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Oil on the water

By John Francis A few days after the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, caught fire and started spewing black crude into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the emails and calls expressing sympathy started to come in. Not that I own stock in BP or lost a loved one in the disaster, but...

By John Francis

A few days after the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded, caught fire and started spewing black crude into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, the emails and calls expressing sympathy started to come in. Not that I own stock in BP or lost a loved one in the disaster, but because my life had been changed by a much smaller spill back in 1971 when two Standard Oil tankers collided in the darkness near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Many people had already been sensitized by the Santa Barbara 1969 Union Oil oil rig blowout. No humans died, but thousands of birds and other creatures did as over 200,000 gallons of crude bubbled up from the ocean floor fouling 800 square miles of ocean and 35 miles of beach. The visible damage added fuel to a fledgling environmental movement.

So when the oil spill from the two tankers in Golden Gate washed out to sea and then flooded back onto the Northern California shore, I was not surprised at the pain I felt in the center of my heart. Tears rolled down my face like the time I lost my favorite aunt to some mysterious disease.

As I sat in my car watching, I could not help but to see the connection of my use of the automobile to what was unfolding in front of me. A few months later, to take some responsibility for the mess that washed up on the beach, I gave up the use of motorized vehicles.

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A few months later, frustrated with all the arguments I was having about how one person is unable to make a difference, I just stopped talking. This began a 22-year walking pilgrimage to raise environmental consciousness and to practice public service.

For over 17 of those years I walked in silence across the United States, working in small towns, studying at universities and listening to America speak. What I heard and what I learned convinced me that it was time to speak. So when I reached the East Coast, on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, 1990, I started to speak.

I chose Earth Day because I wanted to remind myself that I was going to speak for the environment, and the environment for me had evolved from being only about pollution, loss of species, loss of habitat, climate change, and what we have grown to think of as traditional environmental issues.

These are all important elements to be sure. But more importantly, if people are part of the environment, as we profess, then our first opportunity to treat the environment in a sustainable way, or even to understand what sustainability is, is in our relationship with ourselves, and each other.

“Environment must include, human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic equity, and all the ways that we relate to one another.”

So for me, environment must include, human rights, civil rights, gender equality, economic equity, and all the ways that we relate to one another. How we treat ourselves and one another will surely manifest in our physical environment.

My Ph.D. research was on “Oil Spills in the Marine Environment in the U.S. and Caribbean: the Costs and Conventions.” Soon after receiving my degree, I went to work for the Coast Guard’s Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA 90) Staff as the environmental analyst and was able to work on oil spill response and transportation regulations for the U.S. This work helped assuage some of my pain and address some of our responsibility after the Exxon Valdez spill.

So it was a bitter irony that this past April, I spoke about oil spills and environment at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As I addressed the audience on this fortieth anniversary of Earth Day (for which Senator Nelson is credited as being one of its founders) we were all painfully aware that we might be witnessing what could become the largest oil spill in history.


A NASA satellite picture shows the 2010 oil spill as a silvery region near the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Image courtesy MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA  

In the coming months we will hear about what went wrong, and who or what agency is to blame, or how the “perfect storm” of events led inexorably to this tragedy. But in the end, we are the ones who use and demand oil. We all share in the suffering and must take some responsibility for what has happened and for what will wash up on our shore.

Still, I don’t think I will give up using motorized vehicles again, and I wouldn’t ask anyone to do that, but it feels that some people might. Instead, as tears run down our faces and we feel the pain of each other’s suffering, let the clarity of purpose come through to conserve, rethink and redefine our energy and environmental policy in our daily lives. There is no magic answer, no secret tool.

“We have to look honestly at the hidden costs of our oil economy.”

As a country we have to look honestly at the hidden costs of our oil economy, the cost in lives here and around the world. While the lives of people on Gulf Coast have been changed for generations to come, so have the lives have for each one of us, no matter how many miles we are from the heart of this most recent disaster.

And so each of us can, even though we may be miles away, do our part. We don’t have to wash an oil-soaked bird; we can walk to work, hang our laundry on the clothesline, and reach out to our neighbors.

As we all feel this pain, and feel it we must, let us see the opportunity that is here for all of us, regardless of our beliefs, or political affiliations.

The opportunity is to redefine not only what is environment, but to redefine us as Americans, to commit ourselves to respect and cooperate with each other. And as we do that, it will spread around the world, as we understand that we are all part of the environment, each one of us. And each one of us makes a difference.


Since ending his silence in 1990, John 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 Planet Walker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

Related blog post:

Planet Walker Wants to Hear What You Have to Say


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Meet the Author

Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn