Jane Goodall at 90: On fame, hope, and empathy

  • Jane Goodall’s 90th birthday is today, April 3, 2024. To mark the occasion, Goodall sat down with Mongabay Founder and CEO Rhett Ayers Butler at his home in California.
  • In the conversation, Goodall delves into the evolving consciousness regarding environmental degradation and the loss of biodiversity, while stressing the importance of fostering hope amidst the doom and gloom often associated with these issues.
  • “I’ve come to think of humanity as being at the mouth of a very long very dark tunnel and right at the end there’s a little star shining. And that’s hope,” she said. “However, it’s futile to just sit and wonder when that star will come to us. We must gird our loins, roll up our sleeves, and navigate around all obstacles that lie between us and the star.”
  • The conversation also touches upon the transformative power of youth engagement in environmental activism. Goodall highlights the influence young people can have on older generations, emphasizing the importance of voting in elections as a means to support candidates who prioritize environmental concerns.

Jane Goodall turns 90 today. For the past few weeks, the world has been marking her birthday in a variety of ways, from a unique 90-dog salute on a beach in Carmel, California, symbolizing her life-long commitment to animal welfare, to galas in fancy ballrooms in the world’s biggest cities with global business and political leaders.

Last week, Goodall graciously sat for an extended conversation at my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. We covered a range of subjects, from empathy for plants and animals to the need for hope.

Before we jump into the interview, it’s useful to start by providing some context on Goodall, whose journey has redefined our understanding of the animal kingdom. This background will help us appreciate the insights from our conversation and understand why Goodall has become a towering figure in conservation and primatology.

Also a brief disclosure: Goodall has served of Mongabay’s Advisory Council since 2014.

Jane Goodall’s Path

With little more than a notebook, binoculars, and an indomitable spirit, Goodall set foot in the Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, in 1960. Under the mentorship of anthropologist Louis Leakey, her initial mission was to observe and record the behavior of chimpanzees. What followed was a lifetime of pioneering research, transforming her into one of the most influential primatologists and environmental advocates of the twentieth century. Her early observations laid the groundwork for future conservation efforts, significantly impacting the field.

Goodall’s contributions to science and our perception of animals have been substantial. Prior to her work, the line separating humans from animals was distinctly drawn and heavily guarded by the scientific community. Goodall’s meticulous observations blurred these lines, revealing the profound complexities of chimpanzee societies. She was the first to document chimpanzees making and using tools, a behavior that was thought to be exclusively human. This discovery challenged the anthropocentric view of intelligence and sent ripples through the scientific world, prompting a reevaluation of what it means to be human.

Beyond her scientific achievements, Goodall’s advocacy for animals and the environment has been relentless. She has consistently argued for the recognition of animals as sentient beings, capable of emotions such as joy, grief, and frustration. Her foundation, the Jane Goodall Institute, is at the forefront of efforts to protect chimpanzees and their habitats, combining conservation with community-centered development programs. Through her Roots & Shoots program, Goodall has mobilized a younger generation toward environmental stewardship, underscoring the interconnectedness of all living things. Her work has influenced public perception and policy changes regarding wildlife conservation, highlighting the broader impact of her efforts.

Goodall’s work extends beyond the confines of academic research to encompass global environmental advocacy. Her stance on sustainable living and ethical consumerism challenges both individuals and corporations to reconsider their impact on the planet. In a world teetering on the brink of ecological collapse, Goodall’s voice remains a clarion call for action. She advocates for a holistic approach to conservation, one that addresses the root causes of biodiversity loss and climate change.

Goodall’s legacy is a testament to the power of perseverance, empathy, and scientific curiosity. Through her pioneering research and fervent advocacy, she has not only altered our understanding of chimpanzees but also highlighted the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to protect our planet. Moreover, her role as a mentor and source of inspiration to the next generation of scientists and conservationists underscores her lasting influence on future leaders in the field. Goodall’s life work serves as a reminder that understanding our place in the natural world is the first step toward preserving it for future generations.

