Jane Goodall: There’s hope amid crisis

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DAR Constitution Hall in Washington momentarily sounded like an African forest last Friday night. Jane Goodall - the famed English primatologist, anthropologist, conservationist and humanitarian - preceded her April 17 lecture with a loud chimpanzee call, a greeting she'd mastered during her years observing wild chimps. The audience responded in delight with a round of applause.

In the talk, entitled "Sowing the Seeds of Hope" and organized by Marymount University in Arlington, Goodall described her work with chimpanzees, what she sees as the world's most pressing problems and why she has hope for the future.

Proceeds from the event will establish a new Marymount fund to promote volunteerism and community engagement through grants for local student- and faculty-initiated programs.

Marymount President Matthew D. Shank said during his introduction that Goodall embodies the three pillars of the university: intellectual curiosity, a global perspective and service to others.

Goodall began her talk describing her childhood love of animals and the enduring influence of her mother.

When as a 1-year-old Goodall brought earthworms to bed or as a 4-year-old disappeared for hours crouching in a henhouse to "see where the eggs come from," her mother was patient and encouraging.

"If I'd had a different mother, the little scientist-in-the-making would have been crushed," said Goodall, now 81.

In 1960, Goodall traveled from England to what is now Tanzania to study the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. While observing the animals Gombe National Park, she made her famous breakthrough discovery that chimps use tools.

Today that would be nothing extraordinary, "but back then it was thought that only humans used tools," said Goodall.

After years observing chimpanzees, writing and teaching, Goodall said she was catapulted into activism in 1986 after attending a conference in Chicago on the global plight of chimpanzees. She learned their habitat was being destroyed in Africa, that they were being hunted commercially for food and that they often were treated brutally in captivity.

While flying over Gombe National Park in the early '90s, Goodall saw the devastating effects of deforestation and over-farming. She said it was clear not only that the chimpanzees' habitat was being destroyed but also "that the people were struggling."

"And that's when I realized that we can't even try to save these chimpanzees while people are living like this."

Through the Jane Goodall Institute, founded in 1977, she started a holistic program to improve the lives of animals and humans. It included reforestation, clean-water efforts and a micro-credit program for women to develop environmentally sustainable projects.

The program is now in 52 Tanzanian villages and five other African countries.

Goodall said that as she traveled to other parts of the world talking about the suffering in Africa, she unexpectedly learned about the severity of environmental problems and the global warming crisis.

Of particular concern to her was the effect of meat consumption on the planet.

In addition to the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms, a "huge amount of forests (are) cut down to grow grain to feed all these animals, … and it takes so much extra water to turn plant protein into animal protein," she said. Methane gas from livestock also is a major contributor to global warming.

She asked herself: "How can it be that the most intelligent creature that's ever walked the face of the earth is destroying its only home?"

The problems we face, however, are not issues of intelligence but of wisdom, she said. "Decisions used to be made by asking, 'How will my behavior today affect my children, my great-grandchildren?' … Now it's, 'How will it affect me now or how will it affect the next shareholders meeting?'

"It seems there's been a disconnect between the human brain and the human heart. I truly believe that we can only reach our true human potential when head and heart work in harmony."

In spite of this disconnect, Goodall thinks there's a window of opportunity to change the trajectory and that change depends on young people.

It was that belief that helped launch an international initiative called Roots and Shoots in 1991. The chapters, with members in preschool through college, select projects that benefit the environment and improve the quality of life for people and animals. Projects range from trash pickup to serving at soup kitchens to helping refugees.

More than 150,000 members participate in 138 counties.

The philosophy is that "every individual makes a difference every single day," said Goodall.

"We have a choice about what kind of difference we will make (through) the little choices we make. Did they involve animal cruelty? Did they involve child labor? When we start thinking like that we make different choices."

In addition to young people, Goodall said she has four additional reasons to hope: the capacity of the human brain to solve problems; the resilience of nature; the power of social media - "if used in the right way" - to rally people for a common cause; and the "indomitable human spirit."

"Everywhere I go I find extraordinary people … people who perform incredible tasks and won't give up," she said.

"Every one of us is that indomitable human spirit. We just have to let it out; we have to trust in our dreams; we have to never give up and take advantage of opportunity - and we can change the world."

After the talk, Lorine Margeson, president of Marymount's new Roots and Shoots chapter, said Goodall's message was inspiring and, like the Catholic faith, challenges us to be "responsible to one another."

"By helping each other and taking care of our natural resources," said Margeson, "we make this world a better place to live."

Find out more

To learn more about Roots and Shoots, Jane Goodall's international youth-led community program to help humans, animals and the environment, click here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015