Return To Episode Page Return to Peace Talks Radio Home Page

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with John Francis who quit riding in motorized
vehicles for 22 years and quit speaking for 17 years, in response to a 1971 oil spill.

John Francis: In my community people saw me walking and they started to argue with me about how one person really can make a difference and I didn’t know if that was true or not.  I just found myself arguing all the time.  Here I am, walking around in this beautiful environment and all I do is argue with my friends and my neighbors who often felt that what I was doing was something to make them look bad.  So on my birthday I took the extraordinary steps of deciding not to speak for one day and that was what really changed my life most dramatically.

Carol Boss: What happened after that first day of not speaking?  What did you notice?

Francis: Well the first thing that I noticed about not speaking was I did it for a gift for my community because I talk so much but what my firs teaching was to myself was that I hadn’t been listening and because I hadn’t been listening I had stopped learning.  What I would do is something that I’m not sure your listeners have done or are doing but it was something really big in my life.  I would just listen long enough to believe that I understood or knew what the other person was going to say and then I would stop listening to them and I would start thinking about how I was going to say that they were wrong or that yes they were right but I could say that better or I was smarter than they were and this is what I had come up with and that one day I realized I had not been listening and that I had stopped learning and I stopped speaking for another day and another day until finally I had decided that I was going to not speak for a year and I would ask myself on my birthday if that was still appropriate because I was learning so much and it allowed me to put myself, the things that I believed aside to listen to someone more fully to understand, at least understand what their point was and where they were coming from.  Maybe I didn’t agree with them and eventually I wouldn’t agree but that they did have the right to be heard and I was going to listen to them.

Boss: And when you continued walking, and we’re not just talking about walking to the store or the library, we’re talking about you – you took very large walks across the country.  Would I be correct in saying that in a sense all of this was part of a recognition on your part of a personal responsibility?

Francis: Absolutely.  Absolutely.

Boss: Can you talk about that?

Francis: Well as I was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge with my girlfriend in our four wheel drive vehicle I understood that part of what was washing up on the shore, I had some responsibility because here I am driving a motorized vehicle and we’re using this oil and I wanted the oil quickly, I wanted it cheaply, I wanted lots of it and because of that the industry, I was creating a demand as we all do, the industry was responding to that demand.  Now absolutely oil companies have a great preponderance of the responsibility especially when they spill it but in all fairness I have to take some responsibility myself.

After all those years of not talking and listening and all those years of studying informally as well as formally, environment to me had changed.  When I started out it was just about pollution and soon became about loss of species and loss of habitat and all those thing we traditionally think of environment.  Global warming and climate change became part of that.  But what I understood was, and it was in the literature, is that people are part of the environment and if people were indeed part of the environment then our first opportunity to treat the environment in a sustainable way or even to understand what sustainability is, is in the relationship with ourselves and with each other and so to me environment needed to have civil rights, human rights, economic equity, gender equality and all the ways that humans relate to one another and if we related to each other with respect and love and dignity and not looking to I guess exploit one another, to oppress one another.  If we really treated each other the way we wanted to see our physical environment treated then we would find that what would happen in our physical environment would be a mitigation of a lot of the problems and a lot of the issues that we are facing today.  That was my message and I continue to give that message wherever I go.

Boss: Can you elaborate a little bit more, perhaps get more specific.  Maybe you have a couple of examples of how we treat the environment in a sustainable way is about the sustainability in our relationships with each other.

Francis: Well for example, and this is a very simple example, if I were a manufacturer and I lived on a river and I was making widgets of course and widgets were wonderful.  Everybody wanted them and I was doing quite well, but in making widgets there is a waste product which I was dumping into the river.  In economic terms that’s called an externality because I don’t have to pay for getting rid of that waste product.  As it goes downstream, I learn, or my company learns that it’s actually causing health problems to the town downstream and that they actually have to pay to clean up the river in order to keep from having these health problems.  Now if I was thinking like hey you know, how we treat each other is how we treat the environment, right away I would say: oh my God!  Let’s stop!  We have to stop and figure out how we’re going to take care of this.  If I weren’t, I might say: well listen, I want us to burry that memo and we’re not going to do nothing until people absolutely make us do something and in that way you can see how our relationship, our personal relationship with ourselves and with each other and understanding our connectiveness would actually make a difference in the environment.

