Jane Goodall on Hope, Her New Book and Why Humans And Chimpanzees Are Similar
Jane Goodall is telling me a story from her childhood. One day, as a toddler, she brought earthworms from her family’s garden into her bedroom. Her mother came in to find her observing them intently. She was “wondering how they got around without legs”, Goodall says she told her mother. “While most mothers would get angry, my mother said to me, ‘Jane, these poor little worms, if we leave them here, they’ll die. They need to be in the garden’. So we took them back.”
This memory is interrupted when Goodall’s phone rings. Excusing herself, she picks up the call and tells the person on the other line, “I’ll call you back. I’m on a Zoom call, you see,” straining her voice as she draws out the word “zoom”. Then hangs up. “Sorry,” she says, “that was John Hare—or the man I call my camel man. His organisation is working to save the last of the wild Bactrian Camels in China and Mongolia.”
Digital correspondence isn’t her preferred method of communication, but in light of the coronavirus pandemic, video conferencing has become the new normal. Even late-night television has had to reinvent back-and-forth banter with slightly awkward Skype calls between hosts and celebrities. As writers, being in rare positions where we’re able to meet our heroes—Goodall being one of mine—we always prefer to speak face-to-face. I make a comment to Goodall that, despite a near-global lockdown, at least technology allows us to carry on with our work and stay in touch with loved ones. She sighs, “Yes, I suppose so.”
The Nature of Resilience
Goodall is a woman of action who, at age 86, continues to travel the globe advocating for a better world. In fact, she’s meant to be on a tour across North America, but instead, she’s on lockdown in her home in England—the home she grew up in, which once belonged to her grandmother. “I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked, getting my voice, and our message, out there on Zoom calls, videos and blogs,” she says, adding that she’s no stranger to the importance of adaptability in nature.
In her lifelong career as a conservationist, Goodall has spent 60 years observing and researching wild chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania and, in 1977, she established the Jane Goodall Institute, a leader in running conservation-and-community-centred programmes across Africa. During this time, she has had a front row seat watching the natural world change, and watching humankind demolish and then rebuild entire ecosystems.
“I’ve seen places that have been utterly destroyed but, given time and some help, can once again support nature. Animals on the very brink of extinction have been given another chance,” she says, crediting nature itself for instilling an unshakable resilience that has been the driving force behind her life’s work. It’s a kind of resilience that the world could learn from at a time like this. Goodall also lived through World War II as a child, during which she recalls rationing two squares of chocolate and an egg for a week. It was an experience that, she says, taught her never to take anything for granted. “I’ve been through the darkest of times and nevertheless, we survived. We emerged.”
Holding On to Hope
In a world plagued by uncertainty, one thing is certain for Goodall—losing hope isn’t an option. Ever the optimist, she’s currently working on a book titled The Book of Hope, in collaboration with Doug Abrams, author of the bestselling The Book of Joy. It is scheduled to be published next year. According to the publisher, Celadon Books, “The Book of Hope will serve as an extraordinary exploration of our very nature as human beings and offer a compelling path forward to create hope in our own lives and in the world.”
When asked what inspired her to write the book, Goodall admits that it wasn’t really her idea. “Doug had spent a year with Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama before writing The Book of Joy, so when he approached me with the idea for The Book of Hope, I thought he was going to spend some time with me and then write the book. I said that he could have four days, not a year, with me,” she laughs, before adding in a jokingly exasperated tone, “As it turns out, he sold it to the publisher with me as the author. So here we are.”
To be fair, a woman on a mission to save the natural world is a busy one—there is poaching to be stopped and dying species to revive—and she’s not doing it alone. Books are just one of the many tools Goodall uses to inspire future generations to become better custodians of the planet. Goodall’s previous books include My Friends the Chimpanzees, In the Shadow of Man and The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do To Care for the Animals We Love.
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“I maintain hope partly because everywhere you go, there are young people who are dedicated, passionate, begging to make a change. You can’t help but be inspired by them,” says Goodall. “Not to mention our amazing brains. We’re now developing technology that will help us live in better harmony with nature, and if we don’t, then I believe that’s the end, because we are a part of, and depend upon, the natural world for our own survival.”
To promote that message, Goodall’s youth programme, Roots & Shoots, was founded in 1991 following a conversation with 16 local teenagers on her back porch in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Today, the organisation has more than 10,000 groups in over 100 countries and territories, including Hong Kong. I ask her what decades of teaching starry-eyed, aspiring environmentalists has taught her, and like a reflex, she responds, “It’s not so much teaching, it’s about listening to them: listening to their ideas, encouraging and empowering them to roll up their sleeves and take action. The main message of Roots & Shoots is that each of us makes some impact every day, so let’s choose wisely what impact we make.”
Goodall’s passion for conservation and anthropology began in 1960, when she was just 26 years old. Travelling to what we now know as Tanzania, armed with a notebook, binoculars and a desire to learn about chimpanzees, she unknowingly embarked on what would become her legacy. In her 60 years of research, Goodall has observed countless parallels between chimpanzees and humans.
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“Like human mothers, chimp mothers can be good or bad,” says Goodall, who has found that, like with humans, a supportive and nurturing upbringing has the power to shape a chimpanzee’s nature and its ability to lead or influence its peers. “The offspring of supportive mothers always do better in life; the males reach a higher position in the hierarchy, probably have more offspring, and the females make better mothers. It teaches us how important a mother or a mother figure is for a child, and that the early years are really important for shaping their future. They need to feel supported, they need to feel safe and they need to be allowed to explore.”
Her words reminded me of a quote by contemporary Canadian poet, Atticus: “Watch carefully, the magic that occurs when you give a person just enough comfort to be themselves.”
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Embracing the Individual
In a roundabout way, Goodall’s approach of gentle guidance circles back to that day she brought earthworms home with her. That same patient observation, which eventually led to decades of groundbreaking research and a lifetime of activism, could have easily been squandered by a mother more concerned with a bit of mud in the house than embracing her daughter’s sense of curiosity.
“That’s the sort of mother I had, which is so desperately important. I think children have an inherent affinity for the natural world, if they’re given the chance at a young age,” says Goodall, who believes with such conviction that if guided correctly, we’ll find that a sense of separation between us and nature—like most, if not all, things hurting the planet—is a manmade concept.
“Children want to be part of saving the environment, but they’re pressured by their parents and their teachers to go into business. They’re told that they need to go out and make money. But you can help nature even while you’re making money. What we’re in danger of losing now, is empathy.”
See all honourees in the Environment category on the Gen.T List.