Narwhal_Jane Goodall-4

Jane Goodall on hope, fatigue and finding pockets of nature wherever you are

At 88 years old, the world’s best-known naturalist is calling on her fans to roll up their sleeves and ‘do something’

When Jane Goodall visited Victoria earlier this year, she had an air of serenity about her. The octogenarian began to walk on-stage in front of a sold-out crowd, leaning on an assistant’s shoulder and using a cane to assist her. But then she abruptly hopped across the stage, lithe as can be — no cane necessary.

“That was poor 88-year-old Jane Goodall,” she quipped from the mic. 

The world’s best-known naturalist isn’t slowing down for anyone or anything — least of all her age. But when I caught up with her five months after her visit to Victoria, via Zoom, she seemed a little weary of all of her time on the road.

Bundled up in a turtleneck and puffy jacket, she told me that wherever she goes she tries to find a little pocket of nature — even in downtown L.A., where she was travelling at the time of our call. 

“If I go to a hotel, and there’s one tree, I will sometimes move my whole bed around so that I can just be there and see the tree,” she said. “A little bird comes on the palm tree outside the window. I like it.” Despite her attempts to find these little pockets, a day spent in nature “doesn’t happen very often,” she said — in part because of her relentless schedule to spread the message she learned from observing chimpanzees in their natural habitat.

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That message — that we are part of and not separated from the animal kingdom and that we all have a part to play in saving our planet — is arguably more important now than ever before, as the world grapples with runaway climate change and the sixth mass extinction in history. 

“The absurd thing is the idea that’s been prevalent in economics for so long, that you can have unlimited economic development everywhere. But the planet has finite natural resources,” she said. “We can’t go on demanding more and more … So we have to have a different kind of business and a different kind of economy and a different definition of success.”

I chatted to Goodall about how she stays hopeful, Zoom fatigue and the dramatic changes to the natural world she’s witnessed during her lifetime.

You talk often about hope. I’ve noticed lately that it seems almost a little bit fashionable to be cynical, to kind of throw up your hands and say ‘it’s all hopeless.’ But you’ve said that hope is a survival skill that enables us to keep going in the face of adversity. Why do you think so many people seem to be giving up hope these days?

Well, it’s very obvious. If you just look around the world, then you can’t help but lose hope. I mean, you have feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. If you look at what’s happening politically, socially, environmentally. You’ve got the war with Ukraine, there’s major loss of biodiversity, we’re still losing forests, we’ve got industrial agriculture poisoning the land and soil, with its pesticides and herbicides damaging biodiversity. And so, you know, the picture globally is grim. And you can’t look around and not feel sort of despairing. So when people come to me and say, they’re losing hope, or they’ve lost hope, I say, ‘Well, you know, stop looking all around the world, just think about where you are, or some project that you really care about, and roll up your sleeves and do something about that.’

Throughout all the things that have happened in your life, have you ever felt yourself personally lose hope?

Well, I’ve been in a situation. I don’t know if it’s losing hope, but feeling desperate, because things had gone so wrong. Like when four of my students were kidnapped, and all the funding melted away from Gombe, and it looked as though it would have to be closed. And I knew that that could not be. So I had to go around with my hat in my hand, at the same time as finding a new executive director for the Jane Goodall Institute in the U.S. It just seemed hopeless. But we managed to steer through. And that was a pretty bad time. But I don’t think I’ve ever lost hope. I’ve been with my back against the wall. But that makes me determined to fight.

Jane Goodall at an event in Victoria June 2022
Jane Goodall at an event in Victoria June 2022
“I think I have a mission. And the mission is to keep hope alive. And encourage people to take action now, not just moan and groan.”
Jane Goodall at an event in Victoria June 2022

So is one of your tricks to staying hopeful to kind of turn that sense of anger or pressure around?

Yes, into action. Because being angry and depressed isn’t helping anything. And feeling angry, yes, one of course feels angry. And then you can channel that anger into making a difference. And the same when you feel kind of desperate and depressed. 

You’re 88 years old now. Looking back on your life, do you have any regrets?

Not really. I mean, I’ve made mistakes. But you know, we all make mistakes. And I’ve tried to learn from them. I suppose, in a way, I wish my first marriage had lasted but it couldn’t. So that was a shame for my son particularly. But that’s life. It just wasn’t working. And so it had to end. But apart from that, I don’t think I’ve had major regrets. I mean, I’ve done things that were silly, and had to go back and redo them. 

Right now, scientists and leaders of countries from all over the world are meeting in Montreal, for COP15, the global biodiversity convention, and hoping to reach an agreement to reverse biodiversity loss. How have you witnessed biodiversity change during your lifetime?

