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Conversations with Remarkable Minds: Jane Goodall

Gary Null

This interview with Jane Goodall was conducted by Dr. Gary Null, noted talk radio host, in September 2009 as one of his Conversations with Remarkable Minds (M-F, noon EST at

Hi everyone. I’m Gary Null and I’d like to welcome you to this program. We’re going to deal with a variety of issues involving animal and environmental conservation, and the spiritual dimensions of caring for the planet. My guest is Dr. Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist best known for her 45 years of studying and living among the chimpanzees in Tanzania. She’s an ethnologist, a conservationist, and a United Nations Messenger of Peace. She spends about 300 days a year on the road speaking with students and children and government officials about animal conservation issues and the threats to the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park, which is one of their last remaining refuges on the planet.

She is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and its Roots and Shoots program to motivate young people to learn the important challenges that face their communities and to implement projects to solve them.

She has received a lot of well-deserved acknowledgement for her humanitarian and environmental work. She was named the Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and awarded the Prestigious Kyoto Prize in Japan, and the Gandhi King Award for nonviolence. And she has written many books about her chimpanzee research, wildlife conservation, mindful eating and postmodern spirituality, including Hope For Animals and Their World and How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued on the Brink. Now I’d like to welcome you to our program.

A photograph of Jane Goodall.

Jane Goodall: Thank you. Hello.

Gary Null: Would you please share your insights about why it is important for humanity and ecology to protect various species from extinction? How we can best go about challenging globalization and corporate privatization of resources that threaten natural habitats? In light of this problem, how have you been able to remain so hopeful?

Jane Goodall: Well I travel the world a lot. I meet people all over the world, and everywhere I go I meet extraordinary people, people who tackle seemingly impossible tasks and won’t give in. If you think back across European and U.S. history, there was a lot of bloodshed and bitterness, and now the United States are under one star-spangled banner and we have the European Union. So things do change.

The corporate greed that you talk of, the dark side of globalization, is indeed a huge obstacle if we’re talking about saving a piece of forest somewhere in Africa, where the government feels they could sell that piece of land and get lots and lots of money, which very often goes into a Swiss bank account because there’s a lot of corruption all over the world.

But at the same time I think it is important to realize that many corporations today have understood the problems that are being caused by, for example, climate change with the emission of CO2 into the environment, the methane gases from intensive farming of animals, and the overexploitation of ground water for irrigation. All of The big corporations are beginning to realize that these things are devastating, that they are causing a cataclysm, and they truly are beginning to change.

I was just in Greenland where the ice is melting, and it was horrifying—beautiful, but horrifying. I was there with about 25 very wealthy real estate developers from North America and Europe, and they were so moved when they realized what was going on that they made written pledges to reduce their emissions by up to 60 percent over the next few years. So there is change afoot. There are people who realize that this preoccupation with materialism is simply destroying the planet. If we care about our children and grandchildren, and theirs, then we simply must realize that each one of us has got to do our bit. It may seem tiny, but if the millions and billions of people on the planet are all doing their bit that’s going to make a huge change.

Gary Null: I appreciate your insights. Thank you. Go back to Greenland for a moment. Greenland is an enormous body. It’s three times the size of Texas. It has so much ice that if it were to melt it could raise the sea level over 20 feet, and that would threaten about 265 million people. Could you explain what you were seeing there?

Jane Goodall: Well, I went up to this great cliff of ice that goes up and up and up to the icecap that covers the whole country, and it’s considerably shrunk over the last 20 years. It’s much lower than it used to be, and a great river pours out of it where there never was a river at all. In fact it never melted even in the summer, and standing there with some of the Inuit elders who hadn’t been back there since they were children, they had tears pouring down their face. As we stood there, there would be this huge crack and then a silence and then a thunderous roar that reverberated as a vast slab of ice broke off and crashed down. Then the river became turbulent with pieces of broken ice. It really was terrifying to know how fast these great glaciers are moving, and then to fly over the sea which used to be frozen and see it now covered with icebergs, and to actually land on a piece of ground which until a few years ago had been under the ice since the last Ice Age. It’s happening much faster than anybody predicted, and it’s melting from below as well as above.

I came away shocked, but I came away just like the real estate people, absolutely determined. The message that I now shall give is that each one of us must do everything we can to slow down climate change. Yesterday in the U.K. they launched 10/10, getting people to pledge reductions. They’ve already got 2,000 corporations, companies, individuals, schools, universities that will reduce their CO2 emissions by ten percent in the year 2010. So it’s called 10/10. And it’s fantastic—it’s really involving people, which will then push the government to act.

