This goes without saying, but Jane Goodall is a powerful woman. Her accomplishments and status as the most famous conservationist on the planet aside, there is a force about her that can’t be easily quantified. She speaks in measured tones, pausing each time a question is asked. When the answers come they have a certain glacial quality — carrying an unseen mass that represents decades of research and an ever-deepening well of passion.
Speaking with her, it immediately becomes clear: Her wisdom is hard-earned, but her approach is neither rigid or atrophied. Beneath it all, there’s still the twinkle of mischief in Goodall’s eyes — an important tool for a woman who spent her life fighting not just for primates, but also against the patriarchal, archaic thinking of colonialism.
Last year’s release of Jane — a National Geographic documentary loaded with archival footage — reveals a woman who stepped into a male-dominated field, changed the game, and, eventually, the world. In the process, she became the mother of a new era of conservation, in which scientists learned to take a more compassionate approach to the natural world. The documentary is richly textured (featuring a stunning orchestral score by Philip Glass) and offers insight into one of the most important and perpetually relevant natural scientists to have ever lived.
This week, we spoke to Goodall over the phone as she finished the press tour for Jane. Throughout the conversation, she laid out a roadmap for anyone who wants to leave the planet better than they found it.
Obviously, the world is changing incredibly rapidly. It’s changed greatly across your career. What are the challenges that you see to animal conservation now, that maybe you didn’t see or people weren’t recognizing 20 years ago, or even as few as 10 years ago?
Well of course, from where I stand in Africa, the deforestation and the poaching, the illegal wildlife trade, has hugely accelerated. It’s very alarming. The corruption has led to the acceleration of wildlife trafficking and the trafficking of animal parts like tusks and rhino horn. On the positive side, there is a greater awareness. There’s more understanding that animals, like us, have feelings and can feel pain and fear and distress as well as happiness. So, that’s lead to, I think a rapidly growing number of people who want to try living on a plant-based diet to avoid that cruelty.
There’s change for the better and change for the worse.
It almost sometimes feels like our society is in a race, right? Like are we going to wake up to the dangers facing us —
Exactly, or are we just going to miss the window and the world burns itself up into a fireball ten years before we would have finally changed our behavior? Is that how you see it, in a way?
Yes. Climate change isn’t something that’s going to happen, climate change has happened and it’s accelerating. I suppose because I’m an optimist, I always go around saying I’m quite sure there’s a little window — I don’t know how big the window of time is — and then just recently I met a Swedish climatologist, and he took us down a very steep path into gloom and despair with what we’re doing, but in the end, he also provided some scientific evidence that in fact there still is time, to slow this all down.
I was very happy about that. I’ve got some facts to back up my optimism now.
What’s important for me, is giving people hope, because if you don’t have hope, well then why bother to do anything? Particularly our youth, that’s why working flat out to spread this Roots and Shoots program, so that young people understand the problems, they want to do something about it, and we empower them to take action.
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Do you see young people being captivated by animals in the way that you felt first captivated by animals? Are you seeing the younger generation take hold? Obviously, in some cases, they have less wild spaces, but they also probably have quite a bit of access considering how many zoos there are. Do you see them taking up the mission?
Many of them. We can’t generalize, but there’s a huge number who want to work with animals, to help animals, and who love animals. Then there are all those who really care about the environment too. They become passionate about things like plastic bags and the creation of greenhouse gases and so on. That’s what’s unique about our Roots and Shoots program. The group chooses three types of projects, one to help people, one to help animals, one to help the environment. So, you get them all taking action with passion because it’s about something they chose that they want to do.
I like that approach — people, planet, wildlife.
You realize that everything’s interconnected. If you help animals without helping people, it doesn’t work. When I decided I had to leave Gombe, to try and help the chimps, we very quickly realized that you couldn’t even try to save the chimps while people living all around the forest were in terrible poverty with no good education and health facilities. That’s why we started our community conservation in 1994, which was ahead of the other big conservation groups, at least the way we did it. We did it by going in, not with a bunch of arrogant white people, but a chosen group of local Tanzanians who listened to the villagers and asked, “How can we help you?”