Note: this text is a summary of Goodall’s comments and has been edited for clarity and flow.


Rhett Ayers Butler for Mongabay: Well, Jane, it’s always wonderful to see you. Thank you for coming and visiting. You just came from Carmel, where you had a very special birthday celebration. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

Jane Goodall: Yes, this was my 90th birthday. The celebrations around the world usually have colors and themes, which I really don’t like. But this one in Carmel was different: 90 dogs for my 90th birthday. It was meant to be a salute on the beach. And of course, it unfolded in its own unique way. It was just magical—all the dogs, I would say more than half were off leash, running in the sea, greeting everyone. It was magical.

Mongabay: You have been working in the field for quite a number of years. What would you say is the biggest change in the conservation sector since you got started?

Jane Goodall: Well, there are two significant changes.

One is that more people are becoming aware, and many small NGOs have sprung up to tackle different problems.

The other is the harm we’ve done to the natural world: the disappearing forests, the loss of biodiversity.

So, yes, people are more aware, but the big problem is that when people read too much about the doom and gloom—which we need to know about, because it is real—they can become overwhelmed. They might think, “What’s the point?” or “There’s no hope.”

Therefore, giving people hope is a very important message.

Rainbow over oil palm plantations and forest
Rainbow over oil palm plantations and forest in Jambi, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Mongabay: Eco-anxiety is a big issue these days, especially among younger people. So how do you remain hopeful? And what message do you give, especially to younger audiences?

Jane Goodall: How do I stay hopeful? By traveling 300 days around the world—which, of course, isn’t environmentally friendly in terms of emissions from planes, etc., and since nobody’s given me a magic carpet—I feel I need to be there to actually talk to people. Our Roots & Shoots groups are planting hundreds of thousands of trees, and JGI is protecting forests.

As I travel, I meet incredible people doing amazing things. I see forests being protected and woodlands restored. I meet people who tackle what seems impossible and don’t give up.

This includes bringing endangered species back from the brink of extinction, like the California condor, for example. I vividly remember when there were only 12 left, one in captivity and 11 in the wild. They captured the 11 wild ones, did captive breeding, and now there are over 200.

Rhett Ayers Butler and Jane Goodall speaking in California on March 26, 2024.
Rhett Ayers Butler and Jane Goodall speaking in California on March 26, 2024.

Mongabay: Part of overcoming eco-anxiety is feeling like you have the agency to make a difference in the world. What can someone do in their everyday life to have a positive impact?

Jane Goodall: Well, I believe it starts when people realize that every day they live, they make some kind of impact. They should begin to think about their own environmental footprint.

They can start by questioning their purchases: Where was it made? Was it harmful to the environment? Was it cruel to animals, like those from factory farms? Does its low cost come at the expense of fair wages or entail slave labor? If so, they shouldn’t buy it.

Opting for items that are ethically produced might cost a bit more, but this means they’ll likely value them more and waste less. As we know all too well, human waste is a massive problem.

So, the message is simple: remember, every day you live, you make an impact. Choose wisely.

Oil palm planation and native tropical rainforest on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett Ayers Butler
Oil palm planation and native tropical rainforest on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett Ayers Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Sometimes, we need to influence people higher up the food chain, so to speak: political and business leaders. How can the average person get their message across to these individuals in their daily lives?

Jane Goodall: Well, it varies. I’m not sure who the “average person” is these days, but people have different ways of making an impact. There are campaigns and petitions to sign.

I always hope that through our youth program, many of the participants’ parents are in decision-making positions. I know that youth can influence older generations; it’s happened time and again.

Mongabay: You’re about to embark on a new campaign involving the power of the vote. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Jane Goodall: Yes, there are 50 countries around the world currently preparing for elections, not all presidential, but elections nonetheless. And I know for a fact that many young people are hesitant to vote because they’re indifferent towards the candidates. They don’t see the point in voting.

