Jane Goodall walks the talk. The world-renowned primatologist, conservationist, anthropologist, and United Nations Messenger of Peace saves half packets of sugar in cafés to use later, puts a do-not-disturb sign on her hotel room so sheets and towels are not washed unnecessarily, and would never dream of leaving behind a half-used bar of soap.
It is these small gestures, she would say, and ground-level activism, that make the difference in a world that is dangerously close to an environmental tipping point.
Goodall has just made her first visit to Malaysia, where she launched the Roots & Shoots youth programme in the country. Roots & Shoots empowers young people to create positive change for communities, animals, and the environment in general. It began in 1991 in Africa, and now has 150,000 member groups in 139 countries. Some of those groups are whole schools.
Goodall’s Malaysia schedule was as jam-packed as her visits always are. She attended one event after another, grabbing lunch en route between venues.
At 80 years old, Goodall travels for 300 days of the year and her diary is filled up a year in advance. She may sometimes forget which country she is in, but, when she talks, she is totally present – and she enthrals her audiences, who greet her with standing ovations and rousing applause.
More than two thousand people came to hear her talk, “Reasons for Hope”, in the Berjaya Times Square Hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
Goodall’s love for, fascination with, and dedication to animals shone through as she recounted how she first went to Africa at the age of 23 and later lived out in the bush, observing chimpanzees.
As a one-year-old, Goodall brought a handful of wriggling earthworms into her bed and, at the age of five, crawled into a chicken coop to see where eggs came from. When she was ten she fell in love with Tarzan and dreamt of going to Africa. (She always jokes that Tarzan married the wrong Jane.)
Luckily, she says, her mother was understanding and encouraged her curiosity, and even accompanied Goodall to what was then Tanganyika and set up a holistic medical clinic.
Animals and us
Goodall was mocked by professors at Cambridge University for giving names to the chimpanzees she observed and for talking about the animals’ personalities, thoughts, and emotions. “Back then, science was arrogant, very reductionist, and they didn’t have the tools to start examining something like emotions in an animal. Now they are doing it.”
Animals, Goodall says, are much more like us and much more intelligent and emotional than we sometimes think.
Goodall talks about the games chimpanzees play, and the relationships between them. She talks about the “dark side” of chimpanzees’ nature. “They are capable of violence, brutality, and even a kind of primitive war … not only do they use sticks and twigs and leaves as tools, but they use rocks as missiles.”
Chimpanzees also have a more loving, compassionate side, she says. “Like us, they can be kind and loving and altruistic …There is not a sharp line, as used to be thought, dividing humans on the one hand from animals on the other.”
Chimpanzees have primitive cultures, Goodall adds. “For chimpanzee children, learning is very important. They remain totally dependent on their mother, travelling on her back and sleeping with her at night, until they are five years old.”
A scientist becomes an activist
A conference in the United States in October 1986, which gathered together people studying chimpanzees, changed her life, Goodall says. There was discussion about conservation, habitat destruction, and the bush meat trade – “the commercial hunting of wild animals for food … killing for money”.
Baby chimps were being sold in markets, bought as pets, sent off to zoos and for medical research around the world, Goodall says. There were chimpanzees being kept in five-foot by five-foot cages. “It was shocking; our closest relatives treated like things; treated as though they have no feelings”.
Goodall went to the conference planning to carry on as a scientist, and left as an activist. “Since that day, I haven’t been more than three weeks in any one place.”
Vegetarianism and compassion
Goodall appeals to people to stop eating meat. As nations get wealthier, more and more people are eating more and more meat, she says, and animals are crammed into terrible factory farms to meet the demand. “To feed all these billions of animals, huge areas of forest have to be cut down to grow grain.”
Thousands of tonnes of water are wasted on farm animals, Goodall says, and huge quantities of methane gas are produced. “And to keep these poor animals alive they have to be routinely fed antibiotics. Bacteria are building up resistance and people have actually died from a cut on a finger. In all ways, the huge, excessive eating of meat is damaging the future for our children.”
