In Jane Goodall’s new book, there is a vivid description of her “deep bond” with a beech tree in the garden of her childhood home in Bournemouth. She would climb into its branches to read, hauling books and her homework up in a basket, and persuaded her grandmother to bequeath her the tree, named just Beech, in her will. She called the tree, as alive to her as any person or animal, “one of my closest childhood friends”. “There’s Beech,” she says now, pointing to the handsome tree, its leaves glowing in the morning sun, from the front doorstep.
The house, which first belonged to Goodall’s grandmother, is large and lovely, but modest, perhaps little changed from when Goodall lived here as a child; there are various animal feeding bowls in the living room, comfortingly cluttered, where we sit, with big windows that look out on to the garden. Her sister, Judy, and her family live here, and it’s home to Goodall when she’s not travelling the world, spreading her message of hope, and demanding action. Goodall was on her way to give a talk for Compassion in World Farming in Brussels last March, the taxi leaving the driveway, when Judy came rushing out to say it had been called off, and she has been grounded here since, mainly working from her attic bedroom.
At first, she says: “I was frustrated and angry. Then I thought: ‘Well, that’s useless.’” Her team from the Jane Goodall Institute swung into action, and she says she is busier than ever. “I’m doing Zooms, video messages, trying to keep touch with everybody around the world where I would normally go.” She created a podcast, the Jane Goodall Hopecast, in which she interviews other environmentalists and activists. Although she doesn’t particularly like giving online lectures, speaking alone to the camera on her laptop, she knows that they can reach many more people than those few thousand who would ordinarily turn up to hear her in person. It has also given her a glimpse into a future where she may not have to slow down. When she reached her 80s – she is 87 – she had started wondering what she would do if travelling became too much. “But now I know I don’t have to travel.” And she has finished working on The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet, written by Douglas Abrams and based on long interviews with Goodall.
She is “very much afraid” that the pandemic hasn’t been the wake-up call we needed, alarmed at how quickly we seem to be going back to normal. On the other hand, she thinks more politicians are starting to take notice of the climate emergency. “Thank goodness some rich countries are beginning to suffer – unfortunately that’s all that will make them take action. There’s more awareness, but unfortunately, most of it is words, words, words.” If promises are acted on we may be fine, she says, “but will they be?”
Does she have much hope for Cop26, the UN climate summit that begins in Glasgow at the end of this month? “I just pray that, unlike the Paris agreement, there will be follow-up action and not just words. The flooding in New York and New Orleans and the worst hurricanes in America, the flooding in Europe, the fires, that is a wake-up call and the wealthy countries can no longer just shrug their shoulders and say: ‘Well, it doesn’t matter what happens in Africa.’ Because we now know it’s all interconnected.”
After alleviating poverty, we must, as she says in the book, “reduce the unsustainable lifestyles of the affluent”. It has gone beyond individual responsibility now, hasn’t it? Don’t we need governments and corporations to take radical, and probably unpopular, action? “Of course,” she says, but each of us – as voters, as consumers – “has a huge role to play”. She thinks younger people are less consumerist than those ahead of them, and have perhaps more in common with the oldest generations. “I’m so fortunate because I grew up in the war. We didn’t consume, we weren’t materialistic.” Companies will change, says Goodall, “for two reasons. One, because this [more sustainable] ethic is creeping in and young people are growing up with a different understanding. The other reason is the writing is on the wall.” She gives the example of soft drinks manufacturers who contribute to water shortages in some areas. “If they go on using water the way they are using water, they won’t be able to make their drinks any more. So they have to find methods which are more saving.” She wouldn’t say everyone has to be vegan, but says: “If we don’t stop factory farming, we’ve had it.”
We need compassion for future generations, she says in the book, not “sheer selfish greed for short-term benefits to increase the wealth and power of individuals, corporations and governments”. And hope is the precious resource. “What happens if we don’t have hope?” says Goodall, eyes bright. “We give up. If you don’t think what you do is going to make any difference, why bother to do it?” She respects Greta Thunberg’s blistering anger, but Goodall prefers a more hopeful approach, which suits her softer style; Goodall is fiercely determined, but there is also something childlike about her. Anger, while justified, can put people on the defensive. “You’ve got to reach the heart,” she says.
In the Book of Hope, Goodall admits to feeling, on many days, as if she’s fighting a losing battle against greed, corruption and prejudice. How does she overcome that? “See what’s happening in Afghanistan? It’s horrible. Fires in Siberia, so great that they’re not even trying to put them out any more. I mean, you have to feel depressed, but then there’s something that says: ‘There is still an awful lot left and that’s what we’ve got to fight to save.’ So then you get extra energy. I have days when I feel like not getting up, like, I wish I was dead, but it doesn’t last long. I guess because I’m obstinate.” She laughs. “I’m not going to give in. I’ll die fighting, that’s for sure.”
She gets up – “I should show you something” – and picks up a little box from beside the fireplace. It’s a tiny set of six drawers, made from matchboxes glued together. Goodall made it when she was 14 and had just been confirmed (she is spiritual, rather than “religious” now, she says). She hadn’t been impressed with the Christian platitudes she had been exposed to. “They were all very soothing. I thought: ‘The Bible isn’t all like that.’ So this is what I made. I still have it because my mother kept things. You better choose one.” I open a little drawer, and take out a scroll of paper, on which teenage Jane’s tiny handwriting says: “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Goodall looks triumphant. “What have we been talking about?”
