Culture Shift

Books + Film + Music

Walking Pilgrimage How the simple act of walking can open us up to confront and heal our toughest problems

YES! Photo by Robert Ranney

After witnessing a catastrophic oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971, John Francis got out of his car, took a vow of silence, and walked for the next 22 years. YES! Photo by Gabriela Urda

I clearly remember learning to walk. I remember falling and the frustration of trying to stand on my feet unsupported, without the help of parents. Finally, there was the euphoria of one day rising by myself. Like a young bird flying, my hands flapped, and my feet lifted to make the first wobbly steps to the other side of the playpen. No one was around, no aunties or uncles urging me to walk. I was alone in my joy, not knowing that this moment would color the life that stretched out before me. Not until I had grown and left my inner-city Philadelphia home for the hills of Marin County, California did my walking truly blossom. Living adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore, I was drawn to explore the nearly 150 miles of trails that led through bishop pines, firs, and redwoods to the ocean.

John Francis

John Francis is an environmental educator and the founder of Planetwalk. He lives in Cape May, New Jersey.

It was an idyllic life until January 1971, when two Standard Oil tankers collided in San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil. This is paltry when compared to the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 11 million gallons in 1989, or the more than 100 million gallons that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. But the Standard Oil spill happened during a cultural revolution, my failed attempts at higher education, and after my consuming enough alcohol and other substances to earn the designation of being lost.

When the oil washed up onto the Northern California shore, I reached back as far as I could remember, to the freedom and joy of taking my first steps. I got out of my car and walked away. I vowed in protest not to ride in any motorized vehicles again. I did so half expecting that I would be joined by throngs of people who had, along with me, cried salty tears at the dying fish and birds, and the oil washing ashore. I thought it would be the beginning of a movement of walkers, masses of people giving up their gas-powered vehicles to save the environment. I was more than a little disappointed when it seemed the movement consisted of only me.

People are a part of the environment, and how we treat each other is fundamental in approaching sustainability. I learned this viscerally during my walking pilgrimage.

Later I found out that the spill had affected people in different ways: For some it was enough to clean oil from the beaches and birds; some went to school and became wildlife biologists; others became political activists; and some were so frustrated that they just continued doing what they had been. But I was angry, and I carried that anger with me. Then I realized that if I was going to continue walking it was going to have to be for something and not against something. So I dedicated my walk as a pilgrimage, and I became a pilgrim, to walk as part of my education, in the spirit and hope that I could be of benefit to us all. I had no idea what that meant, but I figured I would learn along the way.

In Dan Rubinstein’s book, Born to Walk, the author lays out his personal tribute to the transformative power of walking. From the rambles of Words­worth and Thoreau to the on-the-job beat walks of Philadelphia police, Rubinstein interweaves his walk experiences with interesting statistics, theories, studies, and anecdotes. I enjoyed Born to Walk, though it is an almost impossible task to include every peripatetic hue and color and satisfy everyone. However, what Rubinstein does tell us is that more and more people are leaving their jobs and the security of their homes and taking off on long journeys of thousands of miles. For some, it is the spiritual quest of a pilgrimage, or it is attached to some cause, or both.

Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act

Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act

Dan Rubinstein ECW Press, 316 pages

Rubinstein uses headings in his book that include both “Mind” and “Spirit,” delving into what the real world crisis looks like and how the simple act of walking can address even some of our gnarliest problems. Under his heading of “Society,” homicide in Philadelphia skyrockets until the city takes its police officers out of their patrol cars where they are isolated from what’s really going on and puts them on the street, making them walk a beat. With the officers on a first-name basis with the neighborhood, the number of murders plummets.

There are, of course, transfor­mations ­that result from introspection. As I began my pilgrimage decades ago, I turned to Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and contemplative who wrote Seeds of Contemplation. Merton saw pilgrimage as transformative, a metaphor for life’s journey. He wrote, “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.” I devoured Merton and the writings of Colin Fletcher, author of The Man Who Walked Through Time, a memoir of his solo trek through Grand Canyon National Park. Along with Fletcher’s The Complete Walker, I was inspired. Both books gave me some idea as to what the “geographical pilgrimage,” with its camping and walking long distances, might physically entail.

I was angry, and I carried that anger with me. Then I realized that if I was going to continue walking it was going to have to be for something and not against something.

In recent years, I have offered a class on Planetwalking, for graduates and undergrads at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, modeled after my walking experience. Specifically, Planetwalking is meant to be a sensuous experience of our environment that embraces journey and serendipitous community service. Each year the class joins me and other Planetwalkers on a five-day trip across the United States, following my original route. We pick up the journey where we left off the year before. What I have learned from my students is that for many young people, Planetwalking is a way to find out who they are and how they fit in the world while sharing their journeys through blogs and social media.

