Jane Goodall knows that it’s all too easy to despair when you look at what’s going on in the world, whether it’s the attacks on Ukraine or the relentless news of our climate crisis. “You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel like this when you looked around at the world,” she says.
But for 60 years, she has been a key figure of hope in the world of wildlife research and conservation, working tirelessly to not only help us better understand chimpanzees, but also to fight for our natural world. She has gone from researcher to activist, particularly spurred on by recognizing how habitat destruction and illegal trade were threatening chimpanzees, and the destruction and deforestation of Gombe National Park. Partly because of this work, Goodall won the 2021 Templeton Prize last May, an award from the Templeton World Charity Foundation that recognizes spiritual contributions to the world – and previously went to Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu and Francis Collins. who led the Human Genome Project.
Also this week, Templeton World Charity Foundation announced a $2.7 million grant to National Geographic, which the foundation says will be used to find and fund the “next Jane Goodalls,” in honor of Goodall himself. (However, Goodall notes that she “has always emphasized that we are individuals and that no two people are alike, but I think everyone knows what it means.”) The National Geographic Society will select and support three scientists who are different enthusiasm for wildlife research will “shed light on potential unknown wonders of our world”. This grant will help support those yet to be selected to work with wild creators on land or sea for a 5 year program that could potentially be extended to 10 years.
“Young people [are] my biggest reason for hope,” she says. “Once they understand the issues and are empowered to take action, have a voice and be heard, they are already changing the world.” Goodall’s Roots & Shoots youth action program, which operates in more than 65 countries, works with members from Pre-school to university students together and supports them in their projects to help animals and the environment. These projects have planted millions of trees around the world, created organic food gardens in schoolyards and spread petitions to save wildlife like badgers in the UK (her 2021 Templeton Prize is worth £1.1million, which Goodall says will fund more Roots & Shoots projects.)
There are certainly still many unknowns to our nature and wildlife, and Goodall believes—and hopes—there always will be. “I don’t think we’ll ever know everything,” she says. But what wildlife research in particular can do as we continue to discover more about nature is teach us how to treat animals better and explore the environment.
There is no denying that our relationship with nature is broken. The COVID-19 pandemic, says Goodall, shows how “we have so disregarded nature and animals that we have created environments that make it relatively easy for pathogens like a virus to jump from an animal to a human. . . . We’re penetrating wild animal habits, we’re destroying them, we’re bringing some species into closer contact with each other and humans, providing opportunities for disease to spread. We capture them, trade them, sell them for food, medicine or exotic pets at wildlife markets, and think about the factory farms with animals crammed together in totally inappropriate conditions.”
That reality — and our future, where zoonotic disease pandemics are more likely — is our fault, Goodall says. “We are reaping the harvest that we have sown.” And yet she sees hope for our future, especially in individual action. (Goodall also wrote a book with Douglas Carlton Abrams, published October 2021, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Difficult Times.)
“It seems to me that we are at the entrance of a very long dark tunnel and at the very end there is a small shining star that is hope. But hope is about taking action. We don’t just sit at the entrance of the tunnel and hope that the star will come to us. We have to roll up our sleeves and crawl under, climb over, bypass all these obstacles like climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty, population growth, greed, all these terrible problems where we are destroying the land,” she says. “But if we just sit and hope things will be fine, they certainly wouldn’t. Reaching that star, I believe, depends on a critical mass to take action.”
Every day that we live, she adds, we have an impact on the planet. “It’s your choice what kind of impact you make.”