Primatologist Jane Goodall weighs in on the world her great-grandchildren will inherit, writes Sophie Brickmann. Published in ELLE Australia, December 2019/#72.
Almost sixty years ago, Jane Goodall, an animal lover with no formal academic training, travelled to Tanzania to observe chimpanzees for famed anthropologist Louis Leakey. Within months, the 26-year-old witnessed a chimp extracting termites from a mound using long blades of grass, upending mankind’s very understanding of itself: humans were no longer the only species to make tools, no longer unequivocally superior. She went on to find that chimps, like humans, have complex social and familial hierarchies, sharp intelligence and deep-seated wells of emotion.
Subsequently, Goodall has spent the rest of her life devoted to conserving the world they live in, one that’s disappearing due to climate change and the interests of big business. “What we’re doing to the planet is shocking and irresponsible, and it’s all done for making money,” she says. “We’ve got to understand we need money to live, but it goes wrong when we live for money.”
At 85, the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace travels over 300 days a year, spreading the gospel of conservation. She speaks to ELLE from the institute’s U.S. headquarters, just outside Washington, DC.
ELLE: The kind of slow and steady observation you did for years contrasts so much with the fast-paced, technologically driven world we live in. Growing up today, would your story have been the same?
JG: I think my story would have been very different. Screens, in a way, are killing us. I’d hesitate to say whether they totally stifle imagination, but they certainly would have stifled mine. I read Tarzan when I was 10 and fell in love with him, and that’s what triggered my dream of going to Africa and living with wild animals. My mother saved up to take me to an early Johnny Weissmuller film, and after about 10 minutes, I burst into tears. I told her, “But that wasn’t Tarzan!” My imagination had created my own picture of Tarzan, and that’s something that the modern world certainly prevents children from doing.
ELLE: Has your observation of the animal world in any way helped you navigate the political one?
JG: I did become more of a people watcher, which came from hours spent watching animals. But I think the world we live in today is so utterly remote from the world of wild animals that it doesn’t help, really.
ELLE: Yet since your first discovery, you’ve been particularly politically adept at raising money and awareness for your cause. You wrote in a Time article — and have spoken many times — about having the media emphasize your legs and blond hair: “If my legs helped me get publicity for the chimps, that was useful.” It didn’t bother you one bit?
JG: The National Geographic Society liked this image of a young woman with the chimps, sort of like Beauty and the Beast. If my legs helped me get favour with the Geographic, well, good old legs! We were so different back then; we had a different outlook. Look at the pictures. They were pretty jolly nice legs! I wasn’t ashamed of them.
ELLE: What is your biggest fear for the world that your great-grandchildren will inherit?
JG: That is we don’t change our behaviour soon, if we don’t get a new mindset, if we don’t stop always putting economic development over the needs of nature, their world will be a very, very grim one. We depend on nature, on forests and oceans breathing out oxygen and absorbing CO2. They’re losing the ability to do that.
ELLE: You once wrote, “When I was a little girl, I used to dream as a man, because I wanted to do things that women didn’t do back then.” Do you dream as a woman now?
JG: Oh, I dream as me now.