mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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The Silent Environmentalist

Mark Hertsgaard chats with John Francis, a “planetwalker” who
lived car-free and silent for 17 years.

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Background

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 without talking?

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.
  — Grist Magazine


(Hertsgaard) Why did you stop riding in motorized vehicles?

(Francis) This was the first time I had ever been exposed to an environmental
insult of such magnitude — 400,000 gallons of oil spilling into San
Francisco Bay. And I couldn’t get away from it. You could close your
eyes, you could turn around, but you just couldn’t get away from the
impact of it. The smell was overpowering. I decided I wanted to do
something, but I didn’t know exactly what. I mentioned to a friend
that I wanted to stop riding in cars, and she laughed at me and I
laughed at myself and that was the end of it.

It wasn’t until a neighbor died the next year that I … He had a good
job as a deputy sheriff, he had a wonderful wife, lovely kids, he just
had everything. And from one day to the next, he was gone. So I
realized there weren’t any promises. If I was going to do anything, I
had better do it now. Because now is the only time we have to do what
we need to do.

But one could have that feeling and say, “OK, I’m going to join the
Sierra Club. I’m going to write my senator. I’m going to carry a
picket sign outside the oil companies.” Not many people would say,
“I’m going to stop riding in motorized vehicles.” Did it strike you as
extreme?

It did. But it struck me as the most appropriate thing I could do. I
could join the Sierra Club, I could carry picket signs, and people
have been doing those things. But in my life, what could I do? And
that was: not ride in cars. And I thought everyone would follow.
(Laughter.)

You write about this in your book, that you had an inflated sense of
yourself at that time. Not long after, you took a very radical step to
confront that.

As I walked along the road, people would stop and talk about what I
was doing and I would argue with them. And I realized that, you know,
maybe I didn’t want to do that. So, on my [27th] birthday, I decided I
was going to give my community some silence because, man, I just
argued all the time. I decided for one day, let’s not speak and see
what happens.

I’m going to read a passage from your book about your decision to stop
speaking: “Most of my adult life I have not been listening fully. I
only listened long enough to determine whether the speaker’s ideas
matched my own. If they didn’t, I would stop listening, and my mind
would race ahead to compose an argument against what I believed the
speaker’s idea or position to be.”

That was one of the tearful lessons for me. Because when I realized
that I hadn’t been listening, it was as if I had locked away half of
my life. I just hadn’t been living half of my life. Silence is not
just not talking. It’s a void. It’s a place where all things come
from. All voices, all creation comes out of this silence. So when
you’re standing on the edge of silence, you hear things you’ve never
heard before, and you hear things in ways you’ve never heard them
before. And what I would disagree with one time, I might now agree
with in another way, with another understanding.

Some people reading this interview might say, “That sounds awfully
passive if all you do is listen when ExxonMobil says there’s no global
warming or when the Bush administration says we can have healthy
forests by cutting them down.” Is there a danger that the philosophy
you’re expounding is too passive in the face of environmental
destruction?

There’s always a danger for anything to become not appropriate. But at
the same time that I was listening, I was also walking. I was making a
statement for other people to see, and perhaps to inspire them. The
most you can do is be who you are and do what you do. You’re the only
person you really have a moral obligation to change. What everyone
else does, you don’t have any control over that.

You began walking in the 1970s here in Northern California. Your first
long walk was to Sacramento, the state capitol, to testify before a
Senate committee. Then you took a longer walk up the coast to the
Pacific Northwest. Eventually you walked across the entire country.
You were an African-American man, with a banjo and a backpack, and you
were silent. Did people treat you as an oddity?

Well, you know, I did look different.

Even for the 1970s!

Even for the 1970s. (Laughter.) I realized early on that I was gonna
have to not worry about how I looked. It was really good for me to let
my image go, the image I had before — that I had to wear the right
clothes, drive the right car, use the right cologne. All those things
went out the door, and I allowed myself to be a clown.

Nowadays, many of us think about America as split between red states
and blue states. Was that your experience while walking across the
country?

Well, I walked across a lot of red states, and the people in those
states were just as generous, or even more so, as the people in blue
states. In fact, when I walked across the country, there were no red
states, there were no blue states; it was just America. People you
might think would not bring me into their home brought me into their
home and put me down at the table with their family, with their
children, and invited me to stay.

