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13 October 2021

Jane Goodall’s lucid optimism

The renowned naturalist believes that we can only save the planet with hope.

By Philippa Nuttall

A holy trinity of caring for people, protecting nature and tackling climate change is the foundation of the belief system that emerges from Jane Goodall’s The Book of Hope. The “hope” in question is the naturalist’s belief that humanity “can” and “will” act to make the world a better place. Hers is no rose tinted vision, but a lucidly argued conviction that hope is a “human survival trait” without which “we perish”.

The book is based on a series of conversations with Douglas Abrams, which began over drams of whisky before being forced onto Zoom because of Covid. Adams – an experienced co-author who wrote The Book of Joy with the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu – is the narrator, but it is Goodall’s voice we hear. The Book of Hope ranges across her life, starting with how Goodall, now 87, left the comforts of home in England as a young woman for Africa when most of her peers were settling down. “Even men” in the 1950s, Goodall says, were “not travel[ling] halfway around the world to go into the jungle to live with and write books about wild animals”. Her supportive mother, a love of the outdoors and the resilience she absorbed growing up during the Second World War were all fundamental in making her a world- renowned naturalist, as at ease with chimpanzees in the wild as addressing a room full of world leaders.

Louis Leakey, a paleoanthropologist (studying the origins of humans through fossils), gave Goodall her break early on, sending her out to the Tanzanian forests: “Leakey believed that women might make better field researchers – that they might be more patient and show more empathy toward the animals they were studying.” In Goodall’s case, this proved accurate. She was the first person to observe a non human creature making and using a tool. Her research on “David Greybeard” (she names all animals) – “a very handsome chimpanzee with distinguished white hair on his chin” – documenting his use of grass stems to reach termites brought her international fame.

Greta Thunberg, in her speech to the World Economic Forum in 2019, dismissed “hope”, telling adults “to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day… I want you to act as if our house is on fire.” But Goodall insists that without hope “we will give up” and fail to extinguish the fire. “It’s not hope or fear – or anger. We need them all… Hope is what enables us to keep going in the face of adversity.” Saving the planet, Goodall argues, is “all about taking care of people so they are better able to care for their environments… It has become increasingly clear that conservation efforts will not be successful and sustainable unless local communities benefit in some way and become involved.” This was the approach she and her colleagues took in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, working with local people and government officials to try to alleviate poverty before focusing on saving chimpanzees.

Narrative is the best way to make people see the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting nature, she believes: “People are moved to action by stories more than statistics.” This is partly why she considers herself a “naturalist” rather than a scientist. “The naturalist looks for the wonder of nature… Whereas a scientist is more focused on facts and the desire to quantify… As a naturalist, you need to have empathy and intuition – and love.”

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It may be that this lack of imaginative storytelling is slowing action on climate change and biodiversity loss. We are constantly assailed by facts and figures about the state of the planet – degrees of warming, sea-level rises, carbon budgets – and policymaking is narrowly focused on emissions, paying little attention to education, access to nature, and the benefits of a healthy environment.

The Cop26 climate conference in November would be a good time to consider whether the never-ending production of terrifying figures will get the world on track for net zero by mid-century and stop the destruction of habitats and species. The growing field of “hope studies” identifies four essential elements for creating hope in our lives: “realistic goals”, “realistic pathways” to achieving them, “confidence that we can”, and “the support to help us overcome adversity”. Goodall believes the grim problems facing us are “not insurmountable if we use our human intellect”, but that “we only have a small window of opportunity – a window that is closing all the time”.

The Book of Hope
Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams
Viking, 272pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm