John Francis was in his twenties when a 1971 oil spill in San Francisco Bay jarred his comfortable life. Even as he joined the volunteers who scrubbed the beaches and fought to save birds and sea creatures poisoned by petroleum, he felt the need to make a deeper, more personal commitment. As an affirmation of his responsibility to our planet, he chose to stop using motorized vehicles and began walking wherever he went. His decision was greeted with surprise, disbelief, and even mockery – but it was only the start of a much deeper transformation. A few months later he took a vow of silence that would last seventeen years. During that time, he founded Planetwalk a non-profit environmental awareness organization, received a B.S. degree from Southern Oregon State College, a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a PhD in Land Resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ending his silence, John served as project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act Staff of 1990, in Washington, DC, where he assisted in writing oil spill regulations. For this work, he received the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Public Service Commendation.
In 1991, for his work in raising environmental consciousness, John Francis known the world over as the Planetwalker, was appointed the United Nations Environment Program’s Goodwill Ambassador to the World’s Grassroots Communities. Along with six fellow Ambassadors who use their time, talents and energy to: Raise awareness of central environmental issues and work of UNEP, as well as developing their own projects in areas of environmental education.
Today, Dr. Francis is visiting associate professor at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is teaching both graduated and undergraduate seminars in environmental studies. He is also the first education fellow at the National Geographic Society where he has published two books, Planetwalker: 17 Years of Silence, 22 Years of Walking, and The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World. They are partners in developing the Planetlines curriculum based on John’s walking experience that lasted over two decades.