Boss: You know with everything that you’ve said and then also the fact that you have studied and you’re an expert in a sense on oil spills, what do you want people to consider when they grapple with their feelings around the sadness, the grief of news of a new oil spill?

Francis: Well there are all these hidden costs to oil, to our economy, to how we live our lives and we have to really understand that and try to come to grips with that because there are lots of lives, not only in the gulf but all over the world that we affect with the way that we need to procure oil and to procure energy in order to continue the lifestyle that we have.  And so we’re going to have to, as a country, come to grips with that and as Americans look for a way to be able to change.  Look for a way to be able to change.  And I can’t tell everyone this is how you have to do it.  I mean it’s something that’s so individual that’s it’s going to come from within us.  I mean they’re going to be – pollution is a big thing and using alternative energy is a big thing.  Those are amazing, wonderful paths that we are going to go on but what we have to do as we’re going on those paths is that the change that is necessary is going to have to come from within us because we’re going to have to become different.

Boss: I know that it’s easy for people to turn the TV off or to put a newspaper aside and create some distance between themselves and a tragedy such as the Gulf oil spill.  How does a person know when it’s their moment to make a decision?

Francis: Well when the tears are running down your face when you’ve heard something on the news or when you have read it in the paper, you know that there is an opportunity for you to make a change to do something because right then, right then you have passion to do it.  Maybe the tears will go away.  They will go away but at that moment you know that there is something that’s touching you on an emotional level and you can do something.  In 1969 there was a blowout in Santa Barbara.  It was an oil spill of about three million gallons of oil.  It galvanized the country.  The first Earth Day came out of that the following year.  1970 was the first Earth Day and it kind of put us into the environmental movement.  That’s the beginning of the environmental movement.  What I’m hope is that this oil spill, which happened on Earth Day, well actually happened on the 20th and Earth Day is the 22nd but that this will do the same thing, that this will kind of propel us into another era of thinking about the environment and really doing something about it.  You don’t need to be a scientist in order to understand how this works.  You should be able to see this in your own lives and feel it.  And so if you needed to have an advanced degree in physics or environmental studies to understand this then I think it wouldn’t work.  This is just for us.  This is just for people to understand to make this happen.

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks with Kathy Sanchez, Native
American potter and member of Tewa Women United

Kathy Sanchez: The perspective is that it should not happen.  It is, drilling in water or on land, is about extraction, taking part in a process of the death and dying and we’re not allowing the materials to go through their process of the whole years that it takes to  be in mother earth and in their grave and being able to be of use again within a million years and we’re just scratching the surface and taking out bodies and that’s not right.

Carol Boss: Now you said “taking out bodies.”  What do you mean by that?

Sanchez: Well the fossil fuel of oil is the bodies of dinosaurs.  They’re ancient animals that have been buried in the ground and they need to go through their death processed.  They need to be reclaimed and recharged and cleansed and then be able to come to the surface again in the natural years that it takes for that to happen.  Extraction is violence if you’re reaching into mother earth with the permission, without the sacredness that it takes to allow our natural world to be not harmed by our actions.

Boss: Did your organization, Tewa Women United, respond specifically to the Gulf oil disaster?

Sanchez: I think we responded by doing a lot more water ceremonies because water spirits are connect multiversly and we had a group that following week here from I think North Carolina and they were also like in a dilemma saying well what do you do, we don’t know, we’re not related and I said you’re water people.  You carry the water in you.  Just go to the nearest water.  Give love and thanks to the springs to the lakes to the water to the water you drink before you wash your face.  Give love and thanks and when you do that, that energy of that love, that water feels, they’re going to feel that down there as well.  It’s going to be transferred to another level or another means and so you’re working at different multi-levels of existence and that’s how the first immediate thing you do.  The next immediate thing you do is locally or grassroots as families, as people, how do you do it? Do you do a collection?  Do you do clothes?  I think we did more in ceremony and prayer.  We don’t have the means to go down there and as a collective we send through e-mails through blogs, people that are connected that we know.  We do an e-mail blast to let people know what’s happening to the indigenous, what’s happening to the water, what’s happening on a policy level.  