When I began walking, there were no smartphones or social media platforms, and the “environment” was about pollution and loss of habitat and endangered species. During my journey I discovered that “environment” is much more. People are a part of the environment, and how we treat each other is fundamental in approaching sustainability. I learned this viscerally during my walking pilgrimage. The environment, actually, is about human rights, civil rights, economic equity, gender equality, and all the ways that humans interact with not only the physical environment but also with one another. This was what Lynton K. Caldwell shared with Merton and others when he wrote about the “crisis of mind and spirit.”

YES! Photo by Robert Ranney

John Francis with his 9-year-old son, Luke, in Cape May, New Jersey. YES! Photo by Gabriela Urda

It was 22 years before I rode in motorized vehicles again, but during the years and miles of walking I experienced the most unexpected transformations and discoveries: I had taken a 17-year vow of silence while walking across the United States, and earned three degrees, including a doctorate in environmental studies from the Nelson Institute. After reaching the East Coast, I served as a federal environmental analyst and project manager to help write oil transportation and cleanup regulations following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But perhaps even more important than the formal education and professional positions were the informal moments that came from walking in the natural environment that I was a part of, and the thousands of people that I met who became a part of me. Such moments provided many opportunities for learning, comprised of chance roadside meetings, being welcomed into the homes of strangers, being treated as a family friend, listening fully to different music and different points of view, and being on the receiving end of unanticipated kindness. There may be no better way to engage the environment than to walk in it and be among ourselves, letting nature shape us, to be fully human, in a more than human world.

In the end, if you don’t know this truth, if you don’t feel it in your bones, in the soles of your feet, Born to Walk, or any other book that I know of, might not convince you. The transformative power of walking is in the act, moving from where we are to where we want to be.

John Francis is an environmental educator and the founder of Planetwalk. He lives in Cape May, New Jersey.

John Francis

John Francis is an environmental educator and the founder of Planetwalk. He lives in Cape May, New Jersey.

Books + Film + Music

Books Inspiring Us

How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World

How to Be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World

Colin Beavan

Nearly a decade has passed since Colin Beavan became known as No Impact Man — what was then a one-year experiment in environmental living that led to a book, a film, and a school curriculum. The project sparked Beavan’s own broader commitment to social activism and encounters with thousands of what he calls “lifequesters” like himself. The result: The ambitious but something-for-everyone How to be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World. Beavan offers up ideas for examining one’s life choices, coining a few terms of his own. (“Lifequester” is just a start.)

Becoming a Citizen Activist

Becoming a Citizen Activist

Nick Licata

A retired four-term Seattle City Council member, Licata has penned a user-friendly how-to guide for instigating change. From working with the media to campaigning for support in the community, Licata provides insight into successful strategies, based on his own experiences as a local leader, as well as several Washington-state-based case studies, including the legalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage. For those with passion for an issue but unsure how to rally the troops or fight city hall, Becoming a Citizen Activist is an accessible, empowering read from the first sentence: “You don’t have to be a Marvel comic book superhero to change the world.”

Books + Film + Music

The Reason to Ride a Bike Yes, there are too many cars, and bicycling for transportation can reduce our emissions. But more importantly, it changes our mindset.

Photo by Rodrigo Marcondes

Aline Cavalcante rides in São Paulo, Brazil. Photo by Rodrigo Marcondes

Cars have taken over our cities: More than half of downtown Los Angeles is devoted to roads and parking lots. Bikes are an afterthought at best, and those brave, or perhaps foolhardy, souls who bike risk life and limb.

Peter Kalmus

Dr. Peter Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (speaking on his own behalf) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine.

So says Bikes vs Cars, a 2015 film by Swedish director Fredrik Gertten. At first glance, the film comes across as a straightforward piece of bike advocacy. It focuses on two passionate bike activists in two car-friendly cities — Aline Cavalcante in São Paulo, Brazil, and Dan Koeppel in Los Angeles — as they describe their battles against cars and ask us to imagine cities designed for people. What’s really at stake here is how we live.

Like Koeppel, I’m an everyday bike commuter living in Los Angeles. Biking keeps me fit and healthy (I get sick less often than I did before I started biking), saves me money (bikes are much cheaper to operate than cars), prevents me from wasting my life in traffic jams, and resets me emotionally. It just plain feels great. At the community scale, I no longer buy things from the big box stores; I support the local mom-and-pop stores, which I can get to by bike. And at the municipal scale, bikes help solve thorny urban problems, such as traffic congestion, parking, and air quality. More bikes and fewer cars would make our cities safer, cleaner, quieter, more beautiful, and more integrated.

Bikes even take a bite out of global warming, not merely by reducing our emissions but also by changing our mindset. Bikes are more than just the world’s most efficient transportation machines: They might also be the world’s most efficient awareness-building machines.

