Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall Winning the Tang Prize Shows Why Mankind Still Has a Lot to Learn From Nature

  • Jane Goodall
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All living beings have souls; chimpanzees are smarter than we thought   


Sixty years ago, Dr. Jane Goodall took with her a pair of binoculars, some notebooks, and her genuine love for animals, and embarked on a journey to what is now Tanzania to study chimpanzees. It was a journey that would revolutionize our understanding of primates and other wild animals. Now aged 86, she never stops urging us to combat climate change and protect the environment. 


“Every day you live, you make an impact on the planet. You have a choice as to what sort of impact you make,” Dr. Goodall exhorted the audience in a recent TED interview. As modern society becomes more prosperous, its tension with the natural environment also keeps mounting. This tension has been a main source of worry for Dr. Goodall, who spent most of her life in rainforests and saw how everything is interconnected there. Every creature, no matter how tiny it is, has a role to play in nature, and the same logic should be applied to human society.         


If we look at what human beings have done to wildlife habitats, it’s like witnessing us behaving like a wayward bully who cares neither about whether nature can withstand his tyranny, nor about where animals, once being driven out of their homes, can go. Using economic development as an excuse, mankind seems to feel justified for their indifference to the impending extinction other species could face, and polar bears are arguably the first group of creatures to feel the impact.          


Examples of the unfortunate consequences of global warming and climate change are far too many. The frequency and duration of category 4 or 5 hurricanes continue to increase, making it difficult for people living in coastal areas to shield themselves from tropical cyclones. The Arctic sea ice continues to melt, revealing more methane emission hotspots. If the methane stored there starts to be released in large quantities, it will warm the planet 30 times as much as carbon dioxide. In addition, high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide could suppress the formation of stratocumulus clouds.


But the worst vicious cycle could be that the rising average global temperature may reduce the amount of food we are able to produce, while insects start to eat more because heat speeds up their metabolism. In a few decades, we may find ourselves in an apocalyptic situation where the problem of overpopulation is exacerbated by food shortage and infestations of locusts and caterpillars.      


How do you choose between nature and society? For Dr. Goodall, who was on the road for an average of 300 days a year before the pandemic hit, there has never been a tradeoff. To understand why she is so keen on advocating the importance of eco-system conservation, we have to go back 60 years, to the time when Dr. Goodall, undeterred by any possible difficulties, made the decision to travel to Africa to study chimpanzees.  


Back then, the world knew very little about our primate cousins, and Dr. Goodall was no exception. When she just began to live in the jungles, chimpanzees, having never been in contact with humans before, would immediately run away at the sight of her. After waiting patiently for months, she finally got accepted in the chimpanzee community as they started to feel comfortable seeing her nearby, and the groundbreaking discoveries she later made can be attributed to this opportunity of observing chimpanzees from close range. She found out that they know how to make and use tools. They kiss, embrace, pat and gesture to each other. They can engage in brutal warfare, but are also capable of altruistic acts.   


At the time, scientists believed that only human beings could use tools. However, when Dr. Goodall saw these primates pick off leaves from twigs and use them to gather termites (their snacks) from tunnels, she realized that nature is full of surprises and diversities, and that chimpanzees and humans are very much alike.   


She subsequently published many papers, astonishing the world with her remarkable discoveries; she later helped the U.S. National Institutes of Health to end their invasive research on chimpanzees; and she became an advocate of animal rights who is forthright with her opinions about climate change.    


Human beings are no different from other living beings


Dr. Goodall didn’t mince her words when it comes to the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic, assigning the blame to humans for this global disaster. We can’t encroach upon the world’s ecosystems without expecting nature to fight back. She expressed these views very clearly in the speech she gave at this year’s Tang Prize Masters’ Forum, reminding us that “we’ve disrespected the natural world. We’ve disrespected the other animals.” We destroyed forests and thus deprived wildlife of their living spaces. “We hunt them (animals), kill them and eat them.” We traffic and sell them in wet markets, where squalid conditions make it easier for a pathogen to jump from animals to humans and cause zoonotic diseases.


Climate change is another example of how we made our bed and now have to lie in it. Human beings are by far the most intelligent species on earth we know, but we are also the species that is destroying their only home. Therefore, Dr. Goodall warns us that if we don’t understand that we are but a small part of nature and that we should make collective efforts to tackle the threats facing nature as soon as possible, it is likely that what awaits us in the future is a bleak and lifeless planet. 


Help not only human beings but animals and nature


In 1977, Dr. Goodall established the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) not only to further her research on chimpanzees but also to promote wildlife conservation. In 1994, JGI launched the TACARE program in the region around the Gombe Stream National Park. They collaborate with local residents to alleviate poverty and protect the forests through strategies such as introducing sustainable farming, implementing reforestation programs, initiating micro-credit programs, and providing health facilities as well as scholarships for girls.    


During recent years, Dr. Goodall has put even more effort into Roots & Shoots, a global youth education program, encouraging young people to take action to take care of animals and the environment, and hoping that one day they will grow to be a new generation of eco-conscious guardians of the earth. 


The nomination and selection of the 2020 Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development went on for more than a year. When it was finally announced that Dr. Goodall was the latest winner, the coronavirus had been rampaging through the planet for months. It seems fate decrees that there should be a concurrence like this. In the face of imminent ecological catastrophes, Dr. Goodall has pledged herself to fight for nature for as long as she can.