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An Interview With Jane Goodall About Her ‘Book of Hope’

The famous naturalist explains why she’s optimistic about the fate of the planet

spinner image jane goodall and douglas abrams the book of hope
Courtesy Andrew Zuckerman

Jane Goodall’s status as the world’s most famous and beloved naturalist has only grown in the six decades since she first went to Tanzania to begin her groundbreaking research on chimpanzees. Now, as the effects of global warming have become more visible and alarming, she’s using her international celebrity to urge against despair in The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, written with journalist Douglas Abrams. Without hope, she argues, people won’t be inspired to take action.

Goodall, 87, talked to AARP by phone from her home in England — the same house where she was raised — about her remarkable career, how she still struggles with fame, and why she continues to feel optimistic about the planet’s future. 

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She hopes young people will devote themselves to a better world

I truly believe that we have a window of time during which we can start healing the harm we have inflicted on the planet, slowing down climate change and loss of biodiversity.  It is not a big window and it is closing, but we do have a chance if we get together and take action now. My greatest reason for hope is the energy and commitment of young people. I’m truly impressed by the way they are facing the problems we have created for them. I’m also encouraged by the resilience of nature, having seen places we destroyed once again supporting plant and animal life. 

The pandemic is a warning sign that we need to respect nature

I sincerely hope and pray that more and more people have understood we must have a new relationship with the natural world. We’ve brought COVID on ourselves just like climate change and loss of biodiversity and it’s all our fault, with our disrespect of nature and the disrespect of animals. The trouble is there are a lot of corporations and government leaders who just want to get back to business as usual: short-term gain and power.

She learned gratitude growing up during WWII

I learned to take nothing for granted, even life. Food, clothing, everything was rationed, you wouldn’t ever dream of wasting a tiny piece of food. You wore clothes until they wore out. 

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Children today in affluent societies, it’s not their fault that they take everything for granted. Why wouldn’t they have three meals a day? When you think of the millions of people who don’t get one good meal a day, even in the U.K. … Taking things for granted has led to much waste.

Her mother encouraged her curiosity about the natural world

She didn’t get mad when I took earthworms to bed with me. She said, “Let’s take them back in the garden or they might die.” And there’s a well-known story of when I disappeared for four hours while staying on a farm when I was about 4 years old. My mom called the police.and then she saw me rushing towards the house, happy and excited about something. And instead of getting angry she sat down to hear the story: I had been waiting to see where on earth the eggs came out of the hens. I was in the back of the henhouse for four hours.

She’s still not comfortable with fame

I’ve become this icon that I never planned or wanted … Children jump up and down. People cry; a lot of people cry. We’ve had people come up in a book signing line after a lecture sobbing and we’ve had to sit them down and talk to them; ‘It’s all right. After you calm down, Jane will answer your questions.’

[In the beginning] I hid, I ran away and put on dark glasses and kept my head down. And then I realized, well, I can use this to further the cause. People want a selfie or an autograph, then they get a little environmentally friendly brochure about our programs, inviting them to join.

Basically, there are two Janes. There’s this one at the home where I always was, where I’m exactly the same, and then that one out there. And all I can do is try and keep up with the one out there.

She gets sent lots of children’s artwork

Massive numbers of chimps.

It’s hard to maintain a work-life balance...

I can’t sleep at night very often because I’ve got so much to do. It’s like a heavy cloud that’s sitting on me. Right now, I’ve got at least six videos to record and two of them are lectures, and lecturing virtually is really difficult. You don’t get the energy you would get in an auditorium and the feedback, the laughing and enthusiastic response. It’s just looking at the little green camera spot on a laptop. And every night there are things I haven’t done. Sometimes I feel guilty if I’m not answering emails at 10 o’clock at night. And then I tell myself, “This is stupid.”

... But she finds ways to relax

In the evening when mum was alive we’d raise glasses wherever she was and wherever I was in the world. Now I’m so exhausted by the time it gets to be 7 o’clock. I go downstairs and my sister’s there, my niece is cooking dinner, and I have a whiskey. I drink it and raise a glass to mum. I’ve done this all over the world, wherever I am.

And every day at lunchtime I spend an hour, I take the old dog for a little walk and sometimes I go for a brisker walk myself. And then I spend at least a half hour under my favorite tree that I climbed as a child, and I’m visited by a robin and a blackbird. One of the robins comes every day — every single day — and we sometimes sing to each other.

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