John Francis, the Planetwalker: A Champion for the Environment

In honor of Black History Month, we are celebrating the many African Americans – like Dr. John Francis — who have contributed to the environmental conservation movement. Dr. Francis’ unique journey of self-discovery led to the beginning of our nation’s legislation and policies on oil spill management.

John Francis, also known as Planetwalker, was moved to act after witnessing the harrowing collision of two oil tankers underneath the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971, where over half a million gallons of oil spilled into San Francisco Bay.

Reportedly the largest in the Bay Area’s history, the oil spill threatened sensitive natural habitats both inside and outside the bay, including the Bolinas Lagoon, an important stopover point along the Pacific Flyway that supports the millions of shorebirds and waterfowl that visit the mudflats and quiet waters each year. The spill also contributed to the growth of activism against pollution, inspiring thousands of Bay Area residents, like Francis, to volunteer to clean up beaches and rescue oil soaked birds. This was one of the largest volunteer turnouts since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In the wake of this event, John Francis resolved to make a difference.

“Noteworthy species in Bolinas Lagoon include clapper and black rails, salt marsh common yellowthroat, great egrets, and great blue herons occur around the lagoon, and California red-legged frog are known to occur adjacent to the lagoon in freshwater ponds” via Marin Watershed Program. Credit: Jackson D Shedd/USFWS

Francis was intent on taking action to protect the environment and bringing awareness to all about the interconnectedness  of nature and humanity. After witnessing the devastation of the oil spill, he made a commitment give up riding and driving in motorized vehicles — and would later take a 17 year long vow of silence to listen, learn, and grow. As he walked across the country and back again, in silence, he earned his bachelor’s degree, his master’s degree, and his PhD. John Francis’ journey took him around the globe, changing his perspectives and what drove him.

At the end of his journey, he knew that he could do more for the environment than merely walking. He ended his vow of silence to assist in writing oil spill regulations, and served as the project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act Staff of 1990. Francis has continued his commitment to the environment: teaching undergraduate and graduate courses, writing about environmental issues, and running a non-profit to advance the protection of the environment through unity and understanding.

Watch Planetwalker’s TED Talk to learn more about Dr. John Francis and his journey to self-discovery and protecting the Earth.

To learn more about the Association for the Study of African American Life and History and the theme of this year’s Black History Month, read below and visit their webpage here.