Observation Deck

Thoughts from Jane Goodall on How to Save the Planet

What chimpanzees and the trees of Tanzania can teach us about battling the effects of climate change.

UNSPECIFIED  :  Jane Goodall, English primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist, with a chimpanzee in her arms, c. 1995  (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED : Jane Goodall, English primatologist, ethologist, and anthropologist, with a chimpanzee in her arms, c. 1995 (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

I arrived in Gombe Stream National Park, in what is now Tanzania, in 1960 to study chimpanzees.

At first they were afraid, but eventually I won their trust. As I came to understand them, I found they are like us in so many ways; they are intelligent with personalities, family bonds, and emotions similar to our own. They can be brutal to one another, but also compassionate.

During those early years I spent hours alone in the rainforest. I came to see how everything is interconnected, each species with its own special role. I always found a great sense of a spiritual power when I was out in the forest. That’s when I concluded that if I have a soul, these other creatures have a soul: If I have it, so does the chimpanzee. I sometimes wondered about the trees as well — about every living thing.

At that time, Gombe was part of the equatorial forest belt that stretched from western Tanzania and Uganda, through the Congo Basin, and on to the west coast of Africa. About 30 years later, I flew over Gombe in a small plane and was shocked to see it had become a small oasis of forest surrounded by bare hills. Clearly there were more people living there than the land could support, cutting down the trees as they struggled to grow food. And that’s when it hit me: If we didn’t improve the lives of these people, we couldn’t save the chimps.

The greatest threat to chimpanzees is the destruction of their habitat as a result of human population growth — people taking over more and more of the forest for human settlements and farming. Then there is the commercial hunting of wild animals for food, the international live animal trade, mining operations by foreign corporations and destructive logging; all put the chimpanzees as well as the forests’ natural resources at risk.

Forests elsewhere in the world are threatened by the expansion of palm oil operations, which have devastated thousands of square miles of Asian rainforests and is beginning to in Africa. In addition, intensive livestock operations that have grown to meet the world’s demand for meat penetrate the forest, destroying new growth and causing soil erosion. Further, industrial agriculture using chemical pesticides and herbicides on vast areas of monocultures ruins the soil, polluting streams and groundwater.

We’ve harmed this planet most grievously. No wonder young people are losing hope. I meet students who seem apathetic, depressed, or angry. They all say more or less the same thing: “Well, you’ve compromised our future. There’s nothing we can do about it.” Indeed, we have compromised their future.

There is a saying: “We haven’t inherited this planet from our parents. We borrowed it from our children.” But we haven’t been borrowing — we’ve been stealing. And we’re still stealing. When we elect leaders who promote economic development over the protection of the environment and buy products made with unsustainable practices, we betray the future of our children.

Certainly there are reasons to despair, but there are also reasons to hope. Perhaps the most driving reason for hope is the commitment of young people. I’ve seen how their behavior can change once we empower them to take action. Everywhere I go around the world, young people involved in our Roots & Shoots movement greet me and, with shining eyes, share what they’ve been doing to make this a better world for people, other animals, and the environment.

Nature, if given the proper care, has great resilience. Animals and plants on the brink of extinction can be given another chance when people take action. The human spirit is an indomitable thing, visible in those who tackle what seems impossible and succeed. Like the people in Gombe, who were able to conserve their land with the help of the Jane Goodall Institute’s TACARE program. Now the hills are no longer bare, and the trees of Gombe flourish once again.

We have a window of time when we can heal some of the harm. Maybe it’s wishful thinking. I don’t know. But I choose to believe that if we get together and develop a new way of thinking we can start putting things right.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Photo credit: Apic/Getty Images

Jane Goodall, Ph.D., DBE, is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a U.N. Messenger of Peace.

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