So the main message is, “Your vote matters.” Please go out and vote. Choose the candidate who cares about the future. That’s the key message.

Mongabay: That’s an important message, especially here in the United States with a major election coming up.

But if you had the power to establish a new global tradition or annual event to foster a deeper connection to nature and wildlife, what would it look like?

Jane Goodall: The key is understanding and experiencing nature. People won’t rally to protect what they don’t know. That’s why it’s crucial to engage children with nature as early as possible. There are countless stories of young people who’ve never had the chance to immerse themselves in nature, to touch the earth, to explore a river or a stream.

Finding ways for them to experience nature firsthand is vital. More and more studies show that time spent in nature is beneficial, both psychologically and physically. In some countries, like Canada and Japan, doctors can even prescribe nature time. Considering the current era of AI, cell phones, and social media, where children pass through beautiful places glued to screens, this is alarming. Our Roots & Shoots program aims to get them out into nature, away from their cell phones.

Mongabay: Yeah, it’s really a different world today. The reason I started Mongabay was because of those experiences I had out in nature.

What do you think attracts people to you and your work?

Jane Goodall: Well, initially, it was about a young girl venturing into the forest—something no other young girls were doing at the time—and studying chimpanzees. National Geographic described it as “the beauty and the beast”: mysterious creatures in the jungle and a young, fair-haired girl. That imagery captured people’s attention and was a fantastic start for me.

But there are two Janes, Rhett. There’s the one talking to you now, just me, Jane. And then there’s the icon that has been built up by Geographic, Discovery, the media, and so on. This Jane has to maintain the icon’s image. And it’s because of this that I can’t simply walk through an airport unnoticed. So, what is it exactly? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe you can tell me. Can you?

Mongabay: I think it’s a combination of your origin story and the fact that you transitioned from being a researcher to an advocate for wildlife and animals, especially by conveying the idea that animals are a lot like us: They have emotions; they feel pain. This wasn’t a mainstream idea when you began advocating for it, and perhaps you were ridiculed or criticized for these beliefs. But now, much of the world has caught up with your thinking. I believe people recognize and appreciate that.

Moreover, the fact that you’re out there every day, meeting with people, and giving them hope in what could easily be perceived as a doom-and-gloom situation is significant. That would be my take on it.

Jane Goodall: I can’t fully grasp what’s happened. Honestly, I don’t truly understand it, but I intend to make the most of it.

It’s beneficial for the effort to save our planet if people care about what I say because they care about me.

I believe my message is important, and you wouldn’t be talking to me now if you didn’t think so as well.

It’s quite astonishing to me that I can reach children as young as six, as well as adults—many of whom you might not expect to be interested, yet they listen.

It’s magical, Rhett, and it’s a gift. I’ve been given two gifts that have enabled me to do this work.

One is good genes that keep me healthy enough to continue this at 90.

The other is a gift for communication: writing, which I’ve always been passionate about, and speaking, which I was terrified of I found that I could do it.

From the beginning, I made a vow to myself and my family: “In every talk I give, I strive to never say ‘um’ or ‘uh’ because I find it difficult to listen to people who do.” It seems people are afraid of silence.

Dr. Jane Goodall with orphan chimpanzee Uruhara at the Sweetwaters Sanctuary in Kenya.

Mongabay: To build off that, what would you say you most want to be remembered for?

Jane Goodall: Two things.

First, starting Roots and Shoots and giving people hope, especially young people, and getting them involved in the natural world.

Second is realizing that we’re not the only sentient, sapient beings.

We’ve come a long way since I got my start. Louis Leakey, my mentor, told me I had to get a degree. He said, “Jane, I picked you,” and this was back in 1957. He chose me to study chimps because I hadn’t been to university and my mind hadn’t been contaminated by the very reductionist opinion of science back then towards animals. But now, he said, scientists need to take you seriously, so you have to get a PhD. And we don’t have time for an undergraduate degree. He got me a place at Cambridge University to study ethology.