Gary Null: I recently spoke with Dr. James Lovelock and asked him, do you believe that with China, India, and Brazil becoming the major polluters along with the United States that we have the political will to reduce greenhouse emissions by 60 percent minimally, or 80 percent, realistically? And he said, no we will not be able to do that—it’s too late for this current crisis. What we have put into the environment will stay there and there will be an accelerating series of tippings. He said we would have to have a radical change immediately, and he personally does not believe that people are willing to make the sacrifices.

I said, well look I’m a vegan. I eat organic. I don’t support multinational stores. I buy from greenhouses. I grow my own food. Ninety percent of what I eat at the table I grow. I said lots of people could become vegans. If we just became vegan one day a week, if we had no animal products one day a week, we could do more than any other effects of CO2 from cars, ships, planes, and trains. And he said you’re right, but now you’ve got to get the people to be willing to give up their tastes and their comfort and their foods.

What are your thoughts on the vegan diet as a major contribution, which would actually contribute more than ten percent? It would actually contribute close to 55 percent.

Jane Goodall: Well I’m not a vegan because traveling to so many weird places in the world it’s very hard to do.  If we could all become total vegans it would do exactly as you say, but that would be a very hard thing to get people to do. One day a week, maybe. So I’ve taken a slightly different tack, which is less perfect but it seems to work quite well in getting people on board. That is, first become vegetarian, and if you must eat any animal products they must be free range and organic. If we went back to the days when cows wandered in the fields and we just took a little from them it wouldn’t be such a bad thing, and it certainly would make a vast difference to the methane gases produced.

The average person doesn’t have a clue that the meat they’re eating is causing all this havoc. They don’t understand about the effects on the environment or on human cells. The suffering of the animals they might try to turn away from. So how to make them listen and understand is difficult, but it’s happening. You know that my last book, Harvest for Hope, was all about food and many people have become vegetarian from reading that book, and it’s very successful in France, in China, in Korea. It’s being used by university students. So I completely agree with you, but maybe we need to take smaller steps and then bigger steps.

Gary Null: Okay. I accept that. What about another small step buying locally?

Jane Goodall: Oh that’s so important, but you see here again you and I are lucky. We can grow quite a bit of our food in our gardens. There are an awful lot of people in the cities for whom it’s difficult to grow their own food, and sometimes it’s difficult for them to afford that extra that it takes to buy organic, or from small shops. So you know first of all you want people to understand why they should do this, and second we must make it cheap enough for them to do it. So one of my passions is urban farming, like what started in Cuba after the American embargo there. They started growing their own food in Havana and it started feeding the starving people of the city. It’s happening in other parts of the world too, like China and India.

Gary Null: Let me build slightly on what you just said. I would like to see inner city organic farming, and here’s how it could be done. There are 60,000 abandoned buildings and lots in New York City alone, and through the city turning those over to a foundation you could have hundreds of community gardens with greenhouses paid for by corporate sponsors giving a two dollar tax deduction for each dollar they donate. Any corporation in America would love that, no matter what their ultimate interest is. Once corporations pay to have these greenhouses and gardens built, local community leadership can get the people involved. Then produce can be grown 12 months a year, from sprouts to micro-greens to garden vegetables that become a regular part of those people’s food at minimal cost.

Jane Goodall: I completely agree. I think that we should be doing this urban farming. I tried to set that up in North Korea for the starving people there so they could grow some food of their own even in the city, and it also brings children back in touch with nature again. They get to understand that potatoes grow in the ground and tomatoes grow on a stem and that they are fruits, which lots of children today haven’t a clue about. And also you can get all of your food composted with worms and create fantastic fertilizer and grow your food even better and not discard any waste.

Gary Null: India and China are two of the most problematic countries, both because of the amount of pollution that they create and the amount of starving people and poor they have, and also their middle class and upper middle classes’ ravenous appetites for everything Western including animal foods. What would be your suggestion for these two countries to help in their future development?

Jane Goodall: Well, we have this program for young people called Roots and Shoots, which has been going since ’91 and now is in 111 countries. It’s involving young people of all ages who form groups and choose three kinds of projects to make the world better, first of all for their own community and then reaching out to other communities, second for animals including domestic animals, and third for the environment that we all share. In China we now have four offices all run by Chinese. We’ve got about 600 active groups across China. We could grow even more if we had more money, but we service these groups. The same program has begun and I think will spread quite fast in India, and we hope to launch it in Brazil once the Jane Goodall Institute has the funds.

