>This man is amazing and if there is a heaven…he has a place.
John Francis, a 'planetwalker'
who lived car-free and silent for
17 years, chats with Grist
10 May 2005
How long could you survive without your car? For the many Americans
who think nothing of driving 10 blocks to buy a gallon of milk, the answer
is obvious. But before any of you dedicated pedestrians and die-hard
cyclists start feeling smug, try this question: How long could you survive
Photo: Courtesy of Planetwalk.
Chances are, nowhere near as long as John Francis did. After a massive oil
spill polluted San Francisco Bay in 1971, Francis gave up all motorized
transportation. For 22 years, he walked everywhere he went -- including
treks across the entire United States and much of South America --
hoping to inspire others to drop out of the petroleum economy.
Soon after he stopped riding in cars, Francis, the son of working-class,
African-American parents in Philadelphia, also stopped speaking. For
17 years, he communicated only through improvised sign language,
notes, and his ever-present banjo. The environmental pilgrim says
he took his vow of silence as a gift to his community "because, man,
I just argued all the time." But it may have been Francis who benefited
most of all. For the first time, he found he was able to truly listen to
other people and the larger world around him, transforming his approach
to both personal communication and environmental activism.
Francis started speaking again on Earth Day 1990. The very next day,
he was struck by a car. He refused to ride in the ambulance, insisting
on walking to the hospital instead. With a Ph.D. in land resources
(earned during his silence), he was later recruited by the U.S. Coast
Guard to write oil-spill regulations and by the United Nations Environment
Program to serve as a goodwill ambassador.
Francis, the author of Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time,
is now preparing for a second environmental walk across America. He
spoke with writer Mark Hertsgaard about how social change happens,
the decency he encountered among red-state Americans, and the
importance of bridging the chasm between white and black environmentalists.