Jane Goodall explains why she still has hope the environment can be saved, and why we all need to be active participants.
Renowned primatologist, anthropologist, activist and feminist icon Dr. Jane Goodall is now 83 years old, but to say that age hasn’t slowed her down would be the understatement of the century. Goodall spends approximately 300 days each year traveling all over the globe, keeping up a steady schedule of speaking engagements that educate people about threats to the environment and the steps we can take to be part of the solution.
On March 12 the documentary Jane premieres on National Geographic. Drawing from over 100 hours of footage that had been forgotten for decades, the documentary brings viewers back to the very beginning of Goodall’s career.
She arrived in Gombe, Tanzania, in 1960 at the age of 26, with no formal scientific training or education. But what Goodall did bring to Gombe was an unwavering commitment to study and understand the personalities of chimpanzees — and her work transformed our understanding of both chimps and humankind.
Goodall ultimately left Gombe because chimps were disappearing and dying out and she felt compelled to do something about it. In an interview with Crixeo, Goodall told me that she still has hope we can save the planet — and explained how each and every one of us can do our part.
Q: The footage in Jane had been forgotten for decades. What was it like to watch the documentary, and was there anything that surprised you?
When [Jane] was first proposed to me, I said, “Oh, another film about Jane and the chimps? You’ve got to be kidding!” And the director Brett Morgan had the same reaction. Eventually I was persuaded to get involved by the Jane Goodall Institute, who pointed out that publicity and media attention would help us raise money for all our activism programs. So I said, “Oh, all right,” and Brett got interested when he was shown some of the footage from the ’60s and he was fascinated by how brilliant it was. When I watch the final documentary, it’s the only one that has literally taken me back to Gombe and made me feel like I am that young girl again. I can remember exactly how it felt.
Q: The United States, Australia and the United Kingdom all seem to be moving backward in terms of protecting the environment. What habits can people incorporate into their everyday routines to help protect the planet?
I think a lot of people are very aware of what’s going on, but they don’t know what to do about it, so they get depressed and do nothing. It’s important for people to realize that the little choices we make each day, and the consequences of those choices, make a difference.
For example, what we buy, what we eat, and what we wear all matter. We need to look into where our products come from, how they were made, and whether or not it involved child labor or the suffering of animals. We need to ask ourselves, “Is that why a product is cheap?”
If it’s just you making ethical choices, then it wouldn’t make any difference. But as more and more people understand the issue, then you get hundreds, thousands, millions and then billions of people making ethical choices in the way they live each day. That’s going to move us toward a better world for all.
Q: Your Roots & Shoots program is aimed at educating and empowering young people. What gave you the idea to start this program?
I left Gombe because I realized that across Africa, chimps were disappearing. I didn’t know what to do about it, but I had to try and do something. I quickly realized that chimps are indeed in trouble for various reasons, but so many of the African people are in deep trouble, too. They’re living in poverty, they don’t have access to good education or health facilities, they’re starving, there’s ethnic violence, and so on. So that’s when I realized that if we don’t help the people and we don’t try to improve their lives, then there’s no point in even thinking about saving chimps.
We needed to raise money to get grants and things like that, but what’s the point if new generations aren’t going to be included in the conversation? As I was traveling around raising awareness about what was going on for our planet and animals, I met so many high school children and so many university students who seemed to have lost hope in the future. And they were either depressed, angry or just apathetic. When I talked to them, they said, “Well, we feel like this because you’ve compromised our future and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
And we have compromised their future. We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents; we’ve borrowed it from our children. But we haven’t been borrowing their future — we’ve been stealing it with our unsustainable and materialistic lifestyles. But were the kids right when they said, “There’s nothing we can do about it”? I said, “No, there is something that can be done about it.” And that’s how Roots & Shoots started, with the message that every individual matters. Every individual has some role to play in this life, and every individual can make a difference every day. That began with 12 high school students in Tanzania, and it’s now got members in kindergarten through university. There are about 150,000 active groups in the world today.
Q: What conservation issues are not getting enough attention right now?
There’s one that people never like speaking of because they say it’s politically sensitive, and that’s population growth. It is being spoken about more in recent years. I remember when I first began speaking about it in the ’70s, I was shunned and none of the big organizations would speak about it.
But if you think about the problems in the world today, alleviating poverty is an environmental issue. If you’re in deep poverty, you’re going to destroy the environment because you have to live, you have to grow crops, sell charcoal and those sorts of things. If you’re in an urban area and deeply poor, you have to buy the cheapest products and you can’t afford to worry about where it came from or how it was made because you can only afford the cheapest options.
And then there’s the unsustainable and materialistic lifestyles of everybody else, and I include myself. If you put those things together, along with human population growth, and the planet’s finite natural resources, something’s got to give.
Q: You’re on the road 300 days a year and have an incredibly grueling schedule. What drives you and inspires you to keep fighting the good fight when it must undoubtedly be so mentally and physically exhausting?
Because I’m angry that we’re destroying the natural world, which is so beautiful. I’m angry that maybe in 100 years children will have lost even more of the natural world. And I feel sorry for the children today who are very upset about what’s happening as they learn more about it. So I want to work with them and with all caring people to try and slow down climate change and address some of these wrongs as quickly as we can. The older I get, the less years I have ahead of me — so the faster I have to work!
Q: What gives you hope during this challenging and frightening time for the environment?
Firstly, the energy and commitment of young people when they know the problems and they’re empowered to take action. Secondly, the human brain. We’re coming up with ways all the time to live in greater harmony with nature. Thirdly, the resilience of nature and that we can utterly destroy a place and, with time, hard work, and sometimes money, that nature will come back. And it’s pretty amazing because I’ve seen it happen so often.
And then the indomitable human spirit, where people tackle the impossible and won’t give up. The fact is that there are so many more decent people on this planet than there are bad, evil people. But the bad is what gets talked about and the good is not headline-grabbing — so unless it’s really dramatic, it doesn’t get mentioned. People get a skewed impression of our own species. I’ve talked a lot about the bad side of it in just this one interview, but you know there are so many amazing people. There are businesspeople turning around and saying, “I want to put money back into the environment.” There are selfless people who are working away to help people in poverty with very little money themselves. The world is filled with goodness.