued my walking, I also decided to begin to fly and use other motorized transportation to do other work. The lesson for me was to always revisit my decisions in the light of new knowledge and information. Don't be afraid to change.

Who are three people you'd put in a sustainability Hall of Fame?

Sim Van der Ryn, for his teachings, friendship, and as a leader in the field of sustainable architecture. Majora Carter, for her inspiration and work of greening the Bronx. Jane Addams, social worker and founder of settlement houses, for her inspiration work for the welfare of all people.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

A Trappist monk. I liked the robes. I was sure I could not handle the code of silence.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

Google Maps. It helped me develop Planetlines, a K-12 and university environmental studies and public service curriculum using walking as the vehicle and GIS and GPS technologies to gather and share quantitative and qualitative data.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

"All You Need Is Love," by John Lennon.


Image: Becky Hale

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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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