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Environmentalist who was car-free for 22 years, silent for 17 years, to speak at Purdue

October 15, 2012


 A leading U.S. environmentalist who stopped riding in motorized vehicles for 22 years and spent 17 years voluntarily silent will deliver the keynote speech this month at Purdue University's Ecological Sciences and Engineering Symposium 2012.

John Francis

John Francis
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John Francis, an author and visiting professor for the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will headline the symposium, "Urban Rise: Footprints of a Global Civilization," in conjunction with Purdue's Discovery Lecture Series.

His talk, at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 in Discovery Park's Hall for Discovery and Learning Research, Room 131, is free and open to the public. Space is limited, however, so registration is encouraged at

"Purdue's Ecological Sciences and Engineering Symposium 2012 will explore the many facets of urbanization from resource consumption, rural depopulation, policy platforms, social constructs, environmental impacts and more," said symposium co-chair Lauren H. Logan, a Purdue graduate student in biological sciences.

"It is imperative that we as a species understand our role within urbanization and face the consequences, both good and bad, of our actions."

Francis, the son of a West Indian immigrant, moved from Philadelphia to Marin County, Calif., as a young man and witnessed the devastation caused by the 1971 San Francisco Bay oil spill. In response, he stopped riding in motorized vehicles, a vow that lasted from 1972-94. 

On his birthday in 1973, he then decided to stop speaking. With the exception of a phone call to his mother after 10 years of silence, Francis communicated solely by writing, gesturing and playing the banjo until 1990.

The two-day Ecological Sciences and Engineering Symposium also includes a plenary lecture by Steve Hallett, associate professor of botany and plant pathology at Purdue and author of the 2011 book, "The Ecology of War: How Peak Oil and Global Climate Change will Shape the Conflicts of the 21st Century." His talk is at 10 a.m. Oct. 16, also in the Hall for Discovery and Learning Research, Room 143 A-B.

A session titled Bioremediation and Ecological Infrastructure is scheduled for 1:30-2:30 p.m. Oct. 16 and will feature Sally Brown, research associate professor, University of Washington; David Tsao, Americas Technology Manager; and Greg Michalski, Purdue professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences.

Following that, a session titled Urban Ecology will feature Ian Thompson, a USDA research technician in botany and plant pathology at Purdue; Lori Hoagland, an assistant professor of horticulture at Purdue; and Tim Carter, director, Center for Urban Ecology, Butler University.

The afternoon session will conclude with a panel on the Role of Environmental Ethics, Policy, History and Economics in Urbanization. Scheduled speakers are Mark Bernstein, professor of applied ethics at Purdue; Raymond Florax, professor of spatial and environmental economics at Purdue; and Leigh Raymond, a political science professor and director of Purdue's Center for the Environment.

The event also will include a research poster competition for undergraduate and graduate students, with cash prizes to the top finishers. That event, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 16, is in the Hall for Discovery and Learning Research, Room 131.

Event co-chair Nathan Shoaf, a Purdue graduate student in horticulture and landscape architecture, said the ESE symposium will conclude Wednesday with a morning and afternoon service project, including an activity to posting green practice signs throughout the Lafayette-West Lafayette community to highlight local efforts to enhance water quality.

"The effects of urbanization are tremendous, from transportation congestion to altered weather patterns and, most notably, a disconnect between people and nature," Shoaf said. "However, urbanization has the potential to provide opportunities and benefits unrealized in rural communities."

During his 17 years of silence, Francis earned a doctoral degree in land management from the University of Wisconsin. He walked to Ashland, Ore., to enroll at Southern Oregon University, where he completed his bachelor's degree through a two-year program.

He then walked to Washington state and built a boat, contacting the University of Montana and expressing interest in enrolling in a master's degree program. So he walked and sailed to Montana, completing his degree there.

To begin his doctoral studies, he set out for Wisconsin, focusing his research on the effects of oil spills. When the Exxon Valdez disaster occurred in March 1989, his research gained international attention, prompting Francis to walk to Washington, D.C.

Francis started speaking again on Earth Day 1990. And in 1994, he decided he could be more effective if he began to again use motorized transportation. At the border of Venezuela and Brazil, he boarded a bus.

Francis, the author of "Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time," has been employed by the U.S. Coast Guard to work on legislation for the management of oil spills. In 1991 he was named a United Nations Environmental Program Goodwill ambassador. He traveled to Australia in 2009 to walk the Great Ocean Road for a film produced by Tourism Victoria.

Universal Studios has optioned Francis' life story for a possible movie.

The Ecological Sciences and Engineering (ESE) Symposium, a student-run, interdisciplinary annual event, provides undergraduate and graduate students with an opportunity to present their research and interact with experts in various environmental fields. It also raises awareness about the ESE program and other environmentally focused initiatives at Purdue and beyond.

The Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment provided a $1 million gift to Discovery Park in 2005 to sponsor the ongoing Discovery Lecture Series. Previous lectures have focused on nanotechnology, health care, the environment and global entrepreneurship.

Writer: Phillip Fiorini, 765-496-3133,

Sources: Lauren H. Logan, 740-591-8666,

Nathan Shoaf, 765-412-9076,

Related website:
Purdue Green Week 2012

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