Experiencing Nature’s Divinity: A One-On-One With Jane Goodall
Ethologist and conservationist, Dr Jane Goodall sits on the other side of a Zoom screen in the attic office of her childhood home in Bournemouth, England.
Her highly acclaimed podcast, aptly named the Hopecast, takes place here, as do hundreds of remote meetings— projecting her voice to millions more people than she could have ever imagined in her decades of activism since leaving the rain forest of Gombe National Park in Tanzania where she made her reputation studying primates.
Wall to wall books, stuffed animals and framed images of family members bare silent witness to her daily message of hope, and one can say that she has come full circle.
This is where Goodall grew up; where, through the support of her family, she was able to find her wings. And despite the pandemic having “grounded” her there, she has miraculously expanded her wingspan, both as “Virtual Jane” and as recipient of the 2021 Templeton Prize, valued at $1.56 million, which she has pledged to use towards the furtherance of her work.
“It’s magical to win this Templeton Prize. I can use it to do so much more for all of the projects that I am passionate about,” she says in reference to the work of The Jane Goodall Institute, her community centered conservation organization, and Roots & Shoots, her youth service and advocacy program, currently active in 67 countries.
This, the largest single award of her highly decorated career, is granted to those individuals whose life’s work embodies a fusion of science and spirituality. It is an acknowledgement of Goodall’s sixty-plus years of raising the human consciousness, invoking a curiosity and compassion for living things and ultimately, changing the way that many humans look at animals and the natural world.
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Previous recipients include Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa.
Goodall believes that nature carries within it an element of the divine— a sacred wisdom that if honored, could provide healing to the global environmental malaise that threatens all of humanity.
“The world is in an awful mess right now,” she says. “There’s no question about it. We’ve disrespected animals… We’ve brought loss of species diversity, climate change and this pandemic on ourselves. It’s going to take every bit of energy and commitment if we are going to save the future of our own species.”
Goodall believes that unsustainable lifestyles, poverty and out-of-control population growth are the three most pressing global challenges facing humanity, but she is optimistic that young people have the power to drive positive change.
Her Roots and Shoots program, now in its thirtieth year, is a youth-led movement that empowers young people to address environmental, conservation and humanitarian issues in their communities. The program uses a school and community-based approach to provide its participants with the resources to take action on issues that matter to them.
Roots & Shoots activities range from tree planting and backyard wildlife projects to heritage and storytelling and sustainable farming intiatives.
The Roots & Shoots Program at the Shikula Secondary School in Tanzania, for example, has turned a hectare of arable land into a farm which grows a multitude of crops including coffee, Chinese lettuce, avocado, papaya, cashews, cassava, and chili peppers and has a milking cow and chickens— all of which feed the students and their families. The students have built their own dam in a stream located on the school property, so that they can collect water for their crops, and when a student is in need of financial assistance, the club sells poultry to raise money.
No matter where they are located, the common thread across all Roots & Shoots clubs is a belief in the symbiotic relationship between animals, people and the environment.
Goodall says that she witnessed the interconnectivity of life as a primatologist in Gombe, studying chimpanzees. It was here that she says she built a strong spiritual connection with the natural world, recognizing a “spark of the divine” in every creature— even the trees.
“If I have a soul, then I think chimpanzees have souls and probably the trees do too,” she says. “I never saw a disconnect between religion and science. Interestingly nor did my mentor [anthropologist and paleontologist] Dr. Louis Leakey. Why the theory of an evolving human should be contrary to any kind of religion, I can’t imagine.”
The fifteen years that Goodall spent in Gombe brought an understanding that every species has a special role to play in what she refers to as the tapestry of life.
“When one little species goes extinct, it may seem unimportant, but every time one species disappears it’s like pulling a thread from the tapestry and eventually that tapestry hangs in tatters and that can lead to ecosystem collapse,” she explains.
“We depend on healthy ecosystems for everything— food, water, clean air, regulation of temperature, rainfall… and we go on destroying it to our peril.”
Goodall, a vegan, believes that a great many of the world’s problems would be fixed if humans changed their relationship with animals, both wild and domestic and says that, “If everyone stopped eating animal products, it would change the world.”
Goodall also draws a parallel between the treatment of exotic animals in countries within Asia and Africa and the animal abuse that takes place in factory farming environments in the Western world.
“If we don’t want more zoonotic diseases, we have to develop a new relationship with animals,” she says.
“We have to understand that animals are individuals with feelings of fear and despair and pain; they suffer as we traffic them around the world and sell them for food, for medicine, for clothing, keeping them as exotic pets, selling them in wildlife markets in horribly cruel, cramped, unhygienic conditions— a perfect opportunity for a virus to jump from an animal to a person— which has led to this pandemic. Likewise, many zoonotic diseases start with intensive farming— factory farms where you get the same crowding of animals, the same fear and pain.”
Dr. Goodall says that despite her eighty-seven years of achievements and accolades, there is still so much more that she wants to accomplish and in that, she sees the Templeton Prize as both a celebration of what she has achieved and what is to come.
And in addition to all that she is yet to experience, there is still one great adventure that she regards with all of the optimism and hope that has defined her iconic career.
“My last great adventure is going to be dying, because when you die, there is either nothing or… which I think… there’s something and if there is something, I cannot think of a more exciting adventure than finding out what it is.”