Lessons from Jane Goodall
VITTORIO BOLLO tells of meeting his hero, an event he describes as a life-changing experience.
I sat there, frankly, in awe. There I was, in one of the conference rooms at the Sandton Sun amongst a few hundred others, as every one of us were held rapt by a small 77-year-old woman standing at the front, her face barely at microphone level.
Jane Goodall was the woman we had all come to see at the gala dinner event and, for me, it was a life-changing experience. Goodall is the primatologist and conservationist who became world famous for her pioneering work with chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. Commencing in 1960, it was her untiring work and empirical evidence which proved that chimpanzees have distinct and individual personalities, and are capable of rational thought with emotions like joy, anger, jealousy and sorrow.
She also made the breakthrough observation that revolutionised thinking on primate intelligence. She noticed one chimpanzee stripping a twig of its leaves and sharpening it, then burrowing the twig into a hole, screwing it around in the ground and bringing it out covered in termites, which the chimp ate with relish.
That termite-drilling twig was a tool. It was the 1960s and until then the scientific thinking was that only humans made tools, hence the common refrain, “Man the Toolmaker”. Now Goodall had proven that chimps also made tools. She had proven the unthinkable. Her tireless work in that lush forest nearly 50 years ago was an invaluable contribution in the growth of the environmental movement as we know it today. Rachel Carson may have galvanised thinking on environmental issues with her seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring, but Goodall was every bit her contemporary and equal.
I learned some invaluable lessons that night listening to her, some of which spoke to me as a human being, others of which spoke to me as an environmentalist and sustainability professional.
1. Wisdom is indeed inspiring:
We live in a world of bluster and sound bites that, once dissected, really add very little to our knowledge or an informed view of the world. Conjecture and hyperbolic opinion dominate, whether it’s on TV or the innumerable blogs and tweets online. The Information Age may as well be the Disinformation Age or Dumb-Info Age. So to sit and listen to someone who can hold an entire audience in a soft-spoken voice on the sheer force of her quiet charisma, built upon years of incredible experience was, well, both refreshing and very powerful. There is a Chinese proverb that states, “A single conversation with a wise man is better than 10 years of study”. That is how I felt listening to a wise woman for a few hours. Another person who had that effect on me was the Indian social and environmental rights activist and author, Vandana Shiva, when I saw her speak at Wits University prior to the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Where Goodall is quiet, soothing authority, Shiva is a powerhouse of huge emotion and erudite brilliance. But they both left their mark on me. Everyone should have that experience at least once in a while. It puts life and one’s work into perspective.
2. You’re never too old:
It sounds patronising, but there’s something I’ve always admired above many other things – the ability of an older person to still be learning, to still be enquiring about things in the world and ever challenging that with which they are not happy. In short, it’s not about pretending to be young, but about being youthful in mind and spirit. I admit to being completely intolerant of older people (and that includes those who are only a few years older than I!) who seem to know it all, and appear almost bored by any attempt to challenge their world view or make an effort to keep learning, keep striving, keep wanting a better world. With all her experience and incredible stories which would amount to many lives lived, it was very humbling to hear Goodall admit that she doesn’t have all the answers, she still feels as if she has not achieved much and that she still yearns to know more. She looked tired, almost frail (not surprising at 77) and continues travelling the world for more than 300 days of the year. But she’s still striving for a better world, relentlessly working and trying to spread her message. It’s humbling, to say the least.
3. We are nowhere near sustainable:
When facilitating or consulting, I often quote a very well-known Kenyan proverb that epitomises sustainability and which states, “The earth was not given to you by your parents, but is on loan from your children.” It’s eloquent in its simplicity and I know that others have been inspired by those simple words. Well, Goodall certainly dented any such whimsical notions when she declared that we were not loaning the earth from our children, but stealing it from them! She spoke about the devastation of the earth due to deforestation and the alarming loss of species across all biomes, including the world’s oceans (not to mention the looming crisis of climate change) and said we were anything but sustainable and, if anything, robbing future generations of their earth. It was very unsettling to hear that being said with such conviction by such a sweet-looking woman. She didn’t say it with any cynicism or defeatism, but a great sense of urgency. Besides, who in their right mind would argue with her?
4. Children are the future:
Precisely because she herself claims to be an optimist, and no doubt spurred on by her sense of urgency about the state of the planet, Goodall has gone beyond her work in chimpanzees and even conservation. Out of her love for the planet and her undoubted compassion for people, germinated her organisation that now has a global footprint. In Roots & Shoots she has founded an international youth action programme that works at the grassroots level on not only ecological projects, but all projects that uplift a community and promote sustainability. A programme of the Jane Goodall Institute, Roots & Shoots states that it’s mission is, “to encourage a conscience that fosters respect and compassion for all living things; promotes the understanding of all cultures and beliefs; and inspires individuals to become agents of positive change – making the world a better place for people, animals and the environment.” At its heart are the world’s youth, as she believes implicitly in their ability to learn and demand a better planet. She is no doubt correct. If there is one NGO that deserves a greater presence and success in South African schools and communities, not to mention volunteers and as many corporate sponsors as it can possibly attract, then Roots & Shoots is undoubtedly that NGO.
Listening to Goodall was one of the most inspiring things that has happened to me in many years. One gets jaded working to make a living, and all that goes with the petty travails of life. Seeing the daily compromise with the planet that political and corporate leaders – and so many in society – see as “inevitable” makes one feel that the environmental and sustainability message is somehow hollow and almost futile at times. It can get very frustrating.
Thank goodness, then, for Jane Goodall. She reinvigorated me and reminded me of why I became, and must continue to be, committed to the environment, animal rights and sustainability. For that alone, thank you, Jane.
Vittorio Bollo achieved an LL B in Law and Politics from a UK university and a Master’s degree in International Environmental Law from a Canadian university. He has over 12 years experience in the SHE field, primarily in consulting, training and R&D. He has recently joined NOSA to work in its growing R&D department, in which he will continue to do work in environmental/SHE risk management and corporate governance, as well as his chief passion, sustainability.