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John Francis Planetwalker, Conservationist

Picture of John Francis walking and playing banjo

Photograph by Glenn Oakley

Photo: John Francis
Photograph by Rebecca Hale

In the early 1970s John Francis gave up using motorized vehicles after witnessing the devastating effects of an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Soon afterwards he took an even more radical step: a vow of silence that lasted 17 years, during which he undertook a pilgrimage by foot across America on behalf of the environment and world peace, earning a Ph.D. in environmental studies along the way. Through his silence and walking, he learned to truly listen, both to other people and the world around him.

Since ending his silence in 1990, Francis has served as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Environmental Program, contributed to the U.S. Coast Guard’s Oil Pollution Act of 1990, rewriting transportation regulations in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill, and founded Planetwalk, a nonprofit environmental education organization. He relates the experience of his quiet protest in his book Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence. In March 2011, National Geographic published his second book, The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World.

Accompanied by his ever present banjo and his gentle but determined demeanor, Francis communicates a surprisingly pragmatic message of pilgrimage and social change.

Popular Presentations

Redefining Environment
Francis discusses how the environmental crisis is a reflection of social and economic inequality. From peace and justice to everyday civility, Francis contends that our lack of connection to one another, as well as to the Earth, is at the heart of the environmental crisis.

The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World
Francis offers lessons on the need for silence and reflection in the world. The presentation Includes exercises on listening.

Learn More About John:

Photo: John Francis

Boyd Matson Interviews John Francis

More from National Geographic Weekend

  • Picture of John Francis
    Video: Nat Geo Live: The Ragged Edge of Silence

    Pioneering activist and National Geographic Fellow John “Planetwalker” Francis took a 17-year vow of silence to walk across America, inspiring thousands. Here he offers lessons on the need for reflection in one’s life.

  • Picture of John Francis
    The Atlantic: A Conversation With John Francis (March 2011)

    Daniel Fromson interviews John Francis for The Atlantic.

  • Photo: TED Logo
    John Francis’ TED Talk

    For almost three decades, John Francis has been a planetwalker, traveling the globe by foot and sail with a message of environmental respect and responsibility (for 17 of those years without speaking).

  • Photo: John Francis
    NPR Interview: Walking the Walk

    Environmental activist John Francis spent 22 years on a journey across America, mostly on foot and deliberately without the aid of motorized devices. For much of that time, he did not speak. He’s written about those years in the book Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time.

  • Photo: BP oil spill
    John Blogs About BP Oil Spill

    In this recent blog post, John expresses the bitter irony that even as we have just celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, we are witnessing what may turn out to be the worst oil spill in history.
    Image courtesy NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response

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William Albert Allard
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Casey Anderson
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Peter Athans
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Robert Ballard
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Brady Barr
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Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith
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Keith Bellows
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Melina Bellows
   Publisher, Editor Photo of Melina Bellows
Don Belt
   Former Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, National Geographic Photo of Don Belt
Lee Berger
   Paleoanthropologist Photo of Lee Berger
Joel K. Bourne Jr.
   Contributing Writer Photo of Joel K. Bourne Jr.
Kobie Boykins
   NASA Engineer Photo of Kobie Boykins
John Bredar
   Senior Executive Producer, National Geographic Specials Photo of John Bredar
Kenny Broad
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Dan Buettner
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Andy B. Casagrande
   National Geographic Cameraman Photo of Andy B. Casagrande
Barry Clifford
   Underwater Explorer Photo of Barry Clifford
Jodi Cobb
   Photographer Photo of Jodi Cobb
Michael Davie
   Filmmaker Photo of Michael Davie
Wade Davis
   Cultural Anthropologist, Author Photo of Wade Davis
Dennis Dimick
   Executive Editor, National Geographic Magazine Photo of Dennis Dimick
David Doubilet
   Underwater Photographer Photo of David Doubilet
Sylvia Earle
   Marine Biologist Photo of Sylvia Earle
Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom
   Photographers, Filmmakers, Writers Photo of Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom
Andrew Evans
   Travel Journalist Photo of Andrew Evans
Michael Fay
   Conservationist, Biologist Photo of Michael Fay
Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
   Photographers, Writers Photo of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher
John Francis
   Planetwalker, Conservationist Photo of John Francis
Jerry Glover
   Agricultural Ecologist Photo of Jerry Glover
Annie Griffiths
   Photographer Photo of Annie Griffiths
Kevin Hand
   Planetary Scientist and Astrobiologist Photo of Kevin Hand
Zahi Hawass
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Fred Hiebert
   Archaeologist Photo of Fred Hiebert
Peter Hillary
   Mountaineer, Author Photo of Peter Hillary
Donald Johanson
   Paleoanthropologist Photo of Donald Johanson
Beverly & Dereck Joubert
   Photographers, Filmmakers, Naturalists Photo of Beverly & Dereck Joubert
Karen Kasmauski
   Photographer Photo of Karen Kasmauski
Mattias Klum
   Photographer, Filmmaker, Conservationist Photo of Mattias Klum
Emory Kristof
   Photographer Photo of Emory Kristof
Tim Laman
   Field Biologist, Wildlife Photojournalist Photo of Tim Laman
Chris Eckstrom and Frans Lanting
   Photographers, Filmmakers, Writers Photo of Chris Eckstrom and Frans Lanting
Albert Yu-Min Lin
   Research Scientist and Engineer Photo of Albert Yu-Min Lin
Greg Marshall
   Biologist, Inventor, Filmmaker Photo of Greg Marshall
Boyd Matson
   Journalist, Adventurer Photo of Boyd Matson
Mireya Mayor
   Primatologist Photo of Mireya Mayor
Steve McCurry
   Photographer Photo of Steve McCurry
Kim McKay
   Environmentalist, Author Photo of Kim McKay
Mark Moffett
   Ecologist, Photographer Photo of Mark Moffett
Nalini Nadkarni
   Forest Ecologist Photo of Nalini Nadkarni
Cathy Newman
   National Geographic Senior Writer, Author Photo of Cathy Newman
Michael "Nick" Nichols
   Photographer, Conservationist Photo of Michael "Nick" Nichols
Paul Nicklen
   Photographer, Biologist Photo of Paul Nicklen
Børge Ousland
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Bob Poole
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Victoria Pope
   Deputy Editor, National Geographic Magazine Photo of Victoria Pope
Chad Pregracke
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Reza
   Photojournalist and Humanitarian Photo of  Reza
Jim Richardson
   Photographer Photo of Jim Richardson
Enric Sala
   Marine Ecologist Photo of Enric Sala
Joel Sartore
   Photographer, National Geographic Fellow Photo of Joel Sartore
Barton Seaver
   Chef, Conservationist Photo of Barton Seaver
Paul Sereno
   Paleontologist Photo of Paul Sereno
Brian Skerry
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Bryan Smith
   Adventure Filmmaker Photo of Bryan Smith
Will Steger
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Maria Stenzel
   Photographer Photo of Maria Stenzel
Ed Viesturs
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Spencer Wells
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Rory Wilson
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Andrew Zolli
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