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Jane Goodall on why hope is contagious

Renowned naturalist Jane Goodall talks about her new book with Douglas Abrams and why people must not lose hope even in troubled times

Hope forms the central theme of a new book: The Book Of Hope: A Survival Guide For An Endangered Planet, co-authored by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams.
Hope forms the central theme of a new book: The Book Of Hope: A Survival Guide For An Endangered Planet, co-authored by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams. (Photo by Vincent Calmel)

There is a June 2013 video where Jane Goodall, the naturalist, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN messenger of peace, is present at the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center in the Republic of Congo to witness the release of Wounda, a chimpanzee at the centre.

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Having been rehabilitated and treated for serious illness, Wounda is being released into the dense forests of Tchindzoulou Island, part of the Tchimpounga sanctuary. As Wounda is let out of the cage, she climbs on top of it and inspects her surroundings. Then she turns to Goodall, gives her a hug, climbs down and walks away into the jungle.

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Also read: More than 17,000 tree species at risk of extinction globally

It was a moment that captivated millions. It was also a moment that defined “hope”, which forms the central theme of a new book: The Book Of Hope: A Survival Guide For An Endangered Planet, co-authored by Goodall and Douglas Abrams.

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Abrams, who previously co-authored The Book Of Joy with the Dalai Lama and archbishop Desmond Tutu as part of the “Global Icons” series, has detailed conversations with Goodall throughout The Book Of Hope. Through these informal conversations, the 87-year-old takes the reader through her four reasons for hope—the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of young people, and the indomitable human spirit—combining them with her life experiences, be it living through World War II or the countless decades she spent researching chimpanzees at the Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

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What really shines through, however, is how seamlessly Goodall moves between the roles of conservationist, naturalist and seeker. Abrams ably complements her stories and reasons with the “science of hope”. He writes that he wanted to know how Goodall thought we could have hope in such troubled times. I wondered if there were moments when Goodall lost hope. “I am very obstinate—like one of those dolls. You push them over and they bounce back,” she tells me during a video call from the UK.

Goodall and Abrams also touch upon the evolution of the human intellect, which has not only led to remarkable discoveries but also, unfortunately, created a world that is now out of balance. “If we carry on as we are, basically, we are doomed. Especially if, on top of destroying the planet, people lose hope,” says Goodall. “We will slowly vanish. But nature won’t. If you think back, nature has lived through ice ages and all sorts of calamities.”

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In the interview with Lounge, Goodall also spoke about the power of young people, how they are “changing the world”, and why hope is contagious. Edited excerpts:

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The Book of Hope – A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet
The Book of Hope – A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet

What prompted you to work on this book with Abrams?

It was an agent in London who works with Doug Abrams. Doug had written a book, The Book Of Joy, with the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu. Doug thought it would be good to write a book with me. I didn’t want to write a book because I was so busy. I was persuaded because (I was told) Doug would interview me and transcribe it. It didn’t work out that way because the way you speak is not the way you write. I had to rewrite and it was an awful lot of work.

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Although at the beginning, when I had agreed to do it, it was pre-pandemic (time) and we weren’t in such a crisis situation with climate (change) and everything. But now, the book has come out at exactly the right time. People need hope now. If we lose hope, we are doomed.

Your relationship with hope is explained beautifully in the book. What exactly is hope for you?

Hope is not looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. I am saying that hope has to be combined with action, if possible. I am now seeing it like this: We are in a really dark, long tunnel. Right at the end of that dark tunnel is a little prick of light. That’s hope.

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We can’t just sit and hope the light will come to us. We have to work really hard to crawl under, climb over and work our way around all the obstacles between us and that light.

You mention at the very start that we are living in the middle of an "environmental nightmare". What do you mean by that?

People need to know that climate change is not something that will happen in the future. Sitting pretty in the northern part of the planet—America and Europe—people can’t say “climate change won’t affect me” any more because of the hurricanes, the flooding, the fires. Climate change is here and it is hitting everywhere. It’s much worse for the people living in impoverished situations, small countries that don’t have massive financial resources...

