By Laurie Wiegler, BBC
In the 1960s, Dr Jane Goodall upended the world’s understanding of chimpanzees by revealing that they are capable of making and using tools and engaging in complex social behaviours like kissing and tickling. Six decades later, the world-renowned primatologist, activist, author and humanitarian is not only still working, but reinventing herself with a new podcast called Hopecast, which offers reasons to be hopeful about the environment, wildlife and people in 2021.
We recently spoke with Goodall via Zoom from her childhood home in Bournemouth, UK, where she has been living with her younger sister and her sister’s family during the pandemic. During our talk, the British Dame and UN Messenger of Peace discussed the best days of her life, how storytelling is the best way to reach people’s hearts, and how each of us can help look after this wondrous world we all share.
Q: After all these years of studying primates, you broadened your focus to include humans. In doing so, you launched Hopecast, highlighting how we all can contribute to a more compassionate world. What inspired this?
The best days of my life were when I was out in Gombe, [Tanzania], with the chimps in nature, in the rainforest. And it was when I realised that right across Africa, forests were disappearing, chimpanzee numbers were dropping, [and] I had to try and do something to help. When I went to Africa to visit different chimp sites, I learned a lot about the problems for the wildlife but also about the problems faced by people and the crippling poverty, the lack of health and education.
And when I flew over the little tiny Gombe National Park in 1960, it was part of this great forest that stretched right across Africa. By 1990, it was a tiny little island of forests with more people than the land can support, who buy food from elsewhere and who are struggling to survive. And that was when I thought, “If we don’t do something to help the people find an alternative way of living without destroying the environment, then we can’t save chimps, forests or anything else.” So we began the Tacare programme.
In the villages that were around Gombe, [the programme] has improved lives, provided microcredit for women and scholarships to keep girls in school and ways of restoring fertility to the land without chemicals. Tacare is now throughout the chimp range in Tanzania at four villages and in six other African countries, and the people have learned to use smartphones to monitor their own environment. They’ve realised that saving the forests is for their own future, not just the chimpanzees’.
[I began] raising money for all of this [because] I wanted to raise awareness about Africa’s problems. So I was travelling further and further around the world and learning more about what we’re doing to harm this beautiful planet, and meeting young people who seemed to have lost hope. [They] told me that they’d given up because we’d compromised their future [and] there was nothing they could do about it.
Q: Did you sense that there was not enough hope or that young people, and people in general, needed hope?
People do need hope, because if you don’t have hope then you become apathetic. I mean, why would you bother to do anything to help the environment, people or animals if you didn’t think it was going to work? You need to hope that what you do is going to make a difference. Without hope, then you fall into apathy and do nothing.
Q: What are a few ideas or developments inspiring your sense of hope now, and what can each of us do to make the world healthier for people, animals and the environment?
We can think about the little choices we make each day. What did we buy? Where did it come from? And, could you buy it from somewhere nearer that uses less air miles? Was [its manufacture] cruel to animals? Is it cheap because of child slave labour? If everybody feels they’ve made ethical choices, then we move towards a better world.
Q: You have travelled extensively. What has surprised you or challenged you on your journeys?
First of all, growing up in the UK was during World War Two, and so I learned a lot about taking nothing for granted. Food was rationed; clothes were rationed; people we knew were dying, were killed. The stories of the Holocaust came out, and it was shocking to me that people could treat other people that way. After the war, my wise mother let me go out to a German family who wanted an English person to teach their children good English, and the reason she let me go was because she wanted me to understand that the Nazis and Germans were not the same; that all Germans were not Nazis. Because in the war, the sound of a German voice sent shivers down your spine.
When I first went to Africa, there were no planes flying back and forth. There were a few, but they were very expensive. And the first place [where] I touched land in Africa was Cape Town, which is really beautiful and very exciting. But then I saw the backs of the seats and the doors to the hotels said “Slegs blankes”. I said to the two friends who were looking after me, “What do these words mean? “[They said], ‘It means white people only’.”. I didn’t grow up that way – my father was a congregational minister and we didn’t judge people by the colour of their skin, their culture or their religion. I couldn’t wait to leave South Africa.
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When I got to Kenya, where my friend was who’d invited me, it was much better. They were just on the brink of independence from British rule, and soon after I arrived in Tanzania, that country became independent too. But of course, the cultures are very different. I sort of grew up being told about different cultures – my great-great-grandfather had travelled all over the world and was very adventurous. So, [going to Africa] added to the knowledge that I had as a child, from reading and from stories.
Q: You are not only a scientist but an activist. Have you ever felt conflicted by the two hats you wear, or do they somehow complement each other?
I started off as a naturalist. I was only forced to become a scientist by [British paleoanthropologist] Dr Leakey, who told me he wasn’t always going to be around to get money for me for studying the chimps and I needed a degree and I had to get a PhD at Cambridge University. It was a very nerve-racking experience because I had never been to college and I was doing a PhD.
I did get the PhD and I was told I’d done everything wrong: I shouldn’t have given the chimps names; they should have had numbers; I couldn’t talk about personality, mind or emotions [as] those were unique to us. But I’d already been taught by my dog that that wasn’t true. So I just persevered, I got the degree, and gradually science changed. And now we know we’re not the only beings with personality, mind and emotion.
After I left Gombe, I began travelling around and learning about the needs of the people and learning about the way animals were treated in Europe, in America, in medical research labs, the cruel training of circus animals. I decided I needed to become an advocate. And it’s never conflicted at all. I’ve never had any conflict between what I am doing now (we still have a research team at Gombe) and our method of research.
You know, the heart is involved, and empathy with the animal subjects is involved. So it’s not what some people would call “hard science”. It’s not all about facts and figures, although they have their place. When science says you have to be coldly objective [and] you can’t have empathy, they’re completely wrong. So I was able to stick up for what I believed, and if you have empathy with your subject you are more likely to understand complex behaviour.
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