When most people picture Jane Goodall, a khaki-clad primatologist plopped down in the dirt beside a wild chimpanzee comes to mind. But for much of the last 18 months, the 87-year-old has spent almost every day in the same habitat: on a chair in front of a wall of books and framed photos, staring at a computer camera.
“Every single day,” she says on a recent afternoon with a sigh. “Zooms and interviews, virtual lectures and virtual conferences, and there is no letup, no weekend, no nothing. Just sitting where you see me now, the same background, reaching out to the world.”
The time she spent among apes yielded fascinating discoveries of how our wild cousins live, and her time in captivity has vastly expanded her social media fanbase. It also helped her win the 2021 Templeton Prize, a $1.5 million award for achievements in “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.”
“It’s absolutely exhausting,” Goodall says. “But the bright side is reaching so many more people with a message of hope and that we’ve got to get together and take action now before it’s too late.”
I talked to Goodall last week about climate change, the pandemic, big-game hunting and the future she hopes awaits our species. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Given the time you’ve spent observing species of primates in different conditions, what lasting effects do you think this extraordinary past year will have on our species?
What we need to do, which this pandemic has emphasized, is develop a new relationship with the natural world and animals. If we don’t somehow get together and create a more sustainable greener economy and forget this nonsense that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite resources, and that the GDP isn’t God’s answer to the future, then it’s going to be a very sad world that we leave to our great-great-grandchildren. Their children may have no planet left.
What do you think should be the ultimate priority? First a real rethinking of what the metrics of health and success in our societies are, with something like a retooling of GDP or economic growth? Or should we be focused on conservation targets like the Biden administration’s “30 by ’30” plan?
We need to do both. We’ve just got to find a new way of interacting with the resources and other beings on the planet. We’ve got to do something about the way business has typically worked, and the way that governments often work hand-in-hand with business. We’ve got to do something to slow down climate change and biodiversity loss. And we can only do all those things by giving people hope that if we take action, in time we can actually make change.
There’s so much doom and gloom at the moment. I know that the media has to give the right picture of the doom and gloom that does exist. But I wish the media would also give more space to the amazing people and incredible projects around the world that are reversing these things even as we speak.
Is there a particular project you have in mind?
When I first went out to Africa, I learned a lot about the problems faced by chimps but also those faced by people living in poverty. I flew over Gombe National Park [in Tanzania] and, in the 1960s, it was part of the great forests that stretched across Africa. By the late 1980s, Gombe National Park was a tiny, isolated patch of forest, surrounded by completely barren hills. People living on the land were too poor to buy food elsewhere. That’s when it hit me. If we don’t help these people find ways of living without destroying the environment, and help lift them out of poverty, then we can’t hope to save these forests or anything else.
So we began a method of community-based conservation, right from the beginning working with the people, not a bunch of arrogant white people going into a poor village and telling them what we were going to do to help. Instead, we were asking them, what will help you most? Now that [program] is in six other African countries.
There’s no more bare hills around Gombe. The people have understood. As we gradually increased the things we could do for them, like keeping girls in school with scholarships and providing microcredit opportunities for small business development, people have understood that protecting the environment isn’t just for wildlife, as white people have traditionally told them, it’s their own future, so become partners in conservation. I see that as a shining example.
A few weeks ago, Zimbabwean officials said they may allow their first elephant cull in decades because the population had grown in a specific area. That seemed strange given the decline in the population across the continent. What do you make of that?
I think [the South Africa-based advocacy group] African Parks has the right idea, because what they work on is creating corridors so that the elephants can migrate. If the elephants can migrate as they used to, in search of food and water and that sort of thing, then you won’t get this concentration of elephants that are destroying a certain area. I can totally understand poor farmers getting upset when their precious crops are destroyed by elephants.
But we’re coming up with more and more innovative ways of protecting the crops. One of them is the bee fence. You just put a piece of wire and you hang beehives. Elephants are really scared of bees. Just imagine having a trunk with hundreds of bees crawling up. It’s not a nice thought, is it? So, not surprisingly, bees frighten the elephants away.
