Jane Goodall Explains the Importance of Living in Harmony
Dr. Jane stresses why we must break down barriers and make wise choices.
Posted May 01, 2020
I'm thrilled to post this inspirational interview with one of the world's most iconic women, Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and UN Messenger of Peace. I've worked closely with Dr. Goodall–or Dr. Jane as she is universally known–on a number of different projects, and her commitment to widespread humane education and spreading the message that every single person can make a difference is legendary. Here, she focuses on her global Roots & Shoots (R&S) program that in the United States alone has more than 2,100 groups and 63,540 youths taking action in all 50 states.
Marc Bekoff: Why, where, and when did you found Roots & Shoots?
Jane Goodall: When I started traveling around the world to give lectures in the late 1980s, I met many students who had lost hope—they were depressed, angry, or (mostly) apathetic. Why? Because, they told me, we were compromising their future and there was nothing they could do about it.
Are we compromising their future? We have been stealing it for generations. But I did not agree there was nothing they could do about it.
Things came to a head in 1991 when 12 Tanzanian high school students from eight schools came to my Tanzanian home in Dar es Salaam. They were worried about things like the destruction of coral reefs by illegal dynamiting, lack of government will to clamp down on poaching in the parks and reserves, the plight of street children, and the ill-treatment of animals in markets. They wanted me to fix everything. I suggested that they might be able to do something themselves.
So they went back to their schools, gathered together their friends who were also concerned, we had another meeting (about 20 of us)—and Roots & Shoots was born. We decided that each group would choose three projects so that, between them, they would be improving things for people, for animals, and for the environment—because everything is interconnected. They would have meetings to discuss local problems, decide what was most important, and make plans and then take action.
Most importantly they would all share an important truth—that "every single one of us makes an impact on the planet every single day. And we have a choice as to what sort of impact we will make." R&S groups are now in more than 65 countries, with members from pre-school through university (even some adult members)–thousands of groups and the collective impact of their projects is huge. Also, there are the "alumni," those adults who went through the program at school or university. And so many of them retain the values they learned when they were members. “Of course I care about the environment,” say many people in China, “I was in R&S in school.”
There is a theme running through R&S of learning to live in peace and harmony with each other–breaking down barriers between nations, religions, cultures, old and young, rich and poor, and between us and the natural world.
MB: How do you explain the global success of Roots & Shoots?
JG: I think R&S is growing fast because it is youth-driven. We do not dictate what they do, so long as, between them, they choose three projects–one to help people, one to help animals and one to help the environment–because everything is interconnected. There are always some young people who want to work in each of these three areas. Of course, children in pre-schools and kindergarten need guidance, and in some parts of the world, children are not used to making plans themselves so teachers make suggestions. Teacher training workshops are important.
MB: What are some of their projects?
JG: Some groups tackle long term projects such as removing invasive species from an area of prairie in Texas or a wetland in Taiwan. There's also lots of tree planting—last year our R&S groups around the globe planted (and cared for) around 4 ½ million trees. They also grow organic vegetables in school gardens, raise money for earthquake or hurricane or war victims in other countries, and volunteer in animal shelters or sanctuaries. Some groups work on reducing the use of plastic bags and bottles, and stress the importance of recycling and reusing. University students may start groups in primary or high schools. Many older students work on spreading awareness about wildlife trafficking, the destruction of forests by palm oil plantations, the need to end wildlife meat markets, and factory farming of domestic animals. Many of our groups in Asia work on educating people about the cruelty involved in shark finning and poaching for ivory and rhino horn, helping to reduce the demand.
MB: Why are youngsters important for generating respect for other animals, other people, and other nature?
JG: It is important to reach children as early as possible and help them understand that animals feel pain and can be frightened and sad or happy—just like us. Children are very good at influencing their parents—and sometimes the parents may be influential people, in government or CEOs of big corporations. Or teachers. Children can be very persuasive.
One of the first places I introduced R&S in the U. S. was a very disadvantaged school–with fantastic teachers–in the Bronx. I shall never forget that first group of 12- to 14-year-olds, a mixture of African Americans and Hispanics, performing a little play where one was the head of a large company, and another was a R&S student informing him about the environmental harm caused by his product. In the end, they succeeded in banning polystyrene from their boxed school lunches and got to perform in front of the mayor. Think what a difference that made to them, their pride. Also it is the children who will grow up to inherit a planet so damaged by previous generations. It is desperately important that they believe in their power to make change. If they lose hope, that will be the end.
MB: Roots & Shoots has expanded from working with youngsters to involving humans of all ages and living in different situations including people in refugee camps and inmates. Why is it important to have everyone working for the goals of Roots & Shorts, regardless of where and how they live?
JG: The goal of R&S is to make the world a better place for people, animals, and the environment. Those should be goals for everyone. We have started groups in four prisons, but only one is still running–the others ended when the people keeping them going left, or when Wardens changed. The only one still active is the one that you, Marc, started and it has been super successful. In China, one group is formed of retired people and they told me how it had given them a new lease of life–they feel useful again.
MB: Are you hopeful that things will get better and how do you maintain this steadfast belief in the future of life on our magnificent planet?
JG: I am hopeful firstly because of the young people. I visit R&S gatherings as often as possible. Once they know the problems, we listen to them and empower them to take action. Their energy, passion and belief in their ability to make change is inspirational. Secondly, there is this amazing intellect we have been gifted with–and science is beginning to use it in ways that will enable us to live more sustainable lives, such as using clean green energy, new environmentally friendly city planning, ways of cleaning contaminated water, and so on. And we as individuals are using our brains to try and live more sustainably and questioning the consequences of our small daily choices–what we buy, did its production harm the environment or lead to cruelty to animals. Is it cheap because of child labour or sweat shops. If millions of people make ethical choices it will make a difference. Thirdly, the resilience of nature is amazing–places we have destroyed can, when given time and perhaps some help, once again become green and beautiful, and animals on the very brink of extinction can be given another chance. There are many examples. Finally, there is the indomitable human spirit, the people who tackle what seems impossible and, because of dogged perseverance and faith in the importance of their mission, very often inspire others to join them and ultimately succeed.
MB: Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?
JG: That people living in poverty cannot be expected to make ethical decisions as to how they live–they just have to do what it takes to keep them alive in the short term–like cutting down the last trees in desperate efforts to grow food even though this will result in future environmental harm. If they are in an urban area they will buy the cheapest food. They cannot afford to ask if its production harmed the environment, led to cruelty to animals, as in factory farms, or is it cheap because of child slave labour, because they have to feed their families
And, something to think about: There are 7.2 billion people on the planet today with 9.7 billion predicted for 2050. Already, in some places, we are using up the planet’s finite natural resources faster than nature can replenish them so that it does not make sense that there can be unlimited economic development if we continue with business as usual once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Unfortunately, that is exactly what so many political and corporate leaders are just waiting to do, all around the world.
But, as a last word, never forget that you make a difference every day. And you have a choice as to what sort of difference you make. For the sake of our children and the health of Mother Earth, choose wisely.
Bekoff, Marc. The World Becomes What We Teach. (An Interview with Zoe Weil of the Institute for Humane Education.)
Goodall, Jane and Marc Bekoff. The Ten Trusts: What We Must Do to Care for The Animals We Love. HarperCollins, San Francisco, 2003.
Peterson, Dale and Marc Bekoff. The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall. Trinity University Press, San Antonio. 2015.
Rockett, Caitlin. Roots & Shoots: A unique program at Boulder County Jail has inmates learning from nature. Boulder Weekly, April 13, 2017.