Once, home from travelling for just a few days with another trip looming, “I was grumbling to Judy, saying: ‘I don’t want to go, I’m tired of it.’ And she picked this box up and said: ‘Have a text.’” Three times in a row, despite putting them back in different drawers, Goodall picked the same scroll, which she recites from memory: “He who has once set his hand to the plough and turns back, is not fit for the kingdom of heaven” (in other words, this is the path she is on). “So Judy said: ‘Off you go.’”
Does Goodall genuinely have hope that we can reverse the destruction we have inflicted on the planet in time? “If we get together,” she says. “It depends a lot on what happens at this summit and whether people actually mean what they say. We can’t wait only for the youth to grow up, because they want change, so you have to get to the politicians. Going back to being angry with people, I think people have to change from within, not be told: ‘You’ve got to change.’”
Empathy – with trees, with animals – has characterised all Goodall’s work. She was criticised for it in the 60s, when she began studying chimpanzees. In her 20s, she had gone to Gombe national park in Tanzania to study the animals, at the request of the palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who had wanted someone enthusiastic but untouched by formal scientific training (Goodall had been his secretary). Over long, patient months, Goodall made some incredible discoveries, including the observation that chimps would use tools when trying to catch termites. Until then, the prevailing thought was that the ability to make and use tools was what separated humans from animals. Later, when Goodall went to Cambridge to get a PhD, it wasn’t the fact that she was a rare woman, she says, that marked her out, but that she was “a rebel. I was talking about animals with personalities, minds, feelings, giving them names, fighting against the fact that a scientist shouldn’t have empathy, and saying that empathy was what gave rise to the ‘Aha!’ moments.” Her eyes widen. “We were actually taught that there was a difference in kind between us and all the other animals. My dog had taught me that that wasn’t true.”
Goodall had grown up loving animals. She was one of the last debutantes, presented to the Queen – her own family were not wealthy or well connected, but an uncle (by marriage) was – and she remembers waiting with the others. “They were all saying their ambition was to be a lady-in-waiting, or to catch a rich husband. When one of them asked me what I wanted to do, and I said: ‘I want to go to Africa and live with wild animals’, they literally withdrew and they wouldn’t talk to me any more.”
When she started working in Tanzania, and her work was becoming famous, the idea of this beautiful young white woman living in a forest was irresistible to the press. That only increased when she and Hugo van Lawick, a handsome aristocratic film-maker sent to document her work, fell in love (they married and had a son, whom they raised at Goodall’s research station for the first few years of his life; she later married a second time). Did it bother her, the way reports focused on her looks? One headline called her a “pert scientist”. “No, not at the time. It was a different era,” she says. “All I wanted to do was learn about the chimps. I didn’t even want to be a scientist.”
Those early days in Gombe were the happiest of her life. “Once the chimps had become used to me, didn’t run away, oh, there were such amazing days,” she says, beaming. “I knew those chimps intimately. Now looking back, watching that film Jane [a 2017 documentary about those early years], seeing myself playing with eight-year-old Figan, he could have eaten my face off. But at the time, it was wonderful.”
She was criticised for setting up feeding stations to attract the chimps and acknowledges that she wouldn’t do that now. “But at that time, if we hadn’t done the banana feeding, National Geographic wouldn’t have come in [and continued funding Goodall’s research] because they could get good pictures and film, and then Gombe wouldn’t be there.” And once they learned that disease could be transmitted from humans to chimps, contact stopped. It’s necessary, she says, but “for me, that’s sad”.
Goodall turned her focus to environmentalism – having witnessed the deforestation around Gombe – and embarked on life as a campaigner, which sees her travelling for about 300 days of the year. She does worry about her carbon footprint, she says, but believes it is more than offset by the millions of trees that have been planted as a result of the work her institute does (“It’s not as if I have a private jet”), and her Roots and Shoots programme, which has 100,000 young people all over the world involved in projects.
She seems to live frugally in all other respects. It’s strange to see Goodall, in her childhood home, sitting on her sofa with a biscuit, and reconciling it with the celebrated woman – people like to touch her, as if she is a saint – out there in the world. “It’s totally weird,” says Goodall, of the person she has turned out to be. “At first, I hated it, I would hide from the press and then I realised, actually, I’d better make use of this.”
She has no plans to retire and jokes that her diary is filled for at least the next decade (it probably isn’t a joke). Is she – morbid question – aware of time running out? “I’m nearly 88,” she says. “I won’t live for ever. I could live to be 110 – people do – but I don’t want to. I want to live as long as I can work.” Death, she says, sounding totally pragmatic, “is going to come some time. I’m not afraid of death.”
There is a horrible moment in Jane, the documentary, in which, following a polio outbreak among the chimpanzees, one of them has to be euthanised. “Mr McGregor,” she says, when I bring it up. By this point in the film, the chimps seem so human – or we seem so animal. Does she think it’s time we had assisted dying for humans? “Yes, I think there should be voluntary ending. I don’t want to live if I have to be waited on. I don’t want that. Assisted dying, I think, is a good thing.”
Anyway, she says, laughing brightly as if to break my morbid gloom despite the autumnal sun flooding through the windows, the end is not something she thinks about. “I say to Mary [Goodall’s assistant and co-chair of the Institute’s board]: ‘Oh, come on, I cannot do any more. You’ve got me down for three Zooms today. I don’t care if I die.’ And she says: ‘Oh, Jane, please don’t die! We haven’t planned your obituaries yet.’” There is too much to be done. Goodall will be out on the road again before long, and while she is spurred on by loss and by destruction, it is hope that she will focus on.
The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams is published by Viking (£16.99) on 21 October. To support The Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.