There’s other things, too. We’ve just got to find ways of parceling the land in a fairer way and stop thinking that this whole planet was created for us to use and dispose of as we wish. Of course, it’s a tough thing to say. There will be countries who say we can do what we like. But, do they own elephants? This is what’s gone wrong. It ought to be like the indigneous people, where they’re guardians of the land. They don’t own the wildlife living there.
In that same vein, why is big-game hunting still allowed? Proponents argue that people from the United States and Europe are willing to pay a quarter-million dollars to shoot megafauna, and that money can aid conservation efforts.
It’s absolutely despicable. They just want bragging rights. And some of these animals are highly endangered. The thing is that these animals we know are sentient beings. They have personalities. They have emotions, they have strong family bonds, they feel things like fear and despair. They feel pain. So when we talk about killing an elephant, sometimes they’ll say, “Oh, it’s post-reproductive.” So, you’re happy to go and shoot your grandfather if he’s post-reproductive? I don’t care what they say, this sport hunting is not benefiting conservation. It mostly benefits the outfitter who takes the client, money goes into the government and there’s so much corruption.
And that’s not confined to Africa. I’m not saying that for a minute. You only need to look at the United States and Britain to see corruption is everywhere, and it’s a scourge. So we’ve got to alleviate poverty, eliminate corruption and reduce our unsustainable lifestyles. We can’t afford to hide from the fact that human populations are growing, and their livestock populations are growing. This is having a very negative effect.
There’s some 7.2 billion, or 7.3 by now, on the planet. That’s now estimated to be closer to 10 billion by 2050. What’s going to happen when we’re already running out of natural resources faster than nature can replenish them?
Do you think a future in which technological innovation allows us to sustain more life with less or one where we impose more draconian measures to reduce the human population is more likely at this point?
It’s quite possible that nature will actually manage the human population for us. It’s been touch-and-go with this pandemic, hasn’t it? If we don’t change our attitude toward the natural world and animals, there will be more pandemics. This one has been very contagious. But the percentage of deaths to the number of people who are sick is relatively low. The next one could be like Ebola, where it was less contagious but the death rate per person was much higher. It’s taken a lot of time and effort to produce these vaccines. We don’t even know if they’ll work in the long run. Nobody knows.
“It’s quite possible that nature will actually manage the human population for us. It’s been touch-and-go with this pandemic, hasn’t it?”
Do you think most people will still be eating industrially farmed meat by the middle of this century?
All over the world now we get these terrible factory farms, described as concentration camps for animals. They’re a hotbed for zoonotic diseases. It’s not just wildlife markets, which people blame for COVID-19. Many zoonotic diseases have begun in intensively farmed animals. Fortunately the vegetarian and vegan movement is growing. But on the other hand, we’re told the consumption of meat at the same time is going up. What I hope is that we’ll be moving to a plant-based diet. It’s good for the environment, it’s good for our health, certainly it’s good for the animals.
With the amount of migration we’ll see as a result of climate change, is there a particular view that has been shaped by the primatology work you have done? Perhaps one thing that has allowed you to see the instinctiveness or primitiveness of seizing on national identity in a way that would exclude those coming to share in the safety within your borders?
Chimpanzees have a very brutal, dark, war-like side. They also have a loving and altruistic side. Just like us. But the big difference is the explosive development of our intellect, which I personally think was at least partly triggered by the fact we developed this way of talking with words. So we can tell people about things that aren’t present. We can make plans for the distant future. We can bring people from different disciplines together to discuss a problem. That’s because of words. We now have developed a moral code with our words. And we know perfectly well what we should and shouldn’t do.
But there is this kind of innate territorialism, which leads to nationalism. That’s in our genes. But we should be able to get out of it because of this intellect. We have the tools. We have the language. We have the scientific technology. We understand that if we make the right decisions every day and billions of us do it, we can move in the right direction. But will we do it in time? I don’t know.