As I’m traveling around the world I find somebody who gets the idea and says, yes I’m going to champion this. And then if the moment is right and the person is right it takes off, and it really is making a huge difference. So my answer to China or India is get more and more youth involved, particularly at the university level, though even the younger children are influencing their parents and their grandparents. Since I first went to China about 13 years ago there’s been an enormous change. I know that the demand for raw materials is skyrocketing in a very unsustainable way, but too the awareness of the problems has grown and the young people are very, very aware of and concerned by what’s happening. And they want to see change.

Gary Null: I appreciate these insights because most people are not aware of the grass roots movements in every one of these countries. Now I feel our postmodern infatuation with high tech gadgetry and the concrete jungle of consumerism divorces people from their connection to nature. What have been the consequences of us separating ourselves from our natural origins in the community of life forms on the planet?

Jane Goodall: Well I think this separation from the natural world is very, very drastic. Psychologists have shown that young children need nature to grow psychologically healthy, they need grass and bugs and sky and flowers There was an experiment done in Chicago where they took two areas of high crime and in one they made gardens in the empty lots. They put in window boxes, they planted trees along the streets, and the other they left as it was. And the level of crime dropped really substantially in the place that was green.

So we need nature for our psychological wellbeing. And if you don’t understand something, how can you care about it? And when kids grow up glued to video monitors, and all these things, they become divorced from nature.

Gary Null: It is my view that the environmental threat to biodiversity is a spiritual crisis. What are your thoughts on the connection drawn between an environmentally oriented consciousness and a spiritually directed consciousness?

Jane Goodall: I think that material society has been crushing out the spiritual aspect of us humans. One of the things that could really lead us into a glorious future if we allow it to develop is that this materialistic culture is actually making people very dissatisfied. They can’t find the meaning in their life, and they’re left with nothing except getting more and more stuff that they don’t either want or need whereas the other three-quarters of the planet has nothing. So nature spirituality to me is all interconnected, and I certainly feel that personally from spending so much time on my own in the forest and feeling very close to a great spiritual power.

Gary Null: In your own work with children both in the developed and developing world have you noted any fundamental differences in children’s development between those who live closer to nature and those who are completely alienated?

Jane Goodall: I think it’s hard to pinpoint what’s causing these differences because for children learning through a computer and websites seems to be quicker, but apparently less deep, so they tend to forget it. They tend to think differently, and they seem to have much shorter attention spans. They want instant gratification, and then of course at the same time they’re in a society where if their attention seems to be off they’re given medications. You don’t find any of that if you go out into the rural part of Tanzania or into the Congo jungles with the pygmies. People don’t live that way, and they seem much more whole. They may not have academic learning, but they’re certainly learning how to live and how to be decent human beings.

Gary Null: I have one final question for you. You have a great affinity for Africa since you’ve spent so much of your life there, and I’d like to hear your views about the slaughter of the rhino, the hippo, the great apes, the chimpanzees there, and also how prepared Africa is for the crisis due to climate change forecast by various UN agencies involving a large group of people affected by unrelenting drought, lack of water and starvation. Could you take us on that little journey also to give us a perspective we don’t have?

Jane Goodall: Well if we take Gombe National Park where the chimpanzees are that we’ve been studying coming up to 50 years, in the early ‘90s I flew over this whole area in a small aircraft, and although I knew there was deforestation outside the park, I had absolutely no idea that it was virtually total. There were more people living there than the land could support, and they had degraded their farmland with terrible erosion and were struggling to survive. So the question came up, and this applies to all wilderness areas right across Africa or anywhere else in a poor country, of how could we try to save these famous chimpanzees if the people living around were struggling and starving?

So we started a program called Take Care, which is now one of the most successful of its kind. It’s improving the lives of the people in now 24 villages, and we’re about to expand hugely. The program takes a holistic approach including everything from growing their food in a sustainable way to restoring fertility to overused farmland, free nurseries, fast growing tree species for building and firewood, and micro credit loans for women, which I think are tremendously important. We provide scholarships for girls and place emphasis on women because all around the world as women’s education improves family size tends to drop and this is desperately important in many parts of the world. This program has been very successful and now the villagers appreciate it. They realize that their water supply is improving because they’re managing it better, by protecting the forest along the watersheds for example. So now they’re allowing the land around Gombe to regenerate, and it’s very resilient and it regenerates fast. So now the Gombe chimpanzees have a buffer between them and the villagers, and an opportunity for interaction with other well-known chimp groups, which is their only chance for long-term survival.

