The images of Jane Goodall crouched in the Tanzanian jungle surrounded by chimpanzees are iconic. The impact they had at the time reverberates now as the imperative to live more sustainably becomes ever more urgent. Here, the legendary primatologist and anthropologist shares the adventures that continue to inspire her efforts in environmental leadership today.
I didn’t have a television growing up. I spent my time in the garden. The birds and squirrels and insects were my favourite “tv show”. The jungle and its creatures inhabited my imagination early on – once I’d saved enough pocket money, I bought Tarzan of the Apes and read it cover to cover, up my favourite tree.
My next big money-saving enterprise involved working in a hotel for the boat fare to Africa to visit a friend who’d invited me in 1957. By 1960 I had met the great paleoanthropologist, Dr Louis Leakey, who gave me the opportunity to begin an adventure I’d stay on for the rest of my life.
At 26 I travelled to the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. I didn’t have a degree or field experience (except for my garden observations) but off I went into the forest to see the chimpanzees. We knew nothing about chimps in the wild at that stage. So, I just did what I did back in the garden back at home and waited quietly for them to trust me. What I saw were creatures like us – capable of love and compassion, of anger and brutality, of altruism and affection. They kissed and held hands. They competed for dominance in a way that reminds me of male politicians, and, amazingly, they made and used tools.
When I did eventually go to Cambridge to get a PhD (Leakey has said I really should have one) I realised that I’d had no idea of the reductionist attitude of science at the time. I was told I’d done everything wrong. Chimps should be assigned numbers, they said, not names. And don’t talk about their emotions – they are separate from us.
But I knew already this was wrong. I’d known it since I was a child from one of my great childhood teachers – my dog Rusty.
And so, I quietly kept doing what I thought was right. Even if I had gone to college earlier on, I can’t imagine I would have been pushed into believing animals were different to us.
I’d been lucky to have a wonderful and supportive mother who’d always taught me to have the courage of my convictions.
I remember she would say to me if there’s something you really want to do, you’re going to have to work really hard. Take advantage of every opportunity and if you don’t give up, maybe you’ll find a way.
Of course, the advance of women into careers has increased hugely since I was a child. But I think that advice still applies. It’s not always easy, but you can’t just stand there and say give me the job because I’m a woman. Prove you’re better than your male counterparts. Work hard. Take opportunities. Don’t give up.
I often go back to her advice. It has stood me in good stead over the years.
By 1991 I was travelling 300-days a year, talking about my work and the problems we were facing. I kept meeting young people who were angry, apathetic, or deeply depressed about the state of the world and its future. Had we stolen their future? I hoped it wasn’t too late.
That was the beginning of Roots and Shoots. I started with a group of school students who were worried about different things – poaching in national parks, homeless children, the treatment of animals. Roots and Shoots shows us that each one of us makes an impact every day and we get to choose what that impact will be. It’s about listening to children and empowering them to act and to reach into people’s hearts and inspire them to do the same. The number of adults now involved in Roots and Shoots is testament to the power of those young voices.
Jane Goodall and members of Roots & Shoots
To have a meaningful impact, we have to address three key things: our own unsustainable lifestyles including our dependence on factory farming, the alleviation of poverty, and our ever growing population.
One of the best ways to do this, is to empower people to work in their communities. Perhaps that’s about delivering microfinance opportunities for women to start sustainable businesses or supporting girls in education beyond puberty – which we know has a measurable impact on family sizes.
I’ve also seen how the power of technology can help to make these things happen. Volunteers from over one hundred villages in Tanzania now use smartphones to monitor the health of their rainforest. They know that by protecting their environment, they are protecting their future.
Afterall, we are all part of the natural world – not separate from it. Remember, we share 98.6% of our DNA with chimps.
As consumers, we have the power to choose what we do and don’t buy. We must ask ourselves how a product was created and who or what was hurt in the process. That power can impact the big corporations and force them to make important changes. Collectively, we can put pressure on companies to hold themselves accountable.
Ultimately, I encourage everyone to think less about consuming, and more about what we already have and what we want our future to look like. To me, a successful life is one spent with family and pets, respecting our planet, and smelling the roses at every opportunity.
Inspired by Jane’s story and know of a young person who is keen to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment? Roots & Shoots Australia is open to young people of all ages to join.
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