Jane Goodall on Impossible Burgers, Tarzan, and the Green New Deal

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Michael Christopher Brown

Fifty-nine years ago, Jane Goodall, an animal lover with no formal academic training, traveled to Gombe, Tanzania, to observe chimpanzees for famed anthropologist Louis Leakey. Within months, the 26-year-old witnessed a chimp extracting termites from a mound using long blades of grass, upending mankind’s very understanding of itself: Humans were no longer the only species to make tools, no longer unequivocally superior. She went on to discover that chimps,like humans, have complex social and familial hierarchies, sharp intelligence, and deep-seated wells of emotion. Goodall has spent the rest of her life devoted to conserving the world they live in, one that’s disappearing due to climate change and the interests of big business. “What we’re doing to the planet is shocking and irresponsible, and it’s all done for making money,” she says. “We’ve got to understand we need money to live, but it goes wrong when we live for money.” At 85, the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace travels over 300 days a year, spreading the gospel of conservation. She spoke to ELLE from the institute’s U.S. headquarters in Washington, DC.

The kind of slow and steady observation you did for years contrasts so much with the fast-paced, technologically driven world we live in. Growing up today, would your story have been the same?

I think my story would have been very different. Screens, in a way, are killing us. I’d hesitate to say whether they totally stifle imagination, but they certainly would have stifled
mine. I read Tarzan when I was 10 and fell in love with him, and that’s what triggered my dream of going to Africa and living with wild animals. My mother saved up to take me to an early Johnny Weissmuller film, and after about 10 minutes, I burst into tears. I told her, “But that wasn’t Tarzan!” My imagination had created my own picture of Tarzan, and that’s something that the modern world certainly prevents children from doing.

Part of your success in the field was that you were an outsider, untrained, looking at things with a fresh eye. It’s an argument that’s been made to support, among other people, our current president. When is inexperience a good thing, and when is it something to be avoided?

Well, when I went out into the field, I had spent hours and hours in the garden studying animals, so in that way I wasn’t inexperienced at all. Leakey was particularly pleased that I wasn’t, as he called it, steeped in the reductionist way of behavioral science at the time. But I think politicians need to be experienced. They need to have had life experience, experience in the needs of other people, in the particular situations around the world.

Has your observation of the animal world in any way helped you navigate the political one?

I did become more of a people watcher, which came from hours spent watching animals. But I think the world we live in today is so utterly remote from the world of wild animals that it doesn’t help, really.

Yet since your first discovery, you’ve been particularly politically adept at raising money and awareness for your cause. You wrote in a Time op-ed—and have spoken many times before—about having the media emphasize your legs and blond hair: “If my legs helped me get publicity for the chimps, that was useful.” It didn’t bother you one bit?

The National Geographic Society liked this image of a young woman with the chimps, sort of like Beauty and the Beast. If my legs helped me get favor with the Geographic, well, good old legs! We were so different back then; we had a different outlook. Look at the pictures. They were pretty jolly nice legs! I wasn’t ashamed of them.

Jane Goodall with a Chimpanzee

Goodall with one of her research subjects in Gombe National Park in northern Tanzania.

BettmannGetty Images

How long have you been a vegetarian?

Ever since I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation, which describes the conditions in factory farms. I looked at meat on my plate and thought, This symbolizes fear, pain, death. I stopped just like that.

Do you think that once we understand more about animals’ cognitive capabilities, eating them will become a thing of the past?

It’s not just their intellect, it’s the fact that they have emotions—happiness, sadness, despair. There’s also the intense harm to the environment from having billions of suffering animals needing to be fed: clearing forests to grow the grain to feed them; the masses of fossil fuels and greenhouse gases used to take grain to the animals, the animals to the slaughterhouse, the meat to the table.

Have you eaten any of the new non-meat meats out there, like the Impossible Burger?

I have, but I can’t stand it because it tastes like meat! And I now loathe the taste.

What is your biggest fear for the world your great-grandchildren will inherit?

That if we don’t change behavior soon, if we don’t get a new mind-set, if we don’t stop always putting economic development over the needs of nature, their world will be a very, very grim one. We depend on nature, on forests and oceans breathing out oxygen and absorbing CO2. They’re losing the ability to do that.

United Nations General Assembly

Goodall with her fellow UN Messenger of Peace and environmental activist Leonardo Dicaprio last September.

Giles ClarkeGetty Images

Do you see any promise in the Green New Deal?

Every little movement toward living more sustainably helps. But we need to do much, much more, much more quickly.

Which is why you’re on the road more than 300 days a year?

Right. I raise awareness but also grow our youth movement, Roots & Shoots, which empowers young people around the world to choose projects to help people, animals, and the environment. Everything is interconnected, and these young people are changing the world.

You once wrote, “When I was a little girl, I used to dream as a man, because I wanted to do things that women didn’t do back then.” Do you dream as a woman now?

Oh, I dream as me now.

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of ELLE.

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