It’s been more than 50 years since Jane Goodall rocketed to global fame after National Geographic profiled her research with chimpanzees in what is now Tanzania. Today, the conservationist travels the world with her message about the urgent need for each of us to take action to protect the planet.
Goodall’s gruelling schedule, which keeps her on the road more than 300 days a year, yesterday took her to Ottawa, where she met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, then later spoke to a sold out house of 3,000 people at the Shaw Centre, raising funds for the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. She found time to sit down with John Geiger, CEO of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, to talk about her global efforts to protect the great apes, the environment and the human community. Her tour continues with a lecture in Toronto tonight.
John Geiger: One thing that struck me in reading some of your work — and also reading some pieces written about you — is that you seem to possess a fundamental optimism about human potential. How do you maintain that in light of all that you’ve encountered in your life?
Jane Goodall: The world is in a mess. And there’s absolutely no question: if we carry on with business as usual, we will reach that point that we biologists refer to as the point of no return. I believe that there’s a window of time, but the urgency is that we get together and change the way we’re harming the planet. And that’s why I’m traveling 300 days a year to try and wake people up, and it’s very difficult. My greatest hope is the young people, and the fact that people need this kind of stimulation. I don’t think my lectures have ever been so quickly sold out. There have been so many people with tears. They want to have hope, and people feel helpless and hopeless because the problems are so big and they don’t know what to do. If every individual makes more ethical choices, that’s the hope.
Geiger: You’ve made a tremendous difference in terms of your own life, but how do regular people — people who have regular jobs and regular lives — make a difference?
Goodall: By simply thinking about the consequences of the choices they make each day. What do they buy? Where did it come from? How was it made? Did it involve cruelty to animals or child slave labour? How many miles has it come? Could they buy it closer to home? What do they eat? What do they wear? Again, if billions of people make these ethical choices thinking about the effect of what they do today on the planet and the future, thinking about generations ahead like the indigenous people… .
Geiger: Your work with chimpanzees and the revelation that they use tools and are remarkable adapters makes me wonder if you have seen evidence among them of adaptations to human beings. Obviously, humans are a threat not just to chimpanzees but also to all sorts of life on Earth. Have you seen evidence that they’re aware of that threat?
Goodall: Well, in areas where there’s hunting, you find that chimpanzees are much quieter. You don’t hear them calling very often. In my book, that’s not normal, because normally chimps are quite noisy. So I think that’s one main adaptation that they’ve made.
Geiger: There seems to be an enormous increase of knowledge, education and public awareness about the threat of human activities, which you alluded there needs to be more of. But the threat doesn’t appear to be diminishing. In fact, it’s growing. So, although your voice and many other voices have been raising this alarm for many years, what’s it going to take? And where are we today relative to where we were in 1960?
Goodall: We’re way worse. In 1960, we weren’t talking about environmentalism and stuff. In 1960, there was an equatorial forest belt that came right across western Central Africa. There’s no belt anymore. There are increasingly small fragments of patches of forest. The only real big forest left is the Congo Basin. So it’s much, much worse. But there is awareness, and we have devised a jungle institute with a program to help the chimps of Gombe [in Tanzania, where much of Goodall’s research has taken place], which means working with villages to improve their lives. If you have people starving — people who’ve overused the land where there’s more people than the land can support — and you have this lush area of forest, you’re not going to protect it. There’s no way in the long term. But because we’ve improved the lives of the people, the chimps have three times more forest than they had before we began the program.
Geiger: At what point did you become aware of the need to addressthe villagers? The Roots & Shoots program that you have for young people is interesting because it involves not just a specific species of wildlife but also the environment and people.
Goodall: When I began travelling in 1986, I realized that chimps were vanishing and forests were going. The more I travelled, the more I learned about what we’re doing to the planet: the pollution, the fresh water supply shrinking, the poison we’re spreading on agricultural fields, the messing about with the genetics of the food we eat. Not surprisingly, there were many young people that seemed to have lost hope. They were depressed or they were angry or they were apathetic. When I began talking to them, they all said the same thing: we all feel angry because you’ve compromised our future and there’s nothing we can do about it. We have compromised their future. The saying “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” isn’t true — we’ve stolen it. And we better start trying to pay back what we’ve stolen all these years. It’s very obvious from living in the rainforest that life is interconnected. These young people have an interconnected world, but they’re not all going to care two hoots about animals and nature — but maybe they care about the human community. And in fact it’s all linked together. The Roots & Shoots program is really successful. The main message is every one of us makes a difference every single day, and we get to choose what sort of difference we want to make.
Geiger: In your observation, maybe over some years, is Canada is a force for good or ill in terms of the environment? Are we doing enough as a country?
Goodall: Well, Canada has riches of the natural world but they have been destroyed. I’ve been shown by people as you drive along the road that it’s beautiful forest. Fly over it in a plane and where people can’t see, it’s clear-cut. There are amazing programs in Canada, like everywhere — people who want to save nature. I have hope with your new prime minister that things may actually change and that Canada might be one of the few countries that honours its [COP21] pledge to reduce emissions. In my own country, the U.K., within two weeks of signing that piece of paper I don’t know how many permits for fracking were issued, and they closed down the biggest solar panel company. So what use is that signature? Zero.
Geiger: Is there a specific message you have or specific project you have that you would take to the prime minister? To Canadians?
Goodall: Not really. At the moment I know he’s interested in the education of youth, and I want to talk about our Roots & Shoots program, particularly how it goes into the First Nations, because they need help so badly, just like the Native Americans. In fact, indigenous people everywhere are getting a poor deal. The more you learn about the history, the more you learn about what happened to them — the residential schools and things. It’s just horrible. Shameful.
Geiger: I was in a children’s bookstore in Toronto last weekend with my son, and we came across a book: Who is Jane Goodall? It was sitting right next to books such as Who are The Beatles? and Who is Charles Darwin? How does one deal with that sort of global celebrity? Is it a help or a hindrance to you in terms of your work and your life?
Goodall: The only way to deal with it is to realize there are two Janes. One is me, or what’s happened to me with National Geographic pictures of the chimps going into living rooms around the world. That’s what enabled me to share the messages that I have. This sort of iconic figure has come out of all of this. Is it helpful or harmful? It’s very helpful. It means that people come and listen to what I say. I just got a note yesterday from an American man whose brother I know really well. I think it’s the best thing that’s happened to me the whole tour, including the large donations I got for my birthday. For years, his family has said to him “How can you have these conservative ideas? How can you support the Republicans when they’re trashing the environment?” They persuaded him to come to my talk. His note says: “In a way, I am the best kind of audience for Jane. I’m a skeptical conservative who has never trusted any environmental advocate because so many of them make speeches telling us what we must give up, and then get on their private jets bound for Montana ranches where a huge SUV is their primary mode of transportation. But Jane’s message is pure and without a private agenda. I took it seriously and my view of the issues she discussed is forever changed.” That’s one lecture.
Geiger: Is there anything else you’d like to say to Canadians and to our audience?
Goodall: I truly believe that we have developed the greatest intellect of any creature on the planet. How is it that we’re destroying our own home? And is it a disconnect between this clever brain and the human heart, love and compassion? I feel that to achieve our true human potential, head and heart must work in harmony. Somebody said to me the other day: there are so many problems. But there are also so many people, people with different passions. At Roots & Shoots, we have a group that’s passionate about turtles. And there are groups about turtles all over the world. We’ve linked them all together.