I think it’s important to say that poverty is one of the worst destroyers of the environment. Poverty on the one hand and over-consumption on the other. We in the developed world can deal with our over-consumption by just taking a firm grip on ourselves and saying as an old wise Indian once said, I ask myself every time I think of getting something new can I live without it. If we start thinking like that, if we start thinking about how our actions today will affect our children and their children, and if we then realize that extreme poverty must be alleviated if we hope to protect the environment in the developing countries.

Regarding your point about cultural insensitivity to animals, we have sanctuaries for orphaned chimps, and the local people make the most amazing keepers. They have a real affinity with chimpanzees, with monkeys and with the other creatures. And the local people who come to visit go away saying, "I’ll never eat another chimpanzee again. I didn’t realize they were like us. I’ve never seen a monkey close up. I have been fascinated to watch this hippo mother and her baby." So we have to realize that they need exposure to it. They need to understand before they can care.

Gary Null: Well that is more than the answer I was expecting. I thank you very much for being on with us today, and we will do all we can to support your efforts.

Jane Goodall: Well thank you so much.

Dr. Gary Null is the host of the nation’s longest running public radio program on nutrition and natural health, founder of the Progressive Radio Network, a New York Times best selling author, and a multi-award-winning director of controversial documentaries, including Gulf War Syndrome: Killing Our Own, The Drugging of Our Children, and Autism: Made in the USA.

Read more about Gary Null

Comments (6)
  • Such an inspiring and hopeful interview. I always find it amazing that so many people in the West talk about the environmental crisis as if it will be in some not-so-distant future. The Inuit tears and the lost fertility of the land around Gombe National Park is the kind of evidence happening all around the globe in one form or another. So many of us in the West still remain out of touch with the physical/natural consequences of living life out of balance. The real question isn’t when will it happen. The real question is how bad will we allow it to get before we are willing to become more spiritual/aware/intelligent, to see and plan and act from beyond the territorialism and materialism that is the driving force of every species. We are once again being required to act differently as a species in order to survive. Jane Goodall’s work is a shining example and fuels the fires of hope I feel when I am doing my small part in my day-to-day choices and way of life. And supporting our favorite local/regional/international environmental organizations that help our brothers and sisters around the globe to be able to make the choices they need to make to live in balance with the earth is what we all can do in the West. Thank you Jane. Thank you Pir Zia for posting this piece/peace. May the Light of Wisdom shine blessings for all of life on the planet we share.

    — Zahira Conaire Sheehan on October 17, 2009

  • Wow, Jane Goodall is NOT vegan!? I’m so disappointed to see that.

    — Sailesh Rao on November 9, 2012

  • Jane Goodall not vegan, now there`s a surprise,she should set an example and practise what she preaches!

    — RUTH SMITH on July 28, 2013

  • Very disheartening that Jane Goodall isn’t Vegan, both for her health, the animals and the planet.  I feel that Jane Goodall is not doing the neccessary research and is misleading people inadvertantly.  Free Range organic eggs are not cruelty free and are extremely bad for the human body.  I really feel that it is irresponsible for her to say these things without doing propper research.  It’s veery unscientific of someone whos opinion on scientific matters I have very much respect for.

    — Patrick on February 14, 2016

  • I am also disappointed to read that Jane is not vegan. She was in Omaha, NE last night and gave an incredibly powerful speech and I just assumed she was vegan.  There are so many more vegan options available today even for those who travel frequently.  I’m glad she is vegetarian but that means her diet still includes eggs and dairy and where does most dairy come from? COWS!  I travel and I have found that if your willing to ask for vegan options people are willing to accommodate.  And vegetables are available everywhere. Be the change you wish to see in the world!

    — Eli on March 12, 2016

  • I too would have hoped that Jane was vegan because at least she has seen the environmental changes and knows more than most people the consequences of raising animals. The world doesn’t have time for baby steps. I’m vegan and it’s so much easier than I thought and healthier.  It’s tragic that we disregard animals so much but with films like Earthlings, Cowspiracy, Forks Over Knives and many more, people are choosing vegan. That’s hopeful and I applaud them.

    — Jay on April 15, 2016

15 October 2009

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