Boss: Kathy Sanchez, how do Native Americans who are conscious of caring for the earth act in their everyday life that connects them with this relationship with nature such as shopping and using vehicles and building your homes?

Sanchez: I think as conditioned humans into this culture of violence, if we want to be about the culture of peace we need to do it within our means.  We need to think about what we are capable of doing whether their baby steps, leaps of changes, what we are able to do we should do and it starts with prayer.  Everybody can say their good thoughts.  Everybody can always be conscious of offering a thank you a smile.  I think the basics it’s so simple.  You want to be happy.  You want to be healthy.  You want to be spiritually connected.  How you do that is within your preview and if it takes working at it, a conscious effort, you have to be about purposeful living and then you define that for yourself.  What is purposeful living?  Yes, maybe we have to shop but where do we shop.  Yes, maybe we’re shopping 90% of our time.  Let’s cut it down to 60%.  Let’s make our own things.  Let’s barter.  Let’s exchange.  Let’s give without having to expect money.  And how do you cut down?  How do you start, how do you start being more in walking on mother earth, connecting to her and walking and saying thank you and meeting people as opposed to zipping in a car going fast because then time is an element that has been taken from us.  Let’s claim our time to be with each other back again.

Boss: Is there a way to ask for permission and use earth’s resources appropriately?

Sanchez: Yes there is.  When we do our pottery, when we make our pottery, we have to get the clay and so we offer our prays and ask for permission to take and we only take that which will sustain us.  We don’t bring a whole truck load and load up the whole back and have it there and not go back again.  It’s that action of interactions, relational presence, that’s what life is about.  So when you’re getting permission they allow you to take and have sustenance by that use of the clay or the use – but in reality with what is sustainable, what is needed at that time.  All the life givers understand that.  Even the trees, you ask permission before you take the herbs, before you take any of the fruit and then you give back to life.  You take what you need but then you also feed the animals.  You also feed the spirit.  There’s many levels of feeding each other with goodness.

Boss: Do you have any suggestions for listeners how they can start thinking about this and really getting in touch with their values?

Sanchez: Well I think that if us as humans really know who we are meaning that we didn’t just surface here, we didn’t just pop out from nowhere, we came from a mother.  We came from a long lineage of ancestral beings and we came in a process, in a life cycle of mother earth and if can be humble enough to ask for that spiritual guidance, that ancestral wisdom to be with us now, in an instant we would be show a lot of the ways to be on this earth and it’s in the asking.  We have to be humble enough to ask for guidance.  We have to be ready to perceive whatever comes and be willing to be in that change ourselves.  You can’t change anybody but yourself so you have to start with yourself and if your gut or your feeling is telling you what’s happening isn’t right, if what your actions are showing you isn’t in a correct way to be and you’re having this tug of war with your conscience, then it’s time that we really acknowledge who we are and how people are connected to mother earth, how we are land people, we are land based people, we are community people.  We are not put on this mother earth as individuals.  We’re in a society.  We’re in a family.  We’re in a relationship and even if a human were alone in an island, there’s still the animals, there’s still the trees that take care of us, that give us shelter, that give us food.  We really need to think about relational presence. 

Peace Talks Radio Host Carol Boss talks Daniel Schwartz, professor of social Ecology at the University of New Mexico

Daniel Schwartz: Imperfect human beings only make imperfect technologies and therefore these accidents are quite normal, they happen on a regular basis.  I expect these kinds of accidents to happen because given enough wells, there are 4,000 alone in the Gulf of Mexico, they’re expected to blow and this one blew very hard because anywhere between 30% and 40% of the oil contains natural gas which is extremely explosive as soon as it reaches oxygen.

Carol Boss: Let me ask you this: your response, how did you feel, what were your reactions at the time?

Schwartz: My reaction are always very sad because I understand the depth of this tragedy from a biological and an ecological point of view.  The entire Gulf has been a natural disaster area and a national sacrifice area for a long time.  The military has dumped shells and military hardware after World War II.  There is very little environmentalism among the southern states.  It’s one of the most conservative areas of the country and oil has a lot of control.  Meanwhile the blue-finned tuna spawned there, different tuna already are endangered and numerous creatures spawn and move through that are and the tragedy is still not fully understood.