Bikes vs Cars

Bikes vs Cars

Directed by Fredrik Gertten, 2015, 91 min.

But Bikes vs Cars won’t convince anyone to get on a bike. The film largely ignores these benefits and instead works hard to portray biking as terrifying. This was a fundamental error in the film’s conception because, while traffic danger is certainly a crucial part of the bicyclist’s predicament — as I ride I’m aware that this ride might be my last — it turns out that biking is actually significantly safer than driving. One statistical study found that a modest bike commute adds 90 to 420 days of life expectancy from increased cardiovascular health, while the increased risk from accidents subtracts only five to nine days. Other studies find the effect to be even greater.

Still, in the United States we could easily improve both safety and perceived safety for bicyclists. A relatively modest investment in real bike infrastructure — a network of bike lanes and bike paths connecting schools, transit hubs, and workplaces — would make biking feel safer; and when biking feels safer, more people ride. The film discusses controversy over a bike lane along York Boulevard, a major arterial here in Los Angeles. Koeppel claims it adds to street life without hurting traffic flow; I can tell you that I feel safer when I’m riding on it.

How else can we get people riding? Bikes vs Cars misses an opportunity to provide real insight here. For example, the film briefly visits Copenhagen, where 45 to 50 percent of commutes are on bikes. Perhaps to be playful, we share the point of view of a bike-hating cab driver. The film makes no attempt to explain the vast gulf in ridership between Copenhagen and L.A., where only 1 percent of commutes are on bikes. In Copenhagen, there’s 50 times more biking. What lessons can Copenhagen teach us?

Bikes vs Cars also misses an opportunity to make the connection to climate change. It’s an undeniable fact that cars are killing our biosphere: The average American contributes more to global warming by driving than by doing anything else. Although the film beats the problem of traffic congestion to death, in my opinion global warming is more urgent.

[The film] does suggest congestion pricing on tolls, parking to reduce traffic jams, and more bike lanes. But perhaps it’s time to think bigger.

But climate change is mentioned only once, during an interview with a former marketing director for General Motors who probably speaks for most of us when he says: “Do I want to have cleaner air for my kids, do I not want climate change? Yeah, you’re dang right. [But] I’m not selling my gasoline car, and I’m as green as they come.” The cognitive dissonance captured here is widespread today and is at the root of climate inaction.

The film barely discusses solutions to any of the interconnected problems it raises. It does suggest congestion pricing on tolls, parking to reduce traffic jams, and more bike lanes. But perhaps it’s time to think bigger. For example, a carbon fee and dividend would not only encourage biking, it would gradually transform our entire society by providing a clear financial incentive for people and businesses to move away from fossil fuels.

Where Bikes vs Cars does excel is in revealing how money in politics destroys urban livability. People are beginning to see how the corporatocracy co-opts national policy and takes control of state legislatures. Bikes vs Cars shows how the car industry managed to buy Angela Merkel, block emissions caps, and install a deeply dishonest efficiency labeling system in Europe.

This plays out at the municipal level as well. For example, Koeppel fought for bike lanes on North Figueroa, an especially dangerous street for bikers and pedestrians and a key corridor that would connect the bikeway on York Boulevard to other neighborhoods in northeast L.A. His local city council member, Gil Cedillo, had complete control over the decision. But local politicians can be bought cheaply, and Cedillo accepted contributions from Chevron, whose interest is “to see more freeways built.” Koeppel does “not imagine that the oil companies do not expect a payback on their investment.” The North Figueroa bike lane project was halted indefinitely.

My favorite sequence of the film, though, was near the beginning, when the camera follows Cavalcante as she bikes skillfully along the wet streets of São Paulo at night. For me, this beautiful scene captured the sheer joy of riding, the ineffable magic. I ride for many reasons but mainly for this. At its heart, Bikes vs Cars is saying that it’s time to decide how we want to live.

Peter Kalmus

Dr. Peter Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (speaking on his own behalf) and a contributing editor for YES! Magazine.

Yes! But How?

DIY Ways to Live Sustainably Mosquito-Free Without the DEET

Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

We are heading into summer while news of the spread of mosquito-borne infectious diseases like dengue and Zika is everywhere. What makes people so attractive to mosquitoes? Blood, yes. But first, it’s CO2. Every breath we exhale alerts mosquitoes to the proximity of tasty blood. While you can’t stop breathing to avoid these bloodthirsty pests, here are a few nontoxic ways to keep them off you.

Plant-based Repellents
Plant-based Repellents

Oil of lemon eucalyptus Effective, but needs to be reapplied every two hours. Not recommended for children under 3.

Soy, Coconut, and Palm Nut Oil Works for a limited time. Bonus points: Who doesn’t want to smell like a piña colada?

