envision a khaki-clad primatologist plopped down in the dirt beside a wild chimp, but for much of the last 18 months, the 87-year-old has spent almost every day in the same habitat: on a chair in front of a wall of books and framed photos
, staring at a computer camera.
“Every single day,” she sighs on a recent afternoon. “Zooms and interviews, virtual lectures and virtual conferences, and there is no letup, no weekend, no nothing. Just sitting here, the same background, reaching out to the world.”
Her time among apes yielded fascinating discoveries about how our wild cousins live, and her time in captivity helped her win the Templeton Prize in 2021, a $1.5 million award for achievements in “harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.”
“It’s completely exhausting,” Goodall admits, “but the upside is that we’re reaching so many more people with a message of hope and that we need to band together and take action now before it’s too late.”
I spoke with Goodall about climate change
, the pandemic
, big-game hunting
, and the future she envisions for our species last week; the interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Given the time you've spent observing primates in a variety of environments, what long-term effects do you believe this extraordinary year will have on our species?
What we need to do, as this pandemic has highlighted, is develop a new relationship with the natural world and animals
. If we don't get together and create a more sustainable greener economy
, and forget this nonsense that there can be unlimited economic development on a planet with finite resources, and that GDP isn't God's answer to the future, then it's going to be a very sad world.
What do you think should be the ultimate priority? First, a real rethinking of what the metrics of health
and success in our societies are, with something like a retooling of GDP or economic growth, or should we focus on conservation
targets like the Biden administration
's "30 by '30" plan?
We need to do both. We simply need to find a new way of interacting with the planet's resources and other beings. We need to change the way business has traditionally worked, as well as the way governments frequently collaborate with business. We need to slow down climate change and biodiversity loss. And we can only do all of that by giving people hope that if we work together, we can do it.
There is a lot of doom and gloom in the media
right now, and I understand that the media must present the correct picture of the doom and gloom that exists, but I wish the media would also give more space
to the amazing people and incredible projects around the world that are reversing these things even as we speak.
Is there a specific project you're thinking about?
I flew over Gombe National Park [in Tanzania] when it was part of the great forests that stretched across Africa in the 1960s. By the late 1980s
, Gombe National Park was a tiny, isolated patch of forest surrounded by completely barren hills.
So we began a method of community-based conservation, working with the people from the beginning, not a bunch of arrogant white people going into a poor village and telling them what we were going to do to help, but instead asking them, what will help you the most? That [program] is now in six other African countries.
There are no longer bare hills around Gombe. As we gradually increased the things we could do for them, such as keeping girls in school with scholarships and providing microcredit opportunities for small business
development, people realized that protecting the environment
isn't just for wildlife
, as white people have traditionally told them, but it's also for their own future, so b
A few weeks ago, Zimbabwean officials said they might allow their first elephant cull in decades because the population had grown in a specific area, which seemed strange given the continent-wide decline in population. What do you think?
I believe [the South African-based advocacy group] African Parks has the right idea, because what they work on is creating corridors for elephants to migrate, and if elephants can migrate as they used to, in search of food
and water and that sort of thing, you won't have this concentration of elephants that is destroying a specific area.
But we're coming up with more and more innovative ways to protect crops, one of which is the bee fence, which is just a piece of wire with beehives attached. Elephants are terrified of bees. Imagine having a trunk with hundreds of bees crawling up it. It's not a pleasant thought, is it?
There are other things as well. We just need to find more equitable ways of parceling out the land and stop thinking that this entire planet was created for us to use and dispose of as we please. Of course, this is a difficult thing to say. There will be countries that say we can do whatever we want. But, do they own elephants? This is what has gone wrong.
In a similar vein, why is big-game hunting still permitted? Proponents argue that people from the United States
and Europe are willing to pay a quarter-million dollars to hunt megafauna, and that money
can help conservation efforts.
It's completely despicable. They just want bragging rights, and some of these animals are critically endangered. The thing is, these animals we know are sentient beings. They have personalities. They have emotions, they have strong family bonds, they feel things like fear and despair, and they feel pain. So when we talk about killing an elephant, they'll sometimes say, "Oh, it's post-reproductive."
And this isn't limited to Africa. Just look at the United States or the United Kingdom to see that corruption is a scourge everywhere. So we need to alleviate poverty
, eliminate corruption, and reduce our unsustainable lifestyles. We can't afford to ignore the fact that human populations and livestock populations are both growing.
There are currently 7.2 billion people on the planet, with that number expected to rise to 7.3 billion by 2050, with a population of 10 billion expected by 2050. What will happen when we are already depleting natural resources faster than nature
can replenish them?
Do you believe that at this point, a future in which technological innovation allows us to sustain more life with less or one in which we impose more draconian measures to reduce the human population is more likely?
It's quite possible that nature will manage the human population for us. This pandemic has been touch-and-go, hasn't it? If we don't change our attitude toward the natural world and animals, there will be more pandemics. This one has been very contagious, but the percentage of deaths to the number of sick people is relatively low. The next one could be like Ebola, where it w
It's entirely possible that nature will manage the human population for us; after all, this pandemic has been a bit hit-or-miss.
Do you believe the majority of people will still be eating industrially farmed meat by the middle of the century?
People blame COVID-19
on wildlife markets, but many zoonotic diseases have begun in intensively farmed animals. Fortunately, the vegetarian
and vegan movement is growing.
With the amount of migration that will occur as a result of climate change, do you have a particular perspective that has been shaped by your work in primatology? Perhaps one thing that has allowed you to see the instinctiveness or primitiveness of seizing national identity in a way that excludes those coming to share in the safety within your borders?
Chimpanzees have a very brutal, dark, war-like side, as well as a loving and altruistic side, just like us. But the big difference is the explosive development of our intellect, which I personally believe was triggered in part by the fact that we developed this way of talking with words. So we can tell people about things that aren't present. We can make plans for the distant future.
But there is an innate territorialism in our genes, which leads to nationalism. But we should be able to break free because of our intellect. We have the tools. We have the language. We have the scientific technology. We understand that if we make the right decisions every day, and billions of us do it, we can move in the right direction. But will we do it in time? I don't know.