Well, I didn’t even know what ethology was because I hadn’t been to college. So, I was nervous. And imagine how I felt when all these erudite professors told me I’d done everything wrong.

“Chimpanzees, you shouldn’t name them, you should give them numbers.”

“You can’t talk about their personality, you can’t talk about them having a mind capable of making decisions, solving problems, you absolutely can’t talk about them having emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, despair. Those are all unique to humans.”

That’s what they thought.

But I had this wonderful teacher when I was a child, my dog. You can’t share your life with a dog, a cat, a bird, or any animal and not know that we’re not the only sentient, sapient beings on the planet.

Because chimps are biologically so like us—we share 98.7% of our DNA with them; their behavior is so like ours, kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting one another on the back, males competing for dominance in very human-like ways, including standing upright, swaggering, and shaking a fist with lips pursed in a furious scowl—reminds you of some male politicians, right? And they have a long childhood, which allows for learning through observation as well as through direct experience. So, gradually, science had to change its attitude.

And once chimps had opened the door to the idea that we’re not the only sentient, sapient beings, that opened the door to understanding all the others. So now we’re studying and finding out about the intelligence of not just elephants, whales, and dolphins, but also rats, pigs, and octopuses.

I think it’s the most exciting time for young people wanting to learn more about animal behavior than there has ever been.

Juna Jane Goodall and DaxDasilva visit the Amazon in 2023.
Juna, Jane Goodall and Dax Dasilva visit the Amazon in 2023.

Mongabay: To turn to conservation, is there an underappreciated or overlooked area that you feel, if given more attention or addressed, could have a major impact on the world?

Jane Goodall: Indeed, more and more of these issues are entering the mainstream conversation, such as the importance of wildlife corridors. This includes even the small ones, as simple as allowing natural vegetation to grow along the sides of roads and promoting urban greening. These topics are being discussed increasingly.

Then there’s permaculture and regenerative agriculture, with a growing understanding that industrial farming is degrading the soil and harming biodiversity.

When it comes to farming animals, there’s a growing recognition of the cruelty of industrial farming, as well as its role in producing significant amounts of CO2 and methane. People are beginning to acknowledge these issues.

However, the degradation of the soil is something I think many people still have not fully comprehended.

But what about you? What do you think? I’m curious to know which aspects you believe are overlooked.

Mongabay: I believe that linking conservation and the protection of nature to the tangible benefits they provide humans is essential, as, unfortunately, many decisions are made on this basis. There has been significant progress in this area over the past decade, particularly in recognizing services like water provision. A healthy and productive forest, for example, supplies water essential for agriculture. This focus on a single ecosystem value can be a reductive but effective way to highlight the importance of conservation. It’s particularly persuasive when engaging with business leaders and politicians, who often respond to such practical considerations. As science advances, demonstrating the clear links and value that healthy, productive ecosystems offer, the incentives for protecting them increase. This approach also helps to broaden the base of support for nature conservation.

Kali Biru (Blue River) on Waigeo island in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. Photo credit: Rhett Ayers Butler.
Kali Biru (Blue River) on Waigeo Island in Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett Ayers Butler/Mongabay.

Mongabay: Do you think greater empathy for animals or plants represents an overlooked opportunity in conservation?

Jane Goodall: Yes, I do believe it’s crucial. We now understand that trees in forests can communicate underground through mycorrhizal networks, sending pheromones to better prepare for an impending attack by predators. This knowledge is fascinating and increasingly recognized.

Empathy plays a vital role as well. For instance, I feel a profound sadness when old-growth forests are cut down. And of course, I have empathy for animals. This contrasts with what I was told at Cambridge: that a scientist cannot afford to have empathy for their study subjects without compromising objectivity. I’ve found this to be absolutely untrue. Empathy and objectivity can coexist. Don’t you agree?

