Jane Goodall Tells a Hollins Audience Why She Still Has Hope for Our Planet

Jane Goodall

She may have turned 81 earlier this month, but Jane Goodall still spends 300 days a year traveling the world on a mission to educate people of all ages about Earth’s environmental crises and the many threats to humans and animals alike.

“I’m finding young people who don’t have much hope for the future, who have become apathetic, depressed, and angry. They say, ‘You older generations have compromised our future and there’s nothing we can do about it.’

“Maybe its wishful thinking, some biologists will tell you it’s too late to change the way things are going, we just have to adapt to a world that’s getting worse and worse. But I think there’s a window of time where we can bring about change.”

The noted primatologist and conservationist brought her message of hope to Hollins University on April 20 and spoke before an audience that filled both the Hollins Theatre and duPont Chapel, where her address was simulcast. The event was sponsored by the university’s Distinguished Speakers Fund.

Goodall began her one-hour-and-twelve-minute address with captivating stories of growing up in London during World War II and her mother’s invaluable role in “the making of a little scientist: curiosity, deciding to find out for yourself, asking questions, learning patience. A different type of mother might have crushed that. I might not be standing here today. She supported my love of animals throughout my childhood, and she helped me find books about animals because she thought it would help me to learn quicker.”

Two books in particular had a profound impact on Goodall: Doctor Doolittle (“The first book I actually owned. I still have it. I pretended to my friends that I could actually understand the birds, the cats, the dogs. I interpreted their sounds.”) and Tarzan of the Apes, which “began my dream. I would grow up, go to Africa, live with animals, and write books about them. Everybody laughed at me – I was just a girl. Those careers, those adventures, were for boys. But my mother supported this dream. What she said to me is what I say to young people around the world, whether they are rich or poor, whichever country they live in: If you have a dream, she said, you must be prepared to work very hard. You must take advantage of opportunity. You must never give up.”

When she was 23, Goodall’s dream began coming to fruition. She got a job in Nairobi, Kenya, and subsequently met the famed anthropologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey. She impressed Leakey with her extensive knowledge of animals in Africa and convinced him she was the person he was seeking to live with and study the chimpanzee in what is now Tanzania. He secured funding to support six months of research, but as Goodall explained, there was another obstacle to overcome.

“Tanzania was still part of the British Empire, and British authorities were not prepared to give permission to this young girl to go out into this potentially dangerous forest with potentially dangerous animals. Nobody really knew anything about chimpanzees except they’re much stronger than us. Leakey never gave up and in the end the authorities said, ‘She can come, but she has to have a companion.’ Who came with me? That same amazing mother.”

At that time, it was widely thought that only humans made and used tools. Goodall’s observation that chimpanzees were also proficient with tools caught the attention of the National Geographic Society, which offered to continue funding her research. This set the stage for decades of ground-breaking work in studying chimpanzees’ complex social structure, research that earned her worldwide acclaim.

Goodall said she became an environmental activist after attending a conference in Chicago in the mid-80s with other chimpanzee researchers. “We had a session on conservation, which was shocking. All across Africa, chimpanzees were losing their habitats, their numbers were plummeting, forests were being destroyed. Since October 1986 I haven’t been more than three weeks consecutively in any one place.” She dedicated herself to “learning more and more about all these terrifying things we are doing to the planet. Many people don’t know. We don’t know the extent to which we are polluting this planet. We don’t know the extent to which industrial, agricultural, and household chemicals are being washed down into the streams and rivers and finally ending up in the oceans. We don’t realize the extent of human population growth.”

Even though she wonders, “How is it that the most intellectual creature that has ever walked on the planet is destroying its only home?”, Goodall offered five reasons why she still believes the challenges Earth faces can be addressed:

  • Roots & Shoots. This youth program, which Goodall launched in Tanzania in 1991, began with 12 students from nine different high schools. Today, Roots & Shoots is in 113 countries and consists of almost 100,000 groups encompassing pre-schoolers to university students. Their only mandate is to pursue projects that help people, animals, the environment, or any combination of the three. “From the beginning, Roots & Shoots groups have decided for themselves what to do,” Goodall explained. “These young people have the most amazing ideas. Once they know the problems and we empower them to take action, they roll up their sleeves and get out there. There are hundreds of problems in the world today, and all the places I go, there are groups of children wanting to solve them.”
  • The Human Brain. “We’ve done some pretty bad things with our brain, but we shouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. You know what we’re capable of doing,” Goodall said, citing breakthroughs in technology. “The problem, I think, is a disconnect between the human brain and the human heart. That can lead to serious problems. I truly believe that only when head and heart live in harmony can we reach our true human potential. And our potential is huge.”
  • Nature’s Resilience. “We can utterly destroy a place. But with a lot of hard work, it can be restored.” Goodall described the transformation that occurred in the region surrounding Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. “The land around Gombe was bare hills. It was clear there were more people living there than the land could support. The land was over-farmed and infertile. The people were struggling to survive.” Fifteen years after introducing a community-centered conservation program, Goodall said those hills were green once again, and the chimpanzees native to the area had three times more forest for their habitat than when the project began.
  • Social Media. “I was in a climate march in New York last September with 400,000 people,” Goodall recalled. “Only 100,000 were expected. All around me were people with their iPads, iPhones. They were on Twitter and Facebook and they were telling their friends to come. And you could see them coming. Ten years ago, we might get a couple of hundred people coming to a march or demonstration or signing a petition. But now, you have hundreds of thousands by using social media. Of course it can be used for bad ends, but it’s also an incredibly powerful tool to make the world a better place, and it’s increasingly being used that way.”
  • “The Indomitable Human Spirit.” “You matter as an individual. You can make a difference. You can succeed even when it appears fate is against you,” Goodall implored. “Every single one of us in this room has this magical potential within us. We have to learn to let it free, let it fly, have faith in it, and not give up. When that starts to happen, the world will change.”

For more information about Goodall’s work and the Jane Goodall Institute, visit www.janegoodall.org.