In your book you argue that the environmental crisis is really a
crisis of the human spirit. Does that mean we have to wait for humans
to become better people before we can solve the environmental problem?

I’m not sure I would say that humans are going to become better
people, but I think humans are going to become who we are. Frankly, I
look at my life and I go, “God, I have great hope for everybody!”
Because I look at where I came from, and I could never have seen me
walking across the country, silently going to school, and 20 years
later I’m in Washington, D.C., writing federal oil-pollution
regulations. Looking at my journey, which is part of all of our
journeys, I have great hope.

As an environmentalist who is black, do you think the chasm between
white environmentalists and non-whites will ever be bridged?

It has to be. How we relate to one another is essential to
environmentalism. If you’re not talking about human rights, economic
equity, mutual respect, you’re not really dealing with the
environment. Trees are wonderful. Birds and flowers are wonderful.
They’re all part of the environment. But we’re part of the environment
too and how we treat each other is fundamental.

The day after you began to speak again, you were hit by a car on the
streets of Washington, D.C. I can imagine some people saying, “The
universe was sending a message there.”

I was thinking, “The universe is sending a message.” I’m lying there,
and the ambulance comes and they’re strapping me down and I said,
“Where are we going?” And the ambulance person says, “We’re taking you
to the hospital, you’ve been hit by a car.” And I said, “You know, I
think I can walk.” They stop and look at me and say, “Walk? You can’t
walk. You’ve been in an accident.” And I said, “Well, I don’t ride in
automobiles. I haven’t ridden in an automobile for 17 years. In fact,
I didn’t speak for 17 years. I just started speaking yesterday.” And
that’s when I see ’em start thinking, “We’re taking him to St.
Elizabeth’s [psychiatric hospital] for observation.”

Finally one of the women said, “Why are you afraid of riding in cars?
Is it a religious thing?” And I said, “No, it’s not
religious.” “Is it
a spiritual practice or something?” I said, “No.” She says,
“Well,
it’s principles, huh?” And I grab onto that: “Principles! Yes, it’s
principles!” And she tells me, “Honey, if you can suspend your
principles for five minutes, we can drive your butt to the hospital.”
And I think about it and all I come up with is, “I don’t think
principles work that way. You can’t just suspend them for five
minutes.” Eventually, they let me walk.

In 1994, after 22 years, you decided to ride in vehicles again. Why?

Walking had become a prison for me. While it was appropriate to stop
walking when I did, over the years it had calcified, because I never
revisited my decision not to ride in cars. [One day,] as I was
walking, I thought about the fact that I had worked at the Coast
Guard, I had worked on the Exxon oil spill. And if they had said to
me, “John, we could hire you, but you have to ride in a car and fly a
plane,” I would have said, “I’m sorry, I guess I can’t work for you
then.” And that would have been the wrong answer. So I decided I
needed to break out of the prison.

You were on the Venezuela/Brazil border when you stopped walking. How
did it feel?

There were two women from the Netherlands who were walking with me.
And when I got into the bus [on the border], they looked at me like,
“Oh God, something’s going to happen to him. He’s gonna start crying
or whatever.” But I didn’t. I just got in and I realized that I was in
a VW now and I could feel the industry of transportation. I could feel
the cogs of transportation. You know, the asphalt road, the gears
turning, the fire, the pistons banging, and the fuel exploding — I
could feel all that. It was a very interesting moment for me.

No guilt?

No guilt at all. This was the decision I was going to make.

You’re about to start another long walk, and obviously you’re a little
older now and you have a family. You’ve talked a little bit about how
you hope walking will affect the world around you. How about the world
inside you? How will this time be different?

I don’t know how I’m going to change. I don’t know how it will change
me. That’s part of the mystery of walking, is that the destination is
inside us and we really don’t know when we arrive until we arrive. One
of the biggest epiphanies that I’ve had was that, you know,
environmentalists like to look at the industrialists or at the
developers and say, “They gotta change. If they would change,
everything would be all right.” But really, we all have to do that. We
all need to look at ourselves. We need to re-imagine ourselves.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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