Jane Goodall says we need hope to fight climate change — and her hope lies with youth
‘If we carry on like this, we will be doomed. But we’ve got this window of time and we have to get together.’
Originally published on October 16, 2023
Jane Goodall was 10 years old when she climbed her favourite tree to read Tarzan of the Apes for the first time. Then and there, her dream of moving to Africa to live with wild animals and write about them was born. Just 13 years later, she was in Kenya.
By 26, Goodall was venturing into the dense forests of what is now Tanzania to begin the research on chimpanzees that would make her world famous. And at 27, she was a household name.
Goodall's discoveries in Gombe Stream National Park transformed humankind's understanding of our closest living relatives and in turn the relationship of our species to the natural world.
That spark she possessed as a young person ignited a lifetime career as a conservationist. Now 89, Goodall says it's the youth of today that keep her hope alive amid all that's going on in the world environmentally, politically and socially.
"We really are in very dark times," Goodall told The Current's host Matt Galloway. "So many people feel helpless, hopeless, so they do nothing. They just carry on with business as usual. And that's why working with young people is so very important."
Goodall began the Roots and Shoots youth program in 1991 and it's growing fast, she says, having spread to more than 70 countries with more than 12,000 young people in Canada alone actively involved in projects addressing environmental problems within their own communities.
"We've got to work with [young people] to at least slow down climate change and the loss of biodiversity," says Goodall, adding that the two are "inextricably linked."
Goodall travels approximately 300 days a year to speak about the importance of conservation and inspire people. She was in Toronto on Oct. 12 to give a talk at Meridian Hall.
Galloway paid her a visit that morning at her hotel. Here is more of their conversation.
Knowing what you know, and having done the work that you've done, what's most alarming to you about the biodiversity loss that we're seeing right now?
I was able to spend weeks and weeks out in the forest alone with the chimpanzees learning about how the ecosystem is made up of this complex mix of plant and animal species. And you find that each one has a role to play. If you think of it as like a beautiful living tapestry, every time a species goes from that ecosystem is like pulling a thread from that tapestry. If enough threads are pulled, the tapestry hangs in tatters. The ecosystem collapses.
Cloistered away in cities and towns and with their virtual reality, people seem to forget that we're part of the natural world. And not only that, we depend on it.
If we carry on like this, we will be doomed. But we've got this window of time and we have to get together. This is the message that young people — they rally to it. They're passionate. And when you're young you've got all the hope in the world that [you] can make change, and that's what's needed.
When you talk to young people, there's a lot of optimism but there's also real anger that older generations have left them with this huge problem. Do you understand the anger that young people feel?
Absolutely. It's true. When I began Roots and Shoots it was because I was meeting young people all around the world who'd lost hope. That was back in the late '80s, even. And they were either very angry or very depressed — some of them really depressed — but mostly they were just apathetic. They didn't seem to care.
And so when I was asking them why [they felt] this way, they'd answer, "Well, you've compromised our future. There's nothing we can do about it."
It's not [a] compromise; we've been stealing their future. And we're still stealing their future today. But then I say there's this window of time…and we can do something about it. And you can help.
In Roots and Shoots the kids choose three projects: one to help people, one to help animals and one to help the environment, because they're all interconnected. Then they roll up their sleeves, talk about what they can do and take action.
Young people want hope. That's why people come to my lectures all over the world. The lectures sell out in two days or even two hours. They even have to move to bigger venues. Because I'm talking about hope.
WATCH ｜Where Jane Goodall's love of animals began
What was the entry point for you into this wider world?
I was born loving animals and being fascinated and curious. But the great thing about my childhood was I had an amazing and supportive mother. And she supported this love of animals. She didn't get mad at me when I was one and a half and she came into my room and there I was in bed with a big handful of earthworms.
She just said, "Jane, you were looking at them as though you were wondering, how do they walk without legs?" And she just gently said that they ought to be in the garden or they might die. So we took them into the garden. And it was like that through my childhood.
What has your curiosity given you over the course of your life, do you think?
I'm still curious. I've always been curious. I mean, I'm curious as to why we still go to war. We're the most intellectual creatures to ever walk on the planet, and yet we're destroying our only home. We're killing each other. We can't co-operate. It seems as though there's a disconnect between [a] clever head and where, poetically, we seed love and compassion — the human heart. You know, I truly believe when head and heart work together we can attain our potential, which is huge.
When you started doing this work back in 1956, did you understand how important it was?
No, because back then we weren't faced with the climate crisis. It was beginning to happen, but nobody mentioned it, or the loss of biodiversity. There was still a great forest. When I arrived at Gombe, the forest stretched right across Africa, and then 20 years later, looking down, Gombe was just a tiny island of forest, and the hills were bare and there were more people living there than the land could support.
It was back in 1986 when I went to this conference and learned how chimp numbers were dropping and forests were disappearing. That's when I knew I had to leave the forest and try to help. People were saying it must have been a hard decision to leave, but it wasn't a decision. I went as a scientist and four days later I emerged as an activist, just like that. But I didn't know what to do. I just knew I had to try and do something.
I am driven because I care passionately about the environment, the forests [and] the animals. I care passionately about children.
It may sound odd — and sometimes I feel strange even thinking it — but I feel that I was put on this planet with a mission. First of all, it was to start spreading awareness about what we're doing to the planet. Then it was to reach out to children. And now it's [to spread] hope. Because if we lose hope, if we all lose hope, [we're] finished.
Interview with Jane Goodall produced by Julie Crysler. Q&A edited for length and clarity.