Taking a seat prior to the arrival of the Planet Walker, there was an audible hum of curiosity. As part of a series of environmental talks, Dr John Francis had come to Nottingham; this was a man who had spent 22 years walking the planet, 17 of which were in silence. Dr. John Francis stepped into the auditorium, strumming an old banjo and beaming as he strolled to the front.
He embarked on his story and unique perspective on climate change with charm and ease. Witnessing an oil spill in San Francisco Bay 1971, Francis took the decision to start walking and not stop (predating Forrest Gump by over 20 years). Disgusted by what he saw, his rejection of all forms of motorised transport was one man’s act of sympathy for the environment. His ideas fell on deaf ears or resulted in arguments. He felt frustrated that he constantly had to justify himself.
He began to feel that he spent far too much time arguing and talking. On his 27th birthday he decided to give up speaking for one day. However, he felt his silence increased his ability to listen and learn, and so decided to remain silent for another day. This continued for 17 years. When asked how this affected his personal relationships, he answered, “Well, if you’re talking about women friends… They absolutely loved me not speaking!”
While silent, he completed three degrees, culminating in his doctoral studies focusing on the effects of oil spills. During his studies, the Exxon Valdez disaster (1989) occurred, which brought attention to his research from the US government. Emitting an infectious grin, Francis explained how, on receiving an offer, his PhD professor had to clarify that Dr Francis would accept the position… But he only walked and wouldn’t speak. As a result of this work he became a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Whilst walking through Venezuela Francis came to the realisation that his walking was now a detriment to his UN work, hanging up his Karrimor boots in 1994.
In his book, ‘Planet Walker’, he describes practical solutions as well as focusing on human rights and equality as cornerstones in environmental conservation. Central to Dr. Francis’ beliefs is the idea that we, humanity, are the environment. When asked what he believes is the greatest environmental challenge we face, he answered emphatically, “War. Environment is not just about man-made problems, but also about the interaction, cooperation and love of all the living things around us.” On such a hotly debated topic it was truly refreshing to see a man of such humble simplicity recite his fascinating life story in such good humour.
Many people have seen his story as too extraordinary to apply to an average person’s life. “My choices can be seen as a metaphor,” said Dr Francis. “I’m not saying that there should be no motorised vehicles, or no speech! Everyone has a voice inside of them which urges you to do that extraordinary thing for something you believe in, whatever that may be. I just listened. Take the risk of listening to yourself.”
Benjamin Allen and Lucy Hayes