Jane Goodall on Covid, Resilience and Climate Change

Jane Goodall, renowned conservationist and winner of this year’s Templeton Prize, has been a pioneer when it comes to respecting nature and animals. Has the pandemic changed her perspective at all? Goodall joined me for a live interview about the lessons that the animal kingdom can teach us about resilience. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our exchange.

Sarah Green Carmichael: During this year, nature has been in some ways our only refuge, because it was the safest place for us to gather. Do you think this will increase our respect for nature in the long term?

Jane Goodall: Well, I sincerely hope so, because if this isn’t a wake-up call, then I don’t hold up much hope for the future of our planet. We brought this pandemic on ourselves by our disrespect to the animals and nature. We created conditions that made it easy for a pathogen — in this case, a virus — to jump from an animal to a person in these cruel wildlife markets in Asia. But the same thing happened with chimpanzees in central Africa, which led to HIV/AIDS. And MERS, which came from camels in Saudi Arabia. So we’ve created many of these so-called zoonotic diseases.

We now find we’re using nature’s natural resources, which are finite in many places, faster than nature can replenish them. And we have this crazy idea that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources. That doesn’t work. If we can’t see the way to create a new, more respectful relationship with nature and a new, more sustainable economy, then the outlook for future generations is honestly pretty grim.

SGC: I’ve never lived through anything like this pandemic before, and I don’t think there’s many people on the planet who have. Is there anything about this year that has changed the way you think about the relationship between humans and nature or humans and animals?

JG: I’ve been thinking in these terms for an awful long time. I’ve seen habitats being destroyed, and you have to realize I’m now in my 88th year. So I grew up — my very formative years — during World War II. That was another horrific experience. And I think the only reason that we were not overrun by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi raiding is because of one man. It was Winston Churchill. The way he inspired people and basically said, We can win, we must win, we will win. And we did! That one time, just little tiny Britain stood against the might of the Nazi regime. The rest of Europe had capsized, one after the other — overrun. So I’ve lived through a pretty grim time and came to understand that nothing should be taken for granted — neither food, nor life, nor anything else. So I was sort of in a way prepared for this pandemic.

SGC: You mentioned the impact of climate change on future generations. I want to go back to that because I think when I see young people today, I really see a new generation of climate activists that is so organized and so passionate. Some of these people can’t even vote yet. What advice would you give them as they think about this issue?

JG: I started the Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots & Shoots program in 1991. And it now involves young people from preschool, mostly kindergarten through university. It’s in 67 countries and it’s grown during the pandemic. The main message is that every individual makes an impact every day. And the main message of Roots & Shoots is you choose projects to make the world better for people for animals, for the environment, because we’re all interrelated, and then roll up your sleeves and get out and take action. So it’s the taking action. It’s leading by example. It’s showing that you can play a letter in a huge area. It’s showing that you can save a mangroves forest. It’s showing that if you all write letters together to legislators, you can change the legislation. So it’s not just protesting. It’s not just saying you owe us a different future. It’s actually doing the action and showing your capability in making change.

SGC: I’m glad to hear you say that, because sometimes the problem of climate change especially does feel quite big, but as this last year has shown, our individual choices do have an impact on the world. If it were in your power to command each one of us to do one small thing for the environment, what would that small thing be?

JG: Stop eating animal products. We’ve got billions of animals now around the world — cows and pigs and goats and chickens and geese and turkeys — and they’re in the most horrendous, utterly cruel [conditions], crammed together in these little spaces, because people are demanding more and more cheap meat. And the cheap meat comes at the cost to the animals and the workers. Workers are in terrible conditions. It’s destroying the environment to grow the grain. It’s using fossil fuel to move the grain and the animals around, and the animals all create methane gas in their digestion, which is a very, very virulent greenhouse gas.

I started being a vegetarian many, many years ago. I looked at the bit of meat on my plate once I knew about the factory farming. And I thought, This symbolizes fear, pain and death, because every one of these animals, and the chimps, helped me to make the scientists realize that we’re not the only beings with a personality, mind and emotion. Every one of these farmed animals — the ones in the wildlife markets, the bushmeat markets — they’re individuals, they have their own personality. They feel fear, terror, despair and pain.

SGC: Is there a bigger, policy-level change that you’d like to see? Something that really hit home, especially this past year of Covid-19, was that government policies do make a big difference when you’re dealing with a massive global emergency, whether that emergency is a pandemic or climate change. Is there something you’d like to see governments doing differently?

