Jane Goodall – A Messenger of Hope

Jane Goodall at a podium
Jane Goodall at TEDGlobal 2007
Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Some days I find it hard to be positive about our planet’s future. A recent front page headline in the Boston Globe (5/21/27) read “Early heat a sign of what’s to come.” The forecast for that day was 92 degrees or 24 degrees above the historic average. A one-time phenomenon? Scientists think not. According to the National Centers for Envornmental Information (NCEI), 

The April 2022 global surface temperature was 1.53°F (0.85°C) above the 20th-century average of 56.7°F (13.7°C) – tying with 2010 as the fifth-warmest April in the 143-year record. The 10 warmest April months have occurred since 2010, with the years 2014-2022 all ranking among the 10 warmest Aprils on record. April 2022 also marked the 46th consecutive April and the 448th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average. [1]

A constant stream of news from around the world about floods, wild fires, drought, extreme heat, melting ice caps, and failing crops can’t help but weigh more and more heavily on our minds and hearts. Compounding all the climate-related bad news are the ineffective responses from national governments and “greenwashing” [2] claims by the fossil fuel companies like Exxon. [3]

No surprise, then, that many of us have become more and more anxious if not hopeless about the future. According to a 2020 American Psychiatric Association poll,

More than two-thirds of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, and more than half (55%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health. [4]

Recently the New York Times interviewed hundreds people in the US about their thoughts and feelings about climate change and global warming. [5] What the  NYT reporters heard was a litany of loss, anger, and sadness, for example:

I lost a piece of my heart with the trees that I will never get back.(Isabela Walkin, 23. The forest her family planted was destroyed by Hurricane Laura, but protected her childhood home in Lake Charles, La.)

I’m mad, I’m powerless, I’m exhausted and I’m only 18. (Hayley Clausen, Hayden, Idaho)

We ruined the world and we feel bad for the young people that are going to have to deal with this. (Ira Russianoff, 72, Dania Beach, Fla.)

But some argue that this is not a time to give up. In my previous post, I quoted the conservation scientist Will Turner insisting that “inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” And there are many voices of hope and encouragement for continuing the effort to limit the effects of global warming. See for example the resources listed on the “Not Too Late” web page. [6]

One of the more prominent messengers of hope is Jane Goodall (1934- ).  In her interview with Douglas Abrams in The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times [7] she showed herself to be a forceful advocate for doing something despite feeling despair: “It’s really important for us to confront our grief and get over our feelings of hopelessness . . . We must find ways to help people understand that each of us has a role to play, no matter how small.” [BoH, 78]

When asked for a definition of hope, Goodall responded that it “is what enables us to keep going in the face of adversity. It is what we desire to happen, but we must be prepared to make it so.” [BoH, 8] And Goodall’s strength for maintaining her hopefulness and communicating it to others is rooted in a spiritual connection to nature.

When I was spending hours alone in the forest at Gombe [a national park in Tanzania where Goodall did her research on chimpanzee behavior], I felt part of the natural world, closely connected with a Great Spiritual Power. And that power is with me at all times, a force I can turn to for courage and strength. And sharing that power with others helps me give people hope. [BoH, 80]

When asked for reasons for hope, Goodall provided four: the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of young people, and the indomitable human spirit. Abrams asked Goodall to elaborate on each of the reasons, and the resulting conversations gave them plenty to talk about. Here are some of the points she made:

The amazing human intellect: The intellect can be used for good or bad, and certainly for ecologically destructive purposes when driven by kinds of greed and desire for power that cause environmental degradation. But now that we’re becoming more aware of the harm we’ve done, our ability to innovate has helped us come up with ways of living more in harmony with nature such as renewable energy and regenerative farming.

The resilience of nature: The miraculous endurance of several trees provides Goodall with memorable examples of nature’s resilience. A month after the 9/11 twin tower collapse, a Callery pear tree was found to be still alive amidst the ruins of Ground Zero. Renamed the Survivor Tree, it was rescued and then replanted on the grounds of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. The other  examples are two 500 year old camphor trees that survived the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki. Goodall gave numerous other example and explains “There’s a kind of built-in resilience – as when springs brings forth leaves after a bitter winter of snow and ice, or the desert blooms after even a tiny amount of rain falls.” [BoH, 80]

The power of young people: Young people all over the world are challenging older generations to do something about the climate crisis. Goodall quoted Greta Thunberg addressing her elders at a world conference: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act.” [BoH, 127] An example of Goodall’s activism is Roots & Shoots [8], a global community action program, founded by her in 1991 for for youth to become engaged in environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues. 