Citronella Band soaked in citronella oil is semi-effective. Don’t bother with outdoor citronella candles; their heat and CO2 actually attract insects.

Geraniol Bug Bracelets Alcohol derived from citronella, geranium, and rose oil is less effective than citronella in its whole form.

Natural Predators
Natural Predators

Dragonflies Dragonflies and their damselfly cousins eat mosquitoes as adults; as nymphs, they prey on mosquitoes before they even leave the water. But high-pitched sound emitters that claim to scare away mosquitoes by imitating the wing beat of a dragonfly don’t work.

Fish Too fond of your pond? Install pond aerators to prevent stagnant water or add fish that eat mosquito larvae, like goldfish or mosquito fish.

Playing Hard to Get
Playing Hard to Get

Create Wind You wouldn’t want to stroll through a windstorm, and neither would a mosquito. Using a hand fan or setting up a strong fan outdoors—and staying within range—can ward off the relentless pests. The swirling air also disrupts the steady flow of carbon dioxide humans release every few seconds and makes it trickier for mosquitoes to find us.

Cover Up Mosquito nets can protect children in strollers. Long, loose clothing in lighter colors is effective.


Even a tablespoon of water is enough for a cozy mosquito nursery. Ways to avoid creating them:

  • Change water in pet water bowls and bird baths frequently.
  • Unclog gutters.
  • Shake water from tarps.
  • Remove yard garbage, like tires.
  • Fill hollow stumps with mortar.
  • Minimize the growth of tall grasses, weeds, and shrubs; flowering bushes hold water in their flowers.
At Large

What Beltway Politicians Didn't See Coming

A year ago, it looked like we were in for a tedious election with yet another Bush pitted against another Clinton. Not so, as it turned out.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor at large of YES!

Inside the Beltway, they didn’t see it coming, but I wasn’t surprised that millions of voters defied the political establishment and chose to support Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. I spent 18 weeks on a road trip last year visiting communities across the United States, and I found an America that has lost faith in the status quo. There is real disquiet among the American people, with two out of three saying they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, according to the Pew Research Center.

The economic pain is the most obvious reason so many feel alienated. Many economists tell Americans we should be celebrating the recovery, but I found communities stuck in poverty and debt, lacking affordable health care, decent housing, and even safe water. We are told it is our own fault if we are struggling, even though the structure of the economy has shifted profoundly to the advantage of the superrich.

The crisis isn’t just economic, though: Racism, especially in the criminal justice system, continues to limit the futures of many people of color, while climate change is drying up fertile lands and causing wildfires, floods, and extreme weather all over the country.

But in every community I visited, I found people working hard to lay a different foundation for our society.

For many reasons, the people I met distrust big transnational corporations and their ties to the political establishment. Whether because of job exports, reckless treatment of the environment, or the damage done by big box stores to local businesses, I found people everywhere looking for ways to build a different sort of economy, starting with locally rooted businesses and nonprofits, but also cooperatives, land trusts, food hubs, and urban farms.

In communities where more young people get caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline than go to college, I talked to people creating alternatives to mass incarceration by bringing restorative justice into schools and policing.

And as sea ice melts and coastlines flood, and the collateral damage of coal, oil, and gas extraction add up, I met people who are standing up to the fossil-fuel industry, saying “no” to fracking, pipelines, coal strip mines, and tar sands extraction, while saying “yes” to renewables and restorative farming.

The political establishment in the United States is losing legitimacy as it fails to deliver the basic things people expect from their government: economic opportunity, security, fairness, and a viable future. When a system loses legitimacy — as did the apartheid system in South Africa and slavery in the United States — it is like the rotting of a foundation. You can’t predict when or how the structure will buckle or collapse, but you can be pretty sure that it will.

From Montana ranches to Detroit neighborhoods to Appalachian hamlets, I met people who understand that this system is failing. Donald Trump appeals to some who see the decay, but he offers nothing to build on — just hate, authoritarianism, and more power for a wealthy elite.

Bernie Sanders’ political revolution — regardless of who gets the nomination — has galvanized the yearnings of millions for a society that puts the common good ahead of corporate profits.

My road trip left me convinced, though, that the most powerful work for change is happening one community at a time. The local level is where people are creating ways of life that work for themselves, their communities, and the ecological systems that support all life. It’s at the local level where people feel their power. This work is rarely covered in the media, and even the best local efforts can be defeated by powerful corporate interests and the political insiders who support them. The hate and division represented by the Trump candidacy could still be in our future, especially when frustration turns into despair and nihilism. But this unusual election season is opening up opportunities for local changemakers, in partnership with enlightened national leaders, to set a direction for our country that will benefit everyone — including Trump’s supporters. The stakes have never been higher.

Sarah van Gelder

Sarah van Gelder is co-founder and editor at large of YES!