Redefining the Environmental Movement

On the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day, I was giving a keynote talk for the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the Monona Terrace, a building right on Lake Monona, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Outside large globed lighting bubbled up from cement fountains. Inside, from the vaulted ceiling, semi-circles of translucent light fixtures hung into the ballroom. I played the banjo as I walked up onto the stage and when I was done, I spoke. “Thank you for being here.” It was the same music, and they were the same words I had spoken on another Earth Day twenty years earlier in Washington, DC, in front of family, friends and the media, as I ended a seventeen-year vow of silence.

John Francis, Planetwalker, Wood River Valley, Idaho. Photo by Glenn Oakley


This day the audience erupted in applause and I went on to tell the story of my journey, our journey and how remarkable it was that I was here this Earth Day. When I first arrived in Madison to attend the University I had walked from California, after spending fifteen-years on foot after witnessing the effects of a 1971 oil spill near the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. And sailing and walking through the Caribbean and the length of South America, I was here to speak of something that I had learned. People are part of the environment and the way we treat each other has manifested into the physical environment in the form of our environmental problems. It seemed a simple hypothesis, and when I finished proposing it an audience of a thousand stood and cheered.


Science Hall, Home of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Photo by John Francis

From Conferences to the Classroom

Afterward, in the lobby, Gregg Mittman, the interim director of the Nelson Institute sat and talked with me.  He asked how we could get the this idea of the connection between how we treat each other and how we treat the planet to become a tenant of the environmental movement. As an answer I said that I thought we had to teach it in our schools and train environmentalists to embrace the teaching. Do you think you could come to Madison for a semester and teach that, he asked? I thought about it and answered that I could. I caught a glimpse of the smile behind his neatly trimmed push broom mustache. How about a year?  I told him that I would have to ask my family. We had just moved from Point Reyes, California to West Cape May, New Jersey, a year earlier and I didn’t know if my wife and our two boys would feel like moving again.

A year later, we left our home in Cape May, and found ourselves on the road to Wisconsin. We arrived in Madison, August and settled in a quiet neighborhood near campus. My class began September 6: “Redefining the Environmental Movement.”


Get Out Your Pencils

In this seminar we will discuss and examine the awakening and the current state of conservation and the environmental movement, including Environmental Justice (EJ).  EJ issues are those circumstances where people without political power are subjected to potentially harmful environmental impact, for example, from the placing of a landfill or toxic waste dump near or in their neighborhood. We will examine the occurrences of environmental injustices and look for evidence beyond EJ theory to support the hypothesis that our treatment of each other manifest in the physical environment, and investigate the implications in regards to our understanding of personal, community and global environmental activism.

There are 12 graduate students in our class, working on master degrees and doctorates with backgrounds in geography, sociology, biology, environmental science, business, and library/information studies. Over the next 15 weeks we will hear each others’ voices, hopefully gaining new insights and ideas that can come from classroom reflection and interactive discussion through through National Geographic online.  With everyone prepared to participate we should ALL discover something new.

Redefining Environement Graduate Seminar at the Nelson Institute. Photo by John Francis

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
John Francis, a visiting associate professor at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, known the world over as the Planetwalker began his environmental work in 1971, when he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Feeling partly responsible for the mess washing up on the shore, he stopped using of motorized vehicles and began to walk. Several months later, because of the arguments his decision caused, John took a vow of silence lasting 17 years. During that time, he founded Planetwalk a non-profit environmental awareness organization, received a B.S. degree from Southern Oregon University, a Masters in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a PhD in Land Resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ending his silence, John served as project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act of 1990 Staff, in Washington, DC. and United Nations goodwill ambassador to the World’s grassroots communities He authored Planetwalker: 17-Years of Silence, 22-Years of Walking and “The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World” both published by the National Geographic Society, where he is currently an education fellow.