‘Planetwalker’ Visits Punahou

Rachel Breitweser ’03

In 1971, 26-year-old John Francis witnessed the collision of two oil tankers in San Francisco Bay. The resulting oil spill was a catalyst for a new way of life for Francis, catapulting him into a 22-year walking pilgrimage and a 17-year vow of silence.

Watch John Francis’ TED Talk from 2008.

Punahou welcomed Dr. Francis as this year’s Spirit and Service Speaker for three weeks in January. Every year, for over a decade, the Punahou Chapel and the Luke Center for Public Service have partnered to invite speakers to share stories that embody the connection between faith and action.

Now in his 70s, Francis told students the extraordinary story of how he made a commitment to stop using motorized vehicles for transportation after feeling partially responsible for the oil spill. He also quit talking on his 27th birthday in order to stop the arguments his new of way life created among his friends and to be a better listener.

Francis founded Planetwalk, a nonprofit environmental awareness organization, and received a B.S. degree from Southern Oregon State College, a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a Ph.D. in land resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, all during his vow of silence and by completing the journey between the institutions by foot, boat and bicycle.

“My parents were just terrified,” said Francis about his decision to walk across the country. Although he did run into some risky situations, overall he found “love and acceptance because people just wanted to help.” Even though he didn’t have the money to go to college, the universities were creative in accommodating him and securing funding, one letting him audit classes. “It was the most advanced form of financial aid,” he said.

In 1990, after resuming speaking, Francis served as project manager for the U.S. Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act staff in Washington, D.C., where he assisted in writing oil spill regulations. Over the years, he walked across the U.S. and walked and sailed through the Caribbean, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. He published “Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time” in 2005. He was featured as a TED Talk speaker in 2008.

Francis has since made the decision to use motorized vehicles so that he can speak and consult with people around the world about how humans are an integral part of the environment and how we treat ourselves and others directly and indirectly influences the physical environment. He is an associate professor at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison and is still an avid walker.

During his visits to Punahou chapel services, he answered questions from students including questioning how he communicated for so long without talking. “Ninety percent of communication is nonverbal,” he said. “It’s not what someone says, it’s how they make you feel.” Francis also demonstrated another means of communicating during his silence: his banjo.

Francis left students with many inspiring ideas. “I believe one person can make a difference,” he said. “You just need to commit to the journey and take the first step.”

This speaker series is generously supported by gifts from the Class of ’41 Chapel Fund and the Chaplain Kenneth O. and Doris A. Rewick Community Service Fund.