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The other crisis is the loss of biodiversity. People say if that bird goes or that insect goes, so what? We are actually a part of the natural world and depend on it for water, food, air...for everything. But what we depend on (the most) is a healthy ecosystem. If I take the ecosystem I know best, which is the forests of Gombe National Park, that ecosystem is made up of a whole, interconnected number of animal and plant species. Each one with a role to play. I see it as a beautiful tapestry of life. Every time a species disappears from that environment, it’s like pulling a thread from that tapestry. If enough threads are pulled, the tapestry will hang in tatters. The ecosystem will collapse.

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On top of that, we have the pandemic. The sad thing is all of this we brought upon ourselves because we have disrespected the natural world and animals.

Do you think it’s too late to turn things around?

It’s not too late if we get together and each do our bit. That’s why hope is so important because if you don’t have hope, why bother to take action. But we are close to a tipping point...

There’s a beautiful passage in the book about our connection with the natural world. Do you think we have drifted away from nature?

Oh, we have. It’s technology..., You see young people today. They may be going through the most beautiful place and they are not looking. They are just on their little cellphones and doing social media or texting. It’s a real tragedy. Which is why, in our Roots & Shoots programme, which is growing fast in India (among other locations), we encourage preschool children, kindergarten children...get them out in nature. Let them explore. Let them watch with amazement. They will learn to understand and love it, and what you love, you want to save.

We clearly need a new relationship with the natural world. We cannot go on with this absurd idea that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources, says Goodall.
We clearly need a new relationship with the natural world. We cannot go on with this absurd idea that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources, says Goodall. (The Jane Goodall Institute / Shawn Sweeney)

Of your four reasons for hope in the book, which one does the world need the most today?

I think it depends on who you are. But they are all working together. They are my reasons for hope. Other people might have different reasons for hope. But for me, it’s this amazing brain...the stupidity of having such a brilliant brain but somehow, it has become disconnected from the heart, love and compassion. So, this most intellectual creature is trashing its only home. That’s what we are doing to the planet. We are trashing it. It seems there has been this disconnect: The head is so often not connected with the heart. Only when the two are together can we achieve our true human potential, which is huge...

This is the thing. If you lose hope, you become apathetic and you do nothing. People feel helpless and hopeless. My remedy for them is: Do something where you live. Don’t think about the whole global picture. It’s devastating. But think, what can I do where I am? I can collect trash. I can raise money for the homeless. I can donate food to a food bank or I can send money to refugees in other parts of the world. Then you feel “I have done something”. That makes you feel good and then you want to do more to feel better. The more you do, the more you inspire others to join in.

You have always had a special bond with youngsters. What do you feel about the current generation’s approach to environmental issues?

There are two movements, really. One is Roots & Shoots and other such groups, who are taking action, planting trees, raising money with bake sales. They are very passionate about everything. Then there’s the side that is slightly more confrontational—(using) demonstrations. I think we are in a situation now where we need both (these movements).

My way is always: Let’s take action and lead by example. When I talk to businesspeople or politicians, trying to change their mind and help them see the urgency...I try and reach the heart with stories. Stories are so important. People remember stories.

In ‘The Book Of Hope’, you speak about the numerous books, around environment and social justice, that inspired people in the 1960s. What are some of the books that guided you as a youngster?

Do you know Dr. Dolittle? And Tarzan? Dr. Dolittle—that’s what made me dream of Africa. There was one story where he takes animals from the circus back to Africa. I love that! He could speak to animals. Wow.

In our interview last year, you said we need to find “different ways of living” with nature and the various zoonotic diseases that might emerge. Now that the world is slowly emerging from the pandemic, what do you think are some ways to do this?

Europe’s closing down again. We are moving out of it (the pandemic) but then coming back to it. Hopefully we will come out of it.

We clearly need a new relationship with the natural world. We cannot go on with this absurd idea that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources. In some cases, they are already being used up faster than nature can replenish. We destroyed our forests, polluting our oceans. We are making a right mess of this poor old planet. We need to think differently.

We also need a new kind of economy—a greener, sustainable economy. I think we need a new definition of “success”. At the moment, if you think of a successful person, they have got money, power.... Let’s have a new definition where success means you have got enough money for a decent life, you can look after your family, go for a holiday, you can enjoy being in nature. How on earth do we get there? I don’t know. But I do think some young people are beginning to feel that.

Also read: Renowned conservationist Jane Goodall wins Templeton Prize

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