This story was originally reported by PRI's The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.
In 1971, two tankers crashed near the Golden Gate bridge, spilling 840,000 gallons of oil into the waters near San Francisco. After seeing the environmental destruction wreaked on the San Francisco bay, John Francis "really wanted to do something," he told PRI's The Takeaway. "I wanted to get out and start walking." Francis vowed to stop riding in motorized vehicles, a prohibition that lasted for some 22 years.
Walking around the earth, Francis soon tired of the endless arguments he was pulled into. People accused him of trying to make them feel bad for riding in cars. Francis explained, "In my little community people started arguing with me about what one person could do." So Francis quit talking for the next 17 years.
The experience of not talking taught Francis the value of listening to other people. He founded a nonprofit called Planetwalker, was briefly employed by the Coast Guard and helped write oil spill legislation, was named a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations. He earned a PHD and taught classes without saying a word.
By staying silent and not riding in motorized vehicles, Francis also realized a more expansive definition of "the environment." He said in a talk to the TED conference, "environment changed from being about trees and species to how we treat each other."
Now that he's talking again, Francis is using his voice to try to raise environmental consciousness. "We have to do something now," he said at the TED conference. "We have to change now."