Jane Goodall on Hope for the Planet & Doing Your Bit

I've admired Jane Goodall for many years, and tonight I had the pleasure of hearing her speak in my hometown: Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. Despite the fact that she's now 75 years old, the spirited primatologist, anthropologist and UN Messenger of Peace continues touring a harrowing 300 days a year. Goodall's none the worse for wear, though. Tonight, wrapped in a wool shawl, her silver hair neatly swept back, she appeared bright, lively and poised as ever — quite luminous, in fact. Truly, I felt I was in the presence of a saint.

After 50 years studying the social and family interactions of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, Goodall has held the longest unbroken study of wild animals in the world. She started off tonight's address by grasping the microphone and hooting into it, beautifully imitating the sound of a wild chimpanzee greeting the dawn.

Goodall begins most lectures this way, she says, to "bring the chimpanzees' voices into the room" and help break down the perceived barriers between the worlds of humans and animals. According to Goodall, we're not so different from chimps afterall — biologically, in fact, only 1% different. And like chimpanzees, humans pass on behavior from one generation down to the next; we learn through observation and imitation. The main difference is that humans have much more highly developed intellects. Environmentally, though, we're not putting that intelligence to the best use. 

"If we're the most intellectually developed creatures to walk on this earth," Goodall asked, "Why are we destroying our home?" 

Why indeed? With a gentle yet determined air, Goodall went on to explain that she feels we've collectively lost the wisdom to ask ourselves, as North America's First Nations people did, and still do, "How will today's decisions affect the next generations?"

We're becoming increasingly consumerist, always on the lookout for bigger, better and newer, regardless of the impact our choices have on animals, the environment and ourselves. I know I'm as guilty of this as anyone. Our collective mantra as a society is: more, more, more. 

Those of you reading this in Iowa, consider this sobering fact: the methane produced by today's mega-bucks intensive farming industry (the US "produces" more meat each year than we can possibly consume) is now contributing more to greenhouses gasses than all the automobile fuel emissions in the world combined.

So what's to be done about it all?

"There is hope for a better world," Goodall said, "But each of us has to to do our bit in order for the hope to realize itself. It's not too late."

She charged the audience to spend a little time each day considering seemingly little things, like what we eat, buy, wear, and to make small changes for the good. Things like recycling, composting, commuting by bicycle, planting an organic garden in pots on your city balcony. "These small changes will multiply, multiply, multiply," and create widespread global good, said Goodall.

She also talked about her new book, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink. The book, which is now on bestseller lists just two weeks after its release, recounts worldwide tales of determined individuals rescuing animals on the brink of extinction.

An interesting aside: a chapter of the book is dedicated to the restoration and greenification of Sudbury. As you may or may not know, Sudbury's a mining town, and in the '70s, it was a veritable lunar landscape (Canadian astronauts in training actually came to Sudbury to practice moon walking). Pollution from nickel mining literally ate into the ground, turning rocks black, killing trees and destroying the soil. Over the years, however, a dedicated team of environmentalists and city officials have restored the flora and fauna, and today, Sudbury is lush, green and beautiful in summer months.

In honor of Goodall's visit — and to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of Sudbury's local science center, Science North, which hosted tonight's lecture — 800 Sudbury school children joined forces and planted 1,000 new trees in the district today. When I think of the hopeful rows of all these brave new saplings, I'm reminded of Goodall's popular youth organization, Roots and Shoots, which inspires kids, teens and young adults to be humble stewards of our planet. Roots and Shoots now has tens of thousands of young members in almost 100 countries, all of whom share a desire to create a better world.

Clicking through the Roots and Shoots website tonight, I stumbled upon a powerful quote from Goodall that beautifully explains the metaphor behind the organization's name. I think I'll close with it here:

"Roots creep underground everywhere and make a firm foundation. Shoots seem very weak, but to reach the light, they can break open brick walls. Imagine that the brick walls are all the problems we have inflicted on our planet. Hundreds of thousands of roots & shoots, hundreds of thousands of young people around the world, can break through these walls. We can change the world. "

To get involved, and for more institution on Jane Goodall's work, visit The Jane Goodall Institute .