Massively. I just need to think of the house I grew up in. Me and my sister, we own it, she lives there with her family, and I go back between trips. And I would say, 50 per cent of the birds that I knew around that area as a child have gone, due mostly to herbicides and pesticides on people’s lawns, the proliferation of roads and traffic. They used to have hedgehogs. Gone. No more hedgehogs around there anymore. And when I was a child, if you opened the windows at night, then with the light on, your room was filled with bugs of all sorts. Now I get excited if one moth comes in — the insects have just gone. And that, of course, is one of the reasons why we’ve lost birds. So just in that one place, I’ve seen the result of loss of biodiversity.

And what kind of commitments do you think world leaders should be making at this COP15 in Montreal right now?

Well, I wish they would do more than make pledges. And somehow, we could find a way of having them actually do what they say they’re going to do. Because so many of the COPs have been all these wonderful pledges. And if you go back to the Paris Agreement, I don’t think any country lived up to what they promised in the way of emissions. So I don’t know. I mean, one always hopes. I think the main thing that goes on at these COPs is the networking that goes on and brings groups all passionate about the same area of conservation getting together, agreeing to collaborate, because it’s collaboration that we need, if we’re going to reverse climate change and loss of biodiversity. And those two go together, because climate change is definitely affecting the loss of biodiversity.

Earlier this year, when you visited Canada after a three-year COVID hiatus, what conservation work did you learn about that you found the most interesting or exciting?

Well, for one, I actually visited the re-greening of Sudbury. I was there as part of an IMAX film. I was there before, and the change was enormous. So that’s very exciting. And then I know that the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada is doing an awful lot of work with Indigenous people. And they’re using the approach of community-led conservation that we use all over the world, that they’re trying to get protection for more and more of the Indigenous lands. 

Jane Goodall in Victoria June 2022
During an interview with The Narwhal, Jane Goodall compelled people to look close to home for solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises. “Stop looking all around the world, just think about where you are, or some project that you really care about, and roll up your sleeves and do something about that,” she said. Photo: Brit Kwasney / The Narwhal

Do you ever want to just kind of slow down a bit and travel less and do less? Like, what is keeping you going at this point?

Well, lots of people said it must have been lovely during the height of COVID to be at home and stop travelling. I’ve never ever been as exhausted in my entire life, because I was doing up to four Zooms a day, all around the world. And my voice has never recovered. It just got so overused. So it was virtual conferences, virtual lectures, virtual panels, then it was messages. It was stuff for the different Jane Goodall Institutes — 27 of them. And it was just nonstop. I didn’t have one day off. I didn’t have one weekend off. I didn’t have one holiday. We decided that because during the pandemic, the number of hits on social media for me went up dramatically from about a million at the beginning of the pandemic to now about 1 billion. So it was decided, well, Jane should travel less and do more Zooms and social media, you know, that kind of thing. So what happens? Now I’m doing the travelling and having to do the Zooms as well. 

So you’re doing even more? I mean, I guess that comes back to the why question. You know, theoretically, you could do less, but you keep doing all of these things. Why?

I think I came to this world with a reason. I think I have a mission. And the mission is to keep hope alive. And encourage people to take action now, not just moan and groan, not just talk about what should be done, but actually roll up their sleeves and get to work and do it, and help people understand every day we live, we make some kind of difference. And we can choose what kind of difference we make. So if enough people are making ethical choices in how they live, then that’s going to move towards a much better world.

And where do you recommend that people start? 

Well, I feel one of the major problems we’re facing vis-a-vis climate change, loss of biodiversity, is industrial agriculture, and particularly farming of animals — billions and billions of animals around the world are in factory farms, so that they all need to be fed, huge areas of land cleared to grow the food to feed them, lots of fossil fuel used to move the food, get the grain to the animals, get the meat to the table and sometimes around the world. And so, they also produce methane gas, which is a very, very virulent greenhouse gas, and all these things are contributing to climate change. So moving towards a vegan diet if possible, and you know, otherwise, please be vegetarian. But when you learn how the laying hens are treated, when you learn how the milk cows are treated, it makes you so sick that you don’t want to eat those eggs or drink that milk. So I just stopped.

How long have you been vegan for? 

I won’t say I’m 100 per cent vegan. During the pandemic I was because I was at home, and you could choose the food. But you know, when you’re traveling all the time, you just cannot be unless you take food with you. We ask people to do vegan meals. I went vegetarian in 1969 when I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, and I am vegan as much as I can now. 

What does a perfectly happy day look like for you?

Well, a happy day for me is if I can be out in nature somewhere. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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