Another point often misunderstood is our reliance on the natural world for essentials like food, air, and water. We depend on a healthy ecosystem, a complex web of plants and animals, each playing a unique role. I liken it to a tapestry: each species is a thread, and their interdependence is crucial. As species vanish, the ecosystem unravels, leading to collapse. That’s the current trajectory, and it underscores our need for healthy ecosystems.

Mongabay: I feel like kids are generally more receptive to being empathetic towards animals, plants, and other organisms.

Jane Goodall: But many adults are too. After my lectures, adults have approached me or written to me saying, “You’ve made me think differently,” “You’ve changed my life,” or “You’ve altered the way I think about animals or nature.”

Mongabay: Do you have a guiding principle that you’ve carried through your life and work?

Jane Goodall: Respect. Respect for people, other animals, and the environment. It’s very important.

Jane Goodall (second from right) with Indigenous leaders at World Conservation Congress in Hawai’i, September 2016. Image by Mongabay.

Mongabay: The conservation space, especially among certain big NGOs, has a reputation for not being very collaborative. Why do you think those barriers exist, and what could be done to encourage more cooperation?

Jane Goodall: I think NGOs are competitive and don’t want to collaborate with another NGO for fear of helping them secure more funding.

But, Rhett, I’ve come to think of humanity as being at the mouth of a very long very dark tunnel and right at the end there’s a little star shining. And that’s hope.

However, it’s futile to just sit and wonder when that star will come to us. We must gird our loins, roll up our sleeves, and navigate around all obstacles that lie between us and the star. These include climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty—since people in poverty may harm the environment to survive—soil degradation, industrial agriculture, and fossil fuel consumption, among others.

The good news is that there are people tackling each of these issues. Sadly, they often work in silos.

A simple example is a group celebrating the closure of a coal mine to reduce CO2 emissions without considering the miners who lose their jobs, fall into poverty, and may in turn harm the environment. However, there are groups teaching alternative livelihoods when industries shut down. If the coal mining group had collaborated with them, it could have created a triple win situation.

In her early days at Gombe, Jane Goodall spent many hours sitting on a high peak with binoculars or a telescope, searching the forest below for chimpanzees.

Mongabay: You’re a wonderful storyteller. Is there a story you haven’t told often, or in a while, that you’d like to share?

Jane Goodall: Golly, which story?

Well, there’s a story I love about Roots & Shoots in Goma, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, where JGI has an office. This is a region rich in minerals and thus prone to conflict with various militias.

A small group of young people, aged 10 to 12, noticed a hill that was once sacred and covered in trees, now largely deforested. They wanted to replant the trees.

Their mentor, Dario, aware of the project’s scale, didn’t want to dampen their enthusiasm. So, he secured a donation of saplings from a forester friend.

Then, he needed approval from the local militia. The leader, finding the project harmless albeit foolish, agreed but insisted that soldiers accompany the children.

Imagine these 15 children, clutching their saplings and tools, embarking on a long, hot journey to the hill, escorted by four large Congolese soldiers with AK-47s.

About 10 to 15 minutes in, the youngest, a nine-year-old girl, began to cry. Shortly after, one soldier propped his gun against a tree to help her. Within the next quarter-hour, all soldiers had joined in planting trees.

To me, this is symbolic of our broader mission. We cannot solve environmental problems while there is conflict among people.

It’s crucial for everyone to understand that every day we live, we make an impact, and to choose wisely the impact we make.

Everyone can contribute. Some may have a larger platform, but every effort counts.

Jane Goodall interviewing Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Ayers Butler for her Hopecast podcast.
Jane Goodall interviewing Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Ayers Butler for her Hopecast podcast.

Mongabay: Thank you again for visiting and speaking with me. Happy birthday.

Jane Goodall: And huge congratulations on Mongabay’s success. Honestly, it’s always my go-to source.

Mongabay is truly an exceptional organization, and everyone should turn to it for truthful information.