More than 60 years into her career, pioneering ethologist and activist Dr. Jane Goodall DBE is busier than ever. Speaking to 5, the UN Messenger of Peace and founder of the Jane Goodall Institute talks about harnessing our innate ability to connect – with nature and each other – to conserve a world urgently calling on us to be better custodians.
You’ve described your close childhood friendship to the tree in your yard, known as Beech, and how you spent hours in its branches. Where does your intense connection with all living things come from?
I was born with it. It just was there. I was studying earthworms in my bed, according to mum, when I was one and a half years old. And I once sat in a hen house for four hours to see where the egg came out.
Since the pandemic I’m back in the house I grew up in. Beech is still there and every day, I take a minimum of half an hour to sit under Beech.
“Even in the middle of the city every breath we breathe is from the natural world”
What does that connection with nature do?
They’ve proven that it psychologically benefits us. And physically we benefit from connecting with nature. It just is. We need the green trees. We need the sky. We need the birds. We need to feel part of them. And the reason that’s important is because we are part of the natural world. And we actually depend on it for just about everything. Even in the middle of the inner city every breath we breathe is from the natural world. And we depend on healthy ecosystems, which we are destroying.
Could you describe that moment when your favourite chimpanzee, David Greybeard, first came to trust you after months of observation in the wilds of Gombe, Tanzania?
He gradually let me get closer. And then one day he actually allowed me to follow him. I’d thought I’d lost him and when I finally got through this patch of vegetation, there he was. It looked as though he was waiting for me. I sat near him and there was a ripe palm nut on the ground, which chimps love, and so I picked it up and held it up towards him. But either there was something wrong with it, or he just didn’t want a palm nut and he turned his face away. Then I put my hand closer and he turned and looked directly into my eyes, reached out, took the nut, dropped it, but with the same movement, gently squeezed my fingers, which is how a chimpanzee reassures another. And that was the magical moment. That sense that we understand each other. We communicated in a deep way, with gestures that must have predated human language, which we brought with us, all the way – millions of years – from a common ancestor.
And yet, decades after your work revealed just how close we are to the natural world, we still seem to act as if we’re somehow separate from it. What do we still need to learn?
We’re so alike. But of course we’re different. Chimpanzees are way smarter than people used to admit. But they couldn’t design a rocket that goes up to the moon, so the big difference seems to be at some point we developed this way of communicating with words. And that means that for the first time, you can teach others about things that aren’t actually, physically there. And you can make plans for far ahead, and you can bring people together to try and solve a problem.
You can’t do those things without this kind of spoken language. Animal communication is fantastic – like the bees with their dancing – but only we have developed to such an extent that we consider we’re masters of the universe and destroy our home. So that’s a lack of wisdom. Intellect without wisdom, or intellect without the heart – it comes back to the same thing. We’ve brought climate change, loss of biodiversity and this pandemic on ourselves by disrespecting nature and animals. It’s terribly important that we really realise that we are so connected with the natural world and it’s desperately important to protect it.
As a young woman with no formal academic background, in a male-dominated field, your observations of chimpanzees using tools challenged accepted scientific thinking of the day. How important is it to elevate voices that would otherwise go unheard?
It’s very, very important. We need interconnection between people in different disciplines. And we need to listen to their voices, which is where heart and head come in, because if you meet someone who disagrees with you – arguing, pointing fingers – it doesn’t get you anywhere, because the more you do that, the more the person is not really listening.
How she redefined mankind
In 1960, aged 26, Jane Goodall left England for Tanzania, where she went on to pioneer the study of chimps in the wild. Immersed in the jungle of Gombe, with little more than a pair of binoculars, a notepad and a pen, she witnessed chimpanzees making and using tools – which until then had been thought to be the exclusive domain of our species. Her groundbreaking research redefined the very essence of what it means to be a human, revealing that we are closer to chimps and the natural world than scientists had ever imagined. Since then, she has continued her pioneering work in science and conservation, campaigning tirelessly on behalf of our planet.
Photo: Guerin Blask/The New York Times
“So many people have said to me, ‘It doesn’t make any difference what I do.’ It doesn’t if it’s just you. But it’s not just you”
So when I meet somebody that I want to convince, I try to find something out about them that makes a link. Maybe they love dogs. Or something else. And then, listen. Because you might get a new idea, you may understand why they think the way they do. And that can be helpful in trying to change a mindset. But what really does it, is a story. Because stories reach the heart. So you’re using your head to understand and to think of ways that you can get your point across, but the way to do it is by reaching their heart. Because I think people have to change from within. Facts and statistics don’t reach the heart. It reaches the head and we need to do the statistics, but if I’m giving a lecture, I never put statistics in it because people won’t remember. But they will remember stories. They may not get it absolutely right, but they remember the message of a story. I know that because I tell some stories quite often. That’s how it all began, sitting around a campfire, in a cave, telling stories about what happened during the day. Giving animals personalities, talking about them. It’s only western science that has been so divorced from the natural world. If you go to indigenous people, or Buddhists they completely understand that we’re one with nature.
What made you shift your focus from science and research to activism?
A big conference in 1986, learning for the first time the extent of deforestation, the drop of chimp numbers, going into medical research labs and seeing our closest relative in cages – it was deeply shocking. So I went as a scientist, and after the four days I left knowing I had to do something to try and help. I had no idea what I could do but I knew I had to do something.
You talk about putting the needs of local people at the heart of conservation – how does that work?
