John Francis walked the Earth and didn’t speak for 17 years. And here’s one thing he discovered: How we treat nature is a reflection of how we treat each other.In 1971, a young John Francis was living in Point Reyes Station when he saw something terrible: 800,000 gallons of oil spill into the San Francisco Bay.
It affected him so much, he decided to stop driving or even riding in cars. That decision started a lot of arguments with his friends and family. When he tired of those arguments, he decided to stop speaking for a day, then a week, then a month, then a year.
He didn’t speak again until Earth Day, 17 years later.
Not speaking made him realize the importance of listening. As he studied the environment, he also realized that how we treat nature is a reflection of how we treat each other.
Geologists call our time the Anthropocene (a combination of Greek roots: anthropo- meaning “human” and -cene meaning “new”). Why? Because the influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere is now so great, it’s created a new geological epoch.
Francis says, “If we are the environment, then we need to look around us and see how we treat ourselves and how we treat each other.” His epiphany that the damage we see in the environment is a reflection of the damage we do to our fellowman made him realize he had to start speaking again—to spread this message.
We’re all responsible in one way or another for the human behavior that’s created a new geological epoch. We could all be better listeners. Still, some of us need to listen a bit more than others.
Who is doing the most damage to the environment precisely because they aren’t listening? Technocrats who live highly insulated lives and make decisions that effect many while being cutoff from reality “on the ground.” They see themselves as the “strategic” people and often look down on the “tactical” people—the ones who are in the field (the classrooms, the streets, the battlefields, the plantations) doing the work.
From the Vietnam and Iraq wars to the Bhopal disaster and the BP oil spill, a tragic history of technocratic incompetence comes back to a basic inability to listen to people.
Who are the people on the ground that we should be listening to when it comes to the environment? No doubt we should listen to scientists. But how about indigenous people? Isn’t climate change proving them to have been right all along?
At the recent UN climate talks in Lima, Peru, where nations tried to hash out global agreements on atmospheric CO2 reductions, there was an Indigenous Caucus (off to the side). A leader stood up and challenged his brothers and sisters.
We must be more than just witnesses here, we must demand to be used for what we know. The people in those conference rooms don’t know as much as they think they do. If they did, they wouldn’t be in this situation.