Goodall points also to the development of the human intellect. “Isn’t it peculiar that the creature with the most intellect of anything that’s ever walked the planet is destroying its only home.”
In Goodall’s view, there seems to have been a strange disconnect between our very clever brain and the human heart. “I truly believe that it’s only when we learn to live with brain and heart working together in harmony that we can achieve our true human potential.”
Goodhall talks about the high-school and university students she has met who lacked hope, and were “depressed, angry, and very often just apathetic”. They felt their future had been compromised and there was nothing they could do about it.
“Every time I see a small child and think how we’ve harmed this planet since I was that age, I feel a sense of shame, anger, and depression,” Goodall said. “I personally am sure that we still have a window of opportunity. If we carry on the way we are, destroying the environment, the time will come, I think, when we reach a point of no return, but we’re not there yet.”
Goodall points to the destruction of tropical rainforests: huge, polluted “dead zones” in the ocean; streams of water pouring out of ice cliffs in Greenland and massive chunks of iceberg crashing into the sea in areas where the ice never used to melt, even in summer. There are offshore islands in Panama that are no longer habitable at high tide, she says.
Storms, floods, and droughts are getting worse, she says. “The best way to slow down climate change damage is to preserve and restore our tropical forests.”
Goodall highlighted the way mass oil palm cultivation is destroying forests and biodiversity, but nature had resilience she said, and such problems could be solved if we put our minds and our hearts to it.
Reasons for hope
Goodall says young people inspire her, and Roots & Shoots is her greatest reason for hope. The programme started with 12 high-school students in Tanzania. It involves children and young people of all ages, ranging from those in pre-school to university students. It’s the young people themselves who choose the projects they want to work on, and this empowers them, Goodall says, because they know they are making a difference.
She is also inspired, she says, by CEOs who suddenly change the way they think; who have the courage to admit openly that they made mistakes, and are going to put them right.
She sees social media as another reason for hope; a means of gathering people together to support campaigns.
In Malaysia, the Roots & Shoots programme is supported by Berjaya Youth, an empowerment initiative set up by the Berjaya Corporation.
“Roots & Shoots isn’t about learning,” Goodall said. “It’s about doing; it’s planting trees; it’s clearing invasive species from a stream or a wetland; it’s going out and raising money to help the cause that you’re passionate about; it’s volunteering in a clinic for stray dogs …”
Right from the beginning, Goodall says, the main message of Roots & Shoots has been that, every single day, every one of us has an impact on the planet and we can choose the kind of difference we make. What we buy, what we eat, and what we wear are all decisions that matter, and have consequences. We need, Goodall says, to be thinking about where products are made, did they involve child slave labour, did their manufacture involve cruelty to animals, are they harming the environment, and do they contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
“All around the globe there are people who care and are making responsible choices in their daily lives, and that’s what’s moving us towards a different world.” There is a growing awareness, Goodall says, but often people do nothing because they feel helpless and overwhelmed by the scale of global problems.
The Roots & Shoots Malaysia programme has been given a grant of 500,000 ringgit (about 137,700 US dollars) from the founder of the Berjaya Corporation Vincent Tan, through the Better Malaysia Foundation.
Tan was loudly applauded yesterday when he said that he had had lunch for the first time with Goodall and she may have convinced him to become a vegetarian again.
“I know you are not going to be very popular with oil palm plantation owners or timber tycoons, but fortunately I am neither,” he added. “They are not going to like me a lot if I help you a lot. But we will do what is right. Who cares what they think,” he said, to more raucous applause.
Tan pointed out, however, that this was his personal opinion, not that of the Berjaya Corporation. “But maybe we have to reconsider some of the business. Maybe we have to start a chain of vegetarian restaurants!”
Goodall wants to counteract the bad news peddled by the mainstream media and, on her birthday, in April, she will be launching a new blog, Jane Goodall’s All Good News. She will post stories about positive developments such as ecosystems being restored and animals being rescued from the brink of extinction.
Goodall is a big fan of KindMeal.my