Boss: Daniel, you’re teaching juniors and seniors.  Do you find those students who are nearing graduation struggling at this point between holding onto their dreams, the kind of dreams where the world is wide open and just waiting there for them, struggling between that and the reality of an even scarier, turbulent world.  Do you think the environment plays into these conflicted emotions?

Schwartz: That’s a wonderful question.  Absolutely.  These are students who have their lives in front of them.  Most of them are 20, 21, 22.  They’re graduating in a time that’s very difficult.  I think part of my job is to tell the truth.  I should say on the other hand I believe it’s important to talk about hope and these students need to have hope.  One of the things the students are concerned with, careers and jobs and the kinds of things many of us, most of us were concerned with when we were that age.  On the other hand I do talk about denial.  What happens as we phase into denial with regards to the environment because at some levels it’s very abstract and other levels not necessarily so and abstractions are, at this point, are not as powerful for most students than jobs, relationships and the kinds of things that they want to make their lives better and all the work they did for their bachelor’s degrees.  So it is a dilemma and I think the students find themselves in a dilemma.  I try to get them to face the situations with regards to the crisis not only in the environment but ultimately it’s a crisis of humanity and life on the planet as the entire life support system now is under attack.

I present different paradigms.  One of the new paradigms is called “the precautionary principle” where we don’t look at how much harm should be allowable but how little harm is possible.  The city of San Francisco has taken up the precautionary principle.  A number of European countries have taken up the precautionary principle.  Don’t just go ahead and put out some chemical into the environment or do some process and then wait to see what the effects are.  It’s simply too dangerous and that’s one of the problems of drilling down 30,000 or 35,000 feet after you’ve drilled, after you’ve gone down a mile into the ocean to look for oil and also what that does is marginalize alternative energy sources.  So the new paradigms are important.  I would hope, I was hoping that the president of the United States would make a statement like this: how can we achieve prosperity with fairness and equality while minimizing harm to people, other living beings in the environment.  That would be a new paradigm.  That statement alone would be a new paradigm and a movement by people to look at these issues.  And so students, I was trying to present these new paradigms to students and let them think about alternatives to the way life is right now because we do need positive visions.  We do need positive alternative futures.  We live in a non-sustainable system.  We only have one earth.  We can’t live like we have two or three or ten earths.

Boss: Daniel Schwartz, are there other paradigms you have to offer that give people concrete options?

Schwartz: Let me relate a person story very quickly.  When I was 15 years old I lived along one of the old transport canals near the Delaware River which separates New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  That transport canal we used for swimming, boating and fishing and just hanging out.  It was beautiful.  It was a wonderful ecosystem with lightning bugs and so on.  That transport canal will always be in my heart.  The transport canal, in the name of progress, was transformed into a freeway.  It was cemented over with little or no resistance.  It was thought of as progress and people did not act in their own interests and they traded in this beautiful canal and that whole ecosystem for a noisy, rather odiferous freeway system with constant noise and constant odors and gave it up in the name of an ideology instead of thinking what’s in our interest.  And I think that happens often with the notion of progress.  We don’t look at the larger picture.  We become rational or rationalize without looking at reason and history and the kinds of things that make life worth living.  If somehow we thought that a freeway, the noise and the cars, would somehow be better for people living in the neighborhood than this wondrous canal.  So the canal no longer exists and I think that kind of thing happens in different places and different times.  We need to rethink notions of progress.  Progress for whom? 

So there is a relationship that I want students to take hold of to find that balance and harmony within to respect the natural world and it’s our life support system that we can’t live without air and water and good land.  We need these things to survive and it’s only hyper individualism and this idea that we can isolate ourselves and quarantine ourselves from the natural world, it gets us into trouble.  Somehow things outside can go very wrong in the natural world but we can hide out and we can’t hide out anymore.  The world won’t allow us to.  So we have to deal with multiple issues and that would be inequality.  We have to deal with issues of sustainability.  We have to deal with issues of individualism and hyper individualism at the expense of community and society.  There are multiple issues and they’re not only intellectual issues, they’re issues of the heart.  So it’s really hard in a short period of time to deal with these issues because the crisis that we face is not just an environmental crisis, it’s a crisis of what it means to be human, what makes life worth living and a crisis of the human spirit.