JG: Oh, there’s an awful lot. And it is beginning to happen. Governments are beginning to put climate change and biodiversity loss as a central pillar of their programs for the future. I’ve talked with the G-7 group and the EU, and the same thing is happening under the Biden administration. These governments are beginning to realize that we have to change the mind-set. We’ve got to stop thinking that business as usual can carry on, because it can’t. Business as usual says there can be unlimited economic development. But the planet has finite natural resources. In some places, they’re being used up faster than nature can repair them.

So we have a new mind-set. We have to stop thinking in terms of gaining power and wealth. We’ve got to start asking ourselves: What should we aim for in life? What is a good life? Is it getting more rich and getting more money? Unfortunately for many people, it’s a struggle to survive. But this new mind-set says what we should aim for is to have a life where we have enough, where we can feed our families, where we can enjoy our families, where we can enjoy the natural world, where we can help to conserve the natural world, because it is shown that even a short time out in nature is incredibly beneficial to our mental and physical health.

SGC: As someone who’s observed nature and animals very closely, are there some lessons we could learn about resilience from nature if we took the time to look?

JG:  Over the long eons of evolution, the species that can adapt to new conditions are the ones that survive. And those that cannot adapt die out. And I think many species now are faced with this choice. Can they adapt or can’t they adapt? And some are so specialized that it will be very, very hard for them to adapt. On the other hand, because nature is so resilient and because more and more people are becoming so passionate about protecting the environment, we’ve shown again and again, and again, the places we actually destroyed can with a bit of help or just time, once again, nature can reclaim them and life can come back. And those on the brink of extension can be given another chance. But if we can’t stop this decline caused by climate change, then it’s going to be very hard for many species, including our own, to survive in some places.

If you look at what’s happening in Bangladesh, the ocean and the river is just eating away the coastline. People who had proud lives — they did a bit of fishing, they had a family home. And now they have nowhere to go and they’re going into the slums where there’s no electricity, no sanitation, nothing … it’s horrible.

SGC: I was very surprised to see that all of the changes in human behavior this year — not traveling as much or at all, not commuting — didn’t really seem to result in a meaningful decrease in carbon emissions, not enough to make up for all the carbon we emitted. Does that make you more concerned, if it is possible for you to be even more concerned, than you were before?

JG: I think there must be millions of people who come from the big cities, the very first time in their lives probably, they have the luxury of breathing clean air, looking up at the stars in the night sky, bright and shining instead of through a haze of pollution, or even not seeing them at all. And so all of these people will suddenly realize how the world should be and could be. But unfortunately it depends on the administrations, it depends on the government, and you get some countries where citizens can make a difference and can make their wishes known. And then you get other countries with more autocratic governments where the people really don’t have a voice.

SGC: The Templeton Prize is a recognition for a lifelong opus of work. It kind of implies that you’re approaching retirement, but you seem tireless. So I’m wondering what’s next for you, Dr. Goodall?

JG:  As I’m in my 88th year, I don’t know how long I have. I’ve got good genes in my family, but definitely I’m getting closer to the end, therefore I have to speed up! I have to do more and more and more because I wouldn’t do what I do if it didn’t make a difference. People tell me, “I read your book. I came to your lecture, I heard your talk and I promise you now I’ll do my bit. … I had given up. I’d lost hope, but you’ve given me hope.” If we don’t have hope, then, well, we might as well give up because why would you bother to do anything if you didn’t hope that it was and to make a difference?

When people get really depressed and say, “What can I do, I’m just one person?” Take action, go out there in your community. Do something you’re passionate about. Realize that you and your friends do make a difference. And then you feel more energetic and you roll up your sleeves and you get out and you continue doing it. And you inspire others. And then you dare to think globally.

The trouble is, the media spends so much time talking about the doom and the gloom, which they have to, but I want them to give time to all the incredible projects, amazing people around the world, doing incredible things that show that we can if we have the will. We’ve got to get that will into governments and into big business. And it’s beginning to change, and we as consumers can affect business. If we don’t think that the product is made ethically, we can refuse to buy it. And that does make a difference.

When I’m out in the rainforest — well, anywhere in nature — I feel a strong, spiritual connection to the natural world. We’ve become so materialistic. We’ve really moved away from this connection that we should all have with the natural world upon which we depend. It’s not just that we’re part of it; we depend on it. We depend on healthy ecosystems, and it’s these ecosystems that bit by bit we’re destroying. So you have to change. I hope the pandemic has been a wake-up call.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

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