By Benjamin Preston
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Jane Goodall spends about 300 days out of every year traveling because she has a message to share. The renowned primate scientist told an absolutely packed house at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Wednesday night that a big part of that message was that the indomitable human spirit was her reason for hope.
No small number of audience members appeared to be young girls, several of whom submitted questions to Goodall at the end of the program. An 11-year-old girl named Sabrina thanked Goodall for being an inspiration to girls everywhere.
Goodall had started her talk in chimpanzee, translating for everyone that the grunts she had uttered meant, “This is me, Jane.” Having spent the past five decades studying chimps, she knows a bit about how they communicate and behave. More importantly, she said, she had learned over the years that they were compassionate creatures — closely related to humans in DNA and temperament — that we can all learn from.
One of the most extraordinary things Goodall observed during the time she spent studying chimpanzees in the forest at the Gombe National Park — in what is today Tanzania — was that the offspring of supportive mothers tended to do better in life, particularly the females. Telling her own story, she pointed out that her mother had been supportive of her natural curiosity when she was a child. Later, when she was 23 and wanted to go to Africa, her mother was behind her all the way, even accompanying her at times.
“Today, it’s normal for a 23-year-old woman to go off and explore, but in 1960, it wasn’t,” she said. “People accused my mother of being irresponsible.”
Goodall kept working in the field, and eventually got a Ph.D. in Ethology from Cambridge University. Even then, primatologists took issue with her method of naming the chimps she studied. They preferred numbering them to avoid projecting human characteristics upon animals and forming emotional attachments with them that would affect objectivity. One of Goodall’s best teachers at the time, she said, was her dog.
“He had a personality, and proved that they were wrong,” she said.
It was at a conference in 1986 that she became acutely aware of the damaging effects deforestation and medical research had upon the chimpanzee population.
“I went to that conference planning to continue with my amazing life,” she said. “I left an activist.”
Since then, she has traveled the world to raise awareness about environmental problems and promote the work of her non-profit, Jane Goodall Institute. In addition to focusing on helping the declining chimpanzee population, she said Wednesday that caring for the people who live in the areas surrounding chimp habitats was also important. Her organization, she said, had involved those people in its work, asking for their advice on how to improve land fertility, healthcare, agroforestry and education, particularly among women.
“As women become more educated, family size drops and life improves,” she said.
Goodall said when she flew over Gombe National Park in 1991, she saw bare hills and destruction everywhere. The park’s forested area had shrunken significantly since the 1960s, when she first started going there. But restoration work there has been effective, she said, and many of the places once laid bare have been reforested.
“Many of these problems were the aftermath of colonialization, when wealthy people came into these countries and took the resources they wanted,” she said. “Corporations are doing the same thing today and leaving the people there poorer.”
Goodall cited industry as a major culprit in water, air and land pollution, as well as climate change and water quality degradation. She also suggested that wealthy countries should cut down collective meat consumption, as raising livestock exacts an enormous toll on resources. She said monoculture crops were ruining the environment, and that genetically modified plants were not safe for human consumption.
“Agribusiness is one of the horrors that has been unleashed upon this planet,” she said. “They’re poisoning the land.”
But Goodall shared hopeful words, too, pointing out that the Internet and social media have made it easier to inform people around the world about what needs to be done to fix the problems she had discussed. She also said the old axiom — “think globally, act locally” — doesn’t really work because it is overwhelming and depressing for most people to consider. She suggested another way.
“There’s a very simple thing we can do,” she said. “We can think of the consequences of the small things we do — what we buy, where it comes from, and so on. We can make ethical decisions.”