So we began by helping them in the way that they felt that they needed help most, but introducing that help in the right way. Like, “We want to grow more food.” Right, “What we can do is help you to restore fertility to your overused land, but we won’t be using chemicals.” That sort of thing. That program is now in six different African countries.
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It’s interesting that you bring up bringing new voices into the conversation because I think that’s been a big theme of kind of this generation in general, and even this year in specific. Is that another reason for optimism when we talk about solving the unique problems facing our world? Is kind of the decrease in the kind of western world’s arrogance about acting as if it knows how to solve every problem?
Yes, and very often it has just done the opposite. It’s made it worse. If we think about something like genetically modified food and the tremendous harm that’s done, that’s been inflicted on so many countries. I was thrilled to hear Monsanto thrown out of Mexico. At the same time, Tanzania’s contemplating letting them in. There’s just so many battles to fight. Luckily, more and more groups are rising up to help fight.
You’ve done such a good job in your career of being both laser-focused and being able to look at the bigger issues. One of the things that we often encourage young people when they’re looking at activism, is you do almost have to have some sense of focus — because there are so many issues facing our world today.
That’s why you have to be aware of the interconnectedness and aware of the problems, and then try to seek out those people who are actually focused on those other problems that you would like to focus on, but know that you can’t. People say, “Why are you just concerned with chimps?” Well, I’m not just concerned with chimps. I care about gorillas and orangutans, I care about monkeys, I care about penguins and polar bears, and you name it. Fortunately, one, there are other groups out there and we often work in partnership with them who are focused on that. With our Roots and Shoots program — which includes university students — there isn’t a single problem that I’ve encountered where there aren’t one or more groups of young people dedicated to that particular problem.
What is a good place for someone in that 18 to 35-year-old range to get started? If someone to you at a party and just said, “I want to be a part of a solution on this planet, where do I start?” Is Roots and Shoots a place where they can kind of get started?
Absolutely. If they check it out on the website, they’ll see that they’ll be in touch with hundreds, maybe thousands of others just like them, similar age, all becoming involved. Very often, you said 18 years old, there’s an 18 year old and they don’t quite know where to go or what to do, but they join a Roots and Shoots group or they interact with electronics, with people they get to know in other countries or something, then they become inspired by what’s going on. It’s a beginning.
These young people are changing the world as we speak. Once they know the problems and are empowered to take action, we listen to them, and spur them on and help them get grants. It’s amazing how passionate they are.
The two times we’ve talked have been during periods of western civilization that have felt somewhat bleak. Yet, your optimism if anything seems to be expanding. The things you’ve faced, and I’ve followed your work and I’ve seen the documentary… how have you kept from ever being jaded? I think that’s a value to anyone who is starting out in a life of activism.
How do I keep it up? Quite honestly, the trouble is that the media focuses on the bad stuff. When you actually analyze things, there are a huge percentage more decent people on the planet, than the bad ones that get in the media all the time, because what they do is so shocking and so it’s a story that people will read. It’s boring to read about all the people who just lead good lives, that’s not interesting, but they’re there. They’re the vast majority.
I meet so many people who are tackling environmental or social problems that seem impossible, but they don’t give up. More and more are joining in and they’re making a huge difference; people I interviewed and actually met when I was writing Hope for Animals and Their World — incredibly inspiring people restoring nature to places that have been utterly destroyed by us and the resilience of nature. I’m lucky, I get to meet all those people. If I contact them, they all want to meet me, so it’s great, I can talk with them and get inspired all the time by what they’re doing.
