When Jane Goodall was 6, during World War II, she was often woken by sirens. The sound warned that enemy planes were flying over her English town. Her little sister would run to the bomb shelter. But Goodall refused to budge. “I did not want to leave my bed,” she says. “They had to take me down with all my bedclothes.”
That same stubbornness led her to become the world’s best-known primatologist . In 1960, she sat for months in the forests of Tanzania, in Africa, waiting for chimpanzees to accept her. When they did, Goodall was able to observe them up close and discover that they use tools.
In 1962, university professors criticized Goodall for using human names and emotions to describe chimps. “I didn’t confront them,” she says. “I just quietly went on doing what I knew was right.” Her belief that chimps are intelligent social animals is now widely accepted.
In 1986, Goodall went to a meeting on habitat loss that changed her ideas about nature. No longer content to do research, she began a schedule of travel, charity work, and activism. After 35 years, she’s still on the job.
Telling Her Story
Goodall shares her life story to get people excited about environmentalism. “You’ve got to reach the heart,” she says. “And I do that through storytelling.”
Before the pandemic, Goodall traveled 300 days a year. She spoke to school assemblies, at conferences, and on talk shows. March 2020 saw COVID-19 shutdowns and an end to Goodall’s travels. For the past year and a half, she has traded hotels and auditoriums for her bedroom. Her determination to spread her message keeps her there for hours each day. Goodall does, on average, three virtual lectures or interviews between breakfast and bedtime. Her stories leave audiences feeling hopeful about our planet.
Over the years, Goodall has promoted the idea that “everyone can do their bit.” Critics argue that to make a real difference, bigger changes are needed from businesses and governments. Kumi Naidoo is a South African activist. He says Goodall was “ahead of her time” on raising awareness. But, he adds, “All of us in the environmental movement . . . must acknowledge that . . . we have not delivered the results we set out to deliver.” This has led a younger generation of activists to take up more-aggressive strategies, such as school strikes.
Still, many claim her as an inspiration (see “Roots & Shoots”). Vanessa Nakate, a 24-year-old climate activist, says Goodall gave her an “understanding that protecting our ecosystems is so important.”
On October 31, world leaders gathered for a two-week United Nations climate conference. Many young activists fear the conference won’t lead to enough action. As usual, Goodall is determined to find hope. “I won’t say I’m optimistic, but I have all my fingers crossed,” she says. “The positive thing is that there’s so much more awareness.”
Roots & Shoots
Goodall set up the youth-activism program Roots & Shoots in 1991. Today, it has local groups in more than 60 countries. According to the Jane Goodall Institute, at least 100,000 kids and teens are currently running more than 5,800 community projects to support people, animals, and the planet. Goodall says it’s important for young people to maintain the “hope that your actions can make a difference.”
Note: Jane Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute do not endorse handling or close proximity to wildlife.