Written by Hannah Mohler, ESLLC 2017-2018
John Francis walked in silence for seventeen years and became one of the most influential environmentalists in history. In 1971, Francis witnessed two oil tankers collide beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and spill half a million gallons of oil into the bay. He was so disturbed by the oil spill that he decided to give up riding and driving in motorized vehicles. When people in his community would question him, he responded by saying, “I’m walking for the environment.” He realized when he was arguing and talking about the environment, he never fully listened to the opinions of others. On his twenty-seventh birthday, Francis decided to stay silent for one day and pointed to that moment in his Ted Talk as the first time he began listening. He ended up staying silent for seventeen years.
During those seventeen years, he obtained a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. He taught at the school where he earned his master’s degree and he spent two years at a university writing about oil spills. He then walked to the east coast, a journey which took him seven years and one day. On Earth Day in 1990, he broke his vow of silence because he wanted to spread the message that he took seventeen years to understand. Francis realized that he had a responsibility to more than just himself and that change was necessary. He exclaimed in his Ted Talk that “the environment changed from just being about trees and birds and endangered species to being about how we treated each other.”
After Francis broke his vow of silence, he worked for the Coast Guard, was made a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and wrote oil spill regulations for the United States. He became an accomplished individual because he saw a problem and didn’t hesitate to take action. Francis was brave enough to admit as a twenty-seven-year-old that he still had more formal and informal learning to undergo. As Francis uncovered, listening can be one of the most important actions in terms of understanding yourself and your environment.