When I flew over Gombe [years after living there] and saw that the trees around the national park had gone – it used to be part of a great forest – I realised that there were more people there than the land could support and they were cutting down the trees out of necessity, to find more fertile land, or to make money for their families. And that’s when it hit me, if we don’t help these people find ways of living without destroying the environment, then we can’t save the chimps’ forest or anything else.
So we began our Tacare programme – we have a whole book about this [community-centred] method coming out in a few months. So we brought in micro-credit, and people do tree nurseries, selling little saplings – they realise that if you go on cutting down the trees, there’s terrible erosion, the streams are getting blocked up, and there’s a big change, because [now]
they know we care, not just about animals, but about them. And that’s been the mistake of conservation for so long. You can have areas set aside as a national park, but you must work with the communities living around them and make sure that they get compensated for helping to save the animals, and that they realise it’s for their own future.
You recently published The Book of Hope – what makes you feel hopeful?
It’s partly the way I was born, and I think living through World War II, for about a year, it was hopeless. But there was Churchill with his speeches that inspired determination in the British people that we wouldn’t be defeated. And against all odds, we weren’t. I think living through that gave me this feeling that even when all seems hopeless, don’t give up.
“Millions of people making ethical choices is making a difference”
Hope is connected to determination, and action. I’ve decided after writing the book that the human race is at the mouth of a long dark tunnel and right at the end of that tunnel is a little star of light and that’s hope. But we don’t just sit at the mouth of the tunnel and hope that that star will come to illuminate us. We have to gird our loins, as the Bible says. We have to crawl under, climb over, and work our way around all the massive obstacles like climate change, and the loss of biodiversity, until we reach it. But we’ve all got to get together and take action. For me, it’s a question of inspiring people, like Churchill did, to fight and to say ‘no, we will not let this happen’.
We can’t push things back to the way things were, but we can slow down climate change, and that’s with using head and heart together. There’s amazing scientific technology now that can help. But we as individuals need to leave lighter ecological footsteps. And we’ve somehow got to inspire enough people to take action. And that’s why I shall go on fighting until the day I die. All we can do is our best. So many people have said to me, ‘What can I do? It doesn’t make any difference what I do’. It doesn’t if it’s just you, but it’s not just you. So I think the important thing is realising that what you do, even if it seems small, cumulatively, millions of people making ethical choices is making a difference.
What made you start your youth programme, Roots & Shoots?
I’d met so many young people around the world who had lost hope. They were either depressed, angry or just apathetic. But it’s not too late to do something. So we developed Roots & Shoots in 1991 with 12 high school students in Dar Es Salaam [in Tanzania], worried about environmental and social issues. And now it’s in 67 countries, and it’s got members in kindergarten and university and we’re even getting our Roots & Shoots groups among adults.
They’ve planted the equivalent of whole forests, they’ve worked on legislation to try and raise awareness about things like animal trafficking, the kids have volunteered a lot in shelters for animals. Young people get it. Once they’re exposed and understand, they take action. They do all sorts of things. It’s very moving. We bring them together virtually, to help swap ideas and they’re learning that much more important than the colour of your skin, your language, your culture, or your religion, is the fact that we’re all human beings.
It’s also helping, because children are changing the way their parents think. I’ve had so many letters from parents saying they’ve changed because of their children. They’ve started recycling and more and more people are becoming vegetarian and vegan. And the media has a huge role to play. Unfortunately the media believes (maybe rightly) that bad news sells. So far more space is given to the bad news. But there are so many amazing people, so many incredible projects proving that you can turn things around. All the rewilding and growing organic food and fighting intensive farming – all these things. I think it’s changing. Hearing positive stories, then you think – ‘if they can do it, I can do it too’. The kids especially are finding out that they can make a difference.
“Think about every act you take today. What do you buy, where did it come from?”
We believe in harnessing the power of the imagination to work on solutions together. If you close your eyes and imagine waking up tomorrow in a better world, what would that world look like?
It would be a world where everybody lived in a way that was in harmony with nature and with each other. It would be a world without hatred and bitterness. It would be a world where love and compassion are the most important elements and it would be a world where everybody understood that animals have feelings just like us. And we’re getting there.
What action can we all take today, right now?
Think about every act you take today. What do you buy, where did it come from? Did it harm the environment, if so, don’t buy it. Think about, if you’re going to eat meat, how the animals are kept. Think about how that system is destroying the environment and leading to disease. Just think about your actions. And try and behave ethically. That’s the one thing that’s really really important.
We’re told: think globally, act locally. That’s wrong. If you think globally, you can’t help but be depressed. So I say to people, what is it around you that you don’t like? Is it that the beaches are littered with garbage in the summer? Well try and get a group of friends together and clean up the beach, and put more bins out, with some notices – and try and persuade the city council to impose fines. If you start making a difference, that makes you feel good because you’ve done something. And if we feel good from making a difference, we want to do more to feel even better. And as we go along, we’re gathering in more people, so it’s an upward spiral of people feeling better and better because they’re taking action – around the world. When there are other people feeling like we are, acting like we are, now I dare think globally.
Main photo: Guerin Blask/The New York Times
What you can do
The Jane Goodall Institute supports conservation and education projects around the globe, with strategies based on research and science together with care for communities. Start a Roots & Shoots group, organise a fundraiser, become a chimp guardian, or leave a legacy – there are many ways to get involved.janegoodall.org
In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet, Jane Goodall shares her vision for a brighter future, despite the grave challenges we face. Here are her four reasons for hope, offering an inspiring insight into her own ‘indomitable human spirit’.Buy it now