Jane Goodall at Roost & Shoots Hungary Csigabi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The indomitable human spirit: Goodall defined this spirit as “an ability to deliberately tackle what may seem to be an impossible task. And not give up even though we know there is a chance we may not succeed. Even when we know it may lead to death.” [BoH, 147] She and Abrams exchanged examples of people whose severe injuries disabled them but who regained a fully active life through “sheer will power.” Examples of groups or communities exhibiting this spirit included the British people’s courage during WWII during the Battle of Britain, and the people at Standing Rock enduring pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and being hosed in freezing weather while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In a concluding “Message of Hope from Jane,” she begins by underscoring what other scientists have said about the pandemic, “By destroying habitats we force animals into closer contact with human beings, thus creating situations for pathogens to form new human diseases.” [BoH, 226] [9] But despite new challenges posed by COVID and all the obstacles faced by climate change activists that she and Abrams talked about, she ends with an urgent appeal to the reader: “Please, please rise to the challenge, inspire and help those around you, play your part. Find your reasons for hope and let them guide you onward.” [BoH, 234]

Goodall’s love of nature inspires her to become an advocate for active engagement in the climate change movement. At the same time, she sees a need for spirituality to be an essential part of the work that needs to be done.

When you talk about spirituality, many people are uneasy or absolutely put off.  . . . Yet more and more people are now realizing that we have become increasingly materialistic and that we have connect spirituality with the natural world. I agree – I think there is a yearning for something beyond thoughtless consumerism. In a way, our disconnect with nature is very dangerous. We feel we can control nature – we forget that, in the end, nature controls us. [BoH, 210]

People who are beginning to recognize the value of spirituality in this time of climate crisis are, in her words, experiencing a spiritual evolution which, when compared to moral development, is

. . . more about meditating on the mystery of creation and the Creator, asking who we are and why are we here and understanding how we are part of the amazing natural world – again Shakespeare says it beautifully when he talks of seeing “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” I get a sense of all this when I stand transfixed, filled with wonder and awe at some glorious sunset, or the sun shining through the forest canopy while a bird sings, or when I lie on my back in some quiet place and look up and up and up in to the heavens as the stars gradually emerge from the fading of the day’s light. [BoH, 211]

I think that if Abrams had asked Jane if she agreed with Emily Dickinson that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – .” she would smile and perhaps even add “And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all – / And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – / And sore must be the storm – / That could abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm – .”

[1 ] National Centers for Environmental Information. “Assessing the Global Climate in April 2022.”  https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/monitoring/monthly-report/global/202204

[2] “Greenwashing is when an organization spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing its environmental impact.” Edwards, Carylann. “What Is Greenwashing.” Business News Daily, Feb. 24, 2022. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html

[3] Hernandez, Joe. “Accusations of ‘greenwashing’ by big oil companies are well-founded, a new study finds.” NPR, Feb. 16, 2022.  https://www.npr.org/2022/02/16/1081119920/greenwashing-oil-companies

[4] “New APA Poll Reveals That Americans are Increasingly Anxious About Climate Change’s Impact on Planet, Mental Health.” American Psychiatric Association. October, 21, 2020. Updated on 2/23/21 to reflect the correct percentage. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/climate-poll-2020

[5] Kerr, Sarah, Noah Throop, Jack Healy, Aidan Gardiner, and Rebecca Lieberman. “The Unseen Toll of a Warming World.” New York Times, March 9, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/09/us/mental-health-climate-change.html

[6] Not Too Late. “Not Too Late isn’t an organization. Our goal is to provide useful perspectives and information and guide people from despair to possibilities. This is a project led by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua.” https://www.nottoolateclimate.com/ 

[7] Goodall, Jane, Douglas Carlton Abrams, and Gail Hudson. The Book of Hope : A Survival Guide for Trying Times. The Global Icons Series. New York, NY: Celadon Books, 2021. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250784094/thebookofhope 
All quotes from this book will be referenced as BoH, page #. 

[8] Roots & Shoots website: https://rootsandshoots.global/

[9] See Ecozoic Cafe post “A Great Pause” – https://ecozoic.net/2020/04/09/a-great-pause/.

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