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Two dedicated souls collide once more! Thank you to @leonardodicaprio for attending a special screening of #JANE at the @metrographnyc. It’s such a perfect way to experience the most immersive and impactful moments of Dr. Goodall’s young life; and an instant reminder of why we must all continue to fight for the beauty of this world and the other beings we share our planet with. See JANE : bit.ly/janejgievents Photo: Patrick Lewis / StarPix | #janegoodall #janegoodallinstitute #drjanegoodall #drgoodall #documentary #brettmorgen #nationalgeographic #natgeo #leonardodicaprio #leodicaprio #film #chimpanzees #chimps #conservation
You have at this point, with your level of celebrity and renown, you have incredible access across pop culture and throughout media and amongst celebrities and also among young people. What’s your focus now, as your way to use that voice? Is it, bringing awareness to certain issues, or is it focusing people on action, what’s your thought about that as of now?
I think my most important role is helping people understand that whoever they are, whatever they’re doing, they make a difference every day that they’re alive on the planet. Although there are some people living in such abject poverty that they have no choice, most of the people we know, they can choose if they think about the consequences of the little choices they make. What do you eat? What do you wear? Where did it come from? How was it made? Did it harm the environment? Did it cause animal suffering or was it child slave labor? Is this why it’s cheap? Do I really want to eat something that caused so much damage and suffering? Can I get an alternative?
Also, helping young passionate people understand that the way to make change is not to be confrontational, it’s not to be aggressive, above all not to be violent, but to somehow reach people’s hearts so that they realize they want to change, they want to create change, and the best way I find to do that is telling stories. If you watch two people meeting, maybe for the first time, and they have different opinions, very soon they start arguing. Once they start arguing, angrily, you can see that each of them stops listening to the other. They’re so keen to get their point of view across that they’re not listening to the answers.
Right, just waiting to think of what they could say next.
Exactly. “How am I going to refute? I know what he’s going to say, so I’ve got to be ready to have my answer to refute what he’s going to say.” You see it on television all the time with Trump and his supporters. It’s quite ridiculous sometimes.
Anyway, something I’m really excited about, is the change in China, because China is so … It’s economy has grown so fast and they’ve been so successful and they’re good at seemingly almost everything. Everybody points their finger at China as the big, bad ogre that’s destroying the world so fast. It’s true, they are going into Africa and Latin America, Asia and so on, to kind of grab the resources that they need for their own development, but at the same time, they’re saving their own environment, but are they doing any different from European colonialism? No. They’re doing exactly the same. They’re no worse than anybody else and they’re truly beginning to understand and change. I’m really excited.
I mean, okay, they’re not living in a democracy, but look where our democracy has landed us. Not very successful. It’s not. It’s the same in Britain and party politics, when good people tow the party line, even thought they disagree with what’s being asked of them, it’s very sad.
I think that you give such an invocation for people to be activists because they’re in love with the world.
And loving all that’s left and being determined to do everything you can to save it. I think the movie, Jane, gives people a real glimpse into that world and they want to help save it when they’ve seen that movie. They realize what it can be like, what it should be like. Traveling, if you do it wisely, it certainly opens your mind, but it’s also helpful to the people in the country you go to, if you do it right.
Do you have a thought on, when you say, “If you do it right,” do you have kind of what you think of as the right way to do that?
Well, from the other side, which is the only way I can really answer that, from the other side, the problem with tourism is the governments of those countries. I’m thinking about Africa and India and so on. Obviously they’re wanting foreign exchange, and therefore they want more tourism, and tourists going into the National Parks and so on. If you get too many tourists, one, it’s harmful to the environment and very often the animals there, but two, it destroys the experience for the travelers.
They find they’re surrounded by other combis. When there’s a leopard in Tanzania, one man said there were 22 combis lined up all around. That’s pathetic. The advice for the traveler, it’s hard to know what to give you know, do you want them to go to a place where almost nobody goes and then you advertise it so everybody goes there? I think I don’t know. I do know the value of it, because people come back, and then they really, really want to help.