National Geographic Society Newsroom

Redefining the Environmental Movement: Part III

In his role as graduate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Francis leads a seminar where 12 graduate students discuss and examine the awakening and the current state of conservation and the environmental movement, including Environmental Justice, gaining the new insights that can come from classroom reflection and interactive discussion through National Geographic online....

In his role as graduate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, John Francis leads a seminar where 12 graduate students discuss and examine the awakening and the current state of conservation and the environmental movement, including Environmental Justice, gaining the new insights that can come from classroom reflection and interactive discussion through National Geographic online. Read previous posts: Part I and Part II.


Where does the time go? If you have been following my blog, you may well be asking me the same question, as when we left off it was just October of the Fall Semester and my graduate class in Redefining the Environmental Movement was about to travel from Madison, WI, by way of a live video-presence on October 4 and 6, 2011, to visit the 5th annual STAR-TIDES (Sharing To Accelerate Research- Transformative Innovation for Development and Emergency Support) field demonstration being held at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, DC.

John Francis
John Francis, walker, author, and educator. Photo NGS.

As you may remember there was a little concern of the students that as folks interested in the environment, they wanted as little to do as possible with the military, as they felt that institution, along with the Department of Defense had little interest in sustainability and all that it could mean.

Yet, we decided that there were many things that groups and institutions espoused that perhaps we did not particularly agree with, but that in the end, our vision of environment, sustainability, environmental and social justice and human rights connected us all, and if there was a conversation to be had, we should all be a part of that conversation, as well as part of its solution. While I believed the class as a whole accepted this as a premise, there was still a healthy skepticism that filled the air as Jonathan Klein, the instructional technology consultant, made the satellite connection that beamed us onto the grounds at the Fort.

The fall field demonstration ran from Tuesday, October 4th to Friday, October 7th. The event was live all week, so visitors were welcome anytime during normal working hours to address policies, practices, technologies, and organizations that affect complex civil-military environments such as Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR), Stabilization and Reconstruction (S&R), Building Security Capacity (BSC), and Defense Support of Civil Authorities (DSCA).

I had been a frequent participant of STAR-TIDES, had been developing the role of the ethical advisor and the ethical space, where demonstration participants could reflect on the ethical ramification of their actions. The video-presence was an attempt to further develop this role and ethical space by allowing my class to engage in 2 live two-way video conversation with private, NGO and DoD   participants from the remote location of a UW-Madison classroom.

Concurrently, the course, “Redefining the Environment” had been an attempt to expand our consciousness and embrace traditional environmental theory and action to include not only the concept of plants, wildlife, and resources, but to also include human interaction that can be put most succinctly in to the words, “it is about how we treat each other.” While this begins fundamentally with us and our personal relations, it expands rapidly to include our family, community, state, country, and the planet. The humanitarian mission and visions of the STAR-TIDES demonstrations are therefore an appropriate venue.



VSee and Inmarsat technologically facilitated the video-conference for the first day. The VSee video teleconference tool is known for providing a secure simply designed client-to-client video collaboration tool that works on any network.  On the second day VSee was unable to connect and the video-conference was made using Skype, which was adequate, but comes with security issues, and uses 50 per cent more bandwidth. (Get a more detailed explanation STAR-TIDES and technology.)



Dr. Lin Wells gives a video conference briefing of STAR-TIDES to John Francis' class in Redefining the Environmental Movement. Photo by Jonathan Klein.

The link was made and lasted for a little more than an hour. The session began with Dr. Lin Wells, a professor at the National Defense University and Director of the Center for Technology and National Security Policy He gave the students a short overview of STAR-TIDES, followed by 15-minute explanations of some of the technologies that were on site, and how they might be used if actually deployed in the field. There were only a few questions asked by the class. Most of the students were impressed at the technology especially the water treatment and questioned if it was available to populations that were not stressed, but simply needed water purification. In some cases the answer was yes, but in some instances the technology was still in development and being tested.



The link was made with Skype, lasting for the same amount of time. We were unable to determine why VSee did not work. The Skype video seemed clearer. Dr. Dave Warner, Director of Medical Intelligence at MindTel. briefed the class on STAR TIDES, and answered questions for nearly a half hour. Those questions were mostly concerned with the priorities of providing clean water, shelter, communications, and power all in the context of the ethical behavior of all participants, including what technologies were left behind and who pays or if the funding of these technologies are sustainable. One student asked why the removal of radioactive munitions wasn’t given precedence over providing clean water? Dr. Warner answered that both were important, but that with limited resources, without clean water an entire population was at greater statistical risk.



The 12 students came from an eclectic background, of the hard sciences, business and the humanities; 25 per cent have had professional work experience before returning to school to pursue gradate interdisciplinary degrees.

Before the demonstration, students discussed their lack of confidence in the possibility of an ethical outcome when the key players were military, private business, and NGOs, even when working in partnership for expressed humanitarian benefit.

After the demonstration, students felt that an organization that had abandoned the policy of “Don’t Ask and Don’t Tell,” to embrace personal difference as well as conservation and a sustainable energy strategy (related interview in The Atlantic) deserved by its actions to be applauded, and that the conversation of humanitarian collaboration was also an appropriate step.

Having said that, a few students were concerned about the ethical considerations in the promotion and use of technology, saying that “Technology in and of itself has no ethical or moral value. It is neither inherently harmful or beneficial. It is how and whether we use technology that brings us to ethical questions. The technology presented us at STAR-TIDES was impressive and appears on the surface to be beneficial. However, a couple of questions arose during our conversations with the people at STAR -TIDES to be considered. When does the use of technology blind us to other, potentially more effective, solutions?”

How do we determine what technology will be of positive benefit yet benign when inserted into a vulnerable population or culture? Who gets to own the technology, and then who profits and how?  Can we look at history to gain some insight in what may or may not be appropriate technology in answering short and long-term solutions? While there was some indication during the demonstration some of these questions were being considered, the feeling was that there needed to be a sustained conversation about these issues.

While these concerns were illustrated in the PowerPoint presentation that was sent for students to review, prior to the demonstration, it was noted that at the demonstration along with the technology, there was no apparent mechanism on the ground to review the ethical questions, or to have those conversations.



The students suggested that there be some person or group that reviewed the technology appropriateness along with visible and hidden cost before being deployed. This person or persons could be off site, on site, or both, suggesting a continuation of the development of the Ethical Advisor or Ethical Space.

But now it’s Spring, and I am teaching my last classes as a visiting professor at the Nelson Institute. The course is called “Planetwalking,” an undergraduate capstone course where students will work together to plan a 5-day walking field trip in Western Ohio during Spring Break. During the semester and during the walk key elements of Planetlines will be developed and field-tested. Planetlines is a developing K-16 place-based environmental-studies and community-service curriculum using walking as a vehicle with GIS and GPS technologies as a data sharing and social platform.

The walk takes place April 1-5, with live podcast and video-conferencing, so stay tuned. We’ll see you on the road.


Learn More

Redefining the Environmental Movement: Part I

Redefining the Environmental Movement: Part II

NG Fellow: John Francis, Planetwalker



About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

John Francis, Planetwalker
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.