Jane Goodall on blazing a trail, finding passion, and overcoming the odds
At 82, the renowned primatologist reflects on her career and discusses the future of the planet
Jane Goodall knows a thing or two about navigating uncharted territory. When she first entered the Gombe Stream reserve in Tanzania nearly 60 years ago, she was just 26 years old. She didn't have modern tools like GPS, satellite imagery, or motion sensors. Nor did she have a college degree in anything animal-related, or loads of money to support her endeavor into the forest.
"If I'd had all of that, I would have been such a different person," Goodall tells The Week in an interview at the University of Redlands. Indeed, all Goodall had was her notebook, a pair of binoculars, and her own enduring fascination with Africa's wild animals. And that was enough.
Today, Goodall is an acclaimed British primatologist, the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, and a U.N. Messenger of Peace. She continues to use her own experiences to motivate today's blossoming animal activists, even if they don't know exactly what they want to be when they grow up.
Kids today "don't always know exactly what they're passionate about," Goodall says. "I say, 'Just wait, you'll find it, something will click.' If you care very much about stray animals, you'll volunteer at a shelter, or you could grow organic vegetables or raise money for whatever it is — cancer research, victims of earthquakes or tsunamis — wait and do what you're passionate about. You can't be passionate about nothing, although you may not know what it is."
Throughout her career, Goodall was often criticized for her unorthodox research practices. For example, instead of giving chimpanzees numbers, she gave them names. But her tactics paid off. The behaviors she witnessed over her years of research — chimps using tools and showing love, affection, and aggression — contradicted nearly everything previously thought about the great apes and changed the field of primatology forever.
And it also changed the science field for female researchers. Goodall often hears from women who say her trailblazing made it possible for them to have a career in the sciences. "It makes me realize that the Jane out there, that sort of icon, is someone I have to live up to," she says. "I don't know how it happened, probably through National Geographic magazines and films. Then I began speaking, and now I think the recognition is what's helping me spread a message that I feel is very important, so I have to make the most of it."
The message she's trying to spread is that the world's chimpanzees, and other animals, are in trouble. Poaching and shrinking habitats threaten many of the wild creatures Goodall has come to love. But there's another pressing issue she believes demands the world's attention: climate change. Goodall has seen its effects first-hand, from the Arctic to Africa, and says it's time for people who "won't believe the science" to stop burying their heads in the sand.
"I've been with Inuit elders where ice is melting where it never melted through the whole year," Goodall says. "I've met people who've had to leave their island homes because they're underwater when there's a storm. I've talked to countless biologists almost everywhere I go who say it's very unusual weather for that time of year."
As more people eat more meat, large swaths of forests are being cut down to grow the grain to feed those animals, and more CO2 is being released into the atmosphere as the grain is shipped to the farms and the meat is then transported to stores. "That's using huge amounts of fossil fuel, added to which their digestive process produces gas, and that's methane, the worst of greenhouse gases," Goodall says.
Goodall wishes she could still explore the jungles of Asia and the heart of the Amazon, but she says that at 82 years old, those days are over. Instead, she is focusing on education. Through the Jane Goodall Institute and a youth program called Roots and Shoots, Goodall continues her efforts to get people actively interested in all living things. She still spends 300 days a year on the road, giving public lectures across the globe. Wherever she goes, she shares one clear and succinct message: All creatures are interconnected, and what we do locally has significance globally.
"Every individual matters," she says. "Animals matter, too. They have feelings and every day you live you make some impact on the planet and you have a choice: What kind of impact will I make? Think about the consequences of the little choices, like what you buy, eat, wear. Where did it come from? How was it made? Did it involve cruelty to animals or child slave labor? Do I need it? Gandhi said this planet can provide for human need, but not human greed. That's a very important message."