Jane Goodall on Climate Change, Technology, and What Makes Us Different From Chimps

Dr. Jane Goodall is famous for her work with the chimpanzee, but these days she’s focused on a problem that affects all animals on earth—climate change.

She came to New York state last month for the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit, where she was part of a series of meetings designed to create a unified women’s agenda for action on the issue of global warming.

She met with YES! in her hotel room in Suffern, N.Y, and kept a toy chimpanzee she calls “Mr. H.” next to her on the couch the whole time we spoke. What struck me was the conviction of her posture, the humility in her eyes, and her gift for inspiring other people to follow their passion (something she’s doing these days through her Roots and Shoots program). She doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but instead seeks to elevate all the people in the world who are part of the answer.

Katrina Rabeler: What was it about the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit that made you want to attend?

Jane Goodall: Because a lot of the people coming I admire greatly and many of them I know—like Vandana Shiva and Sylvia Earle and Mary Robinson and Maria Silva. Traveling around the world, I certainly found that so often it is the women who get it and who want to see change and who want to work for change. And it’s also unquestionably true that climate change is harming women and children in many of the developing countries.

Rabeler: Your research has taught us that we’re more similar to animals than we like to admit. In creating a better future, should we be embracing our animal side or working against it?

Goodall: It depends. Chimpanzees are so like us. They have a dark side. They can be violent and brutal and even form a kind of primitive war. They also have a loving and altruistic side.

Some people will say that we can’t help being aggressive and nasty—it’s part of our inheritance. But I say that’s not true. We’re not the same anymore. We have developed an intellect that dwarfs even the brightest chimpanzee, and, more than any other living creature, we have the ability to control our biological instincts and most of what we do.

So there are some aspects of our animal nature that we should treasure and cherish and enhance. And there are others that we should suppress.

Rabeler: One of your most famous observations was that chimpanzees make tools. Have we gone too far or are tools going to be part of the answer?

Goodall: We’re going to have to make them [be part of the answer]. We’ve used them to a devastatingly bad effect. Certainly, one of the tragedies for children is that everything is virtual—they’re not out in nature anymore. They’re separated from the trees and the grass and the birds.

And a lot of people don’t understand what an environment is. They think it’s just birds singing in trees. They don’t understand that if you’re in the inner city, then that’s your environment and you need to be out and find out what’s there. You’ll find all sorts of amazing insects and spiders. That’s what we’re doing with our Roots and Shoots program. Go and find out about all the biodiversity in your city.

Rabeler: What do you think it will take to bring out the best of our diverse humanity?

Goodall: It takes a change of mindset. You know, we’ve lost wisdom. We’ve lost the wisdom of the indigenous people who make decisions based on asking, “How does this affect my people generations ahead?” And now we make decisions based on asking, “How does this affect me and my shareholders now?”

We have to free our governments from this. They’re basically owned by multinationals.

Rabeler: What do you hope the outcome of this week’s summit will be?

Goodall: Well, we’re signing a pledge. I hope the outcome will be to empower women—especially somebody coming from the heart of the Congo forest—to go back to their communities and say “Hey, come on women.”

There is a very strong movement out there and we can be part of it and that’s hope for the future.