A Wave of Change: Jamie Margolin and Jane Goodall

PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL NICHOLS/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

 

JAMIE MARGOLIN AND JANE GOODALL

Over the last few years, youth activists have taken on the climate crisis as the cause of their lives, largely because it will determine the course of them. And yet, as these leaders and organizers tell their environmental heroes—the ones who paved the way and inspired them to fight in the first place—they can’t do it alone. Here, activist Jamie Margolin and primatologist Jane Goodall discuss the importance of forest conservation and the interconnection of species in the fight against climate change.

JAMIE MARGOLIN AND JANE GOODALL

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Jamie Margolin

It is such an honor to talk to you. I’ve really admired the work that you do for a long time. My first question for you is: Why do you think there has been such a momentum around the environmental movement in the last few years? You’ve been an environmentalist for much longer than I’ve been alive. How has it changed since when you first started?

Jane Goodall

I think one of the things that’s happened is that climate change is becoming real to more and more people. Everywhere I go, people say, “Well, it shouldn’t be hot now; it should be cold.” I mean, I used to be traveling 300 days a year—and of course, now I’m not, but when I was, I was going all over the world. Everywhere, weather patterns have changed. And I personally have seen ice melting. I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen changes and I think many other people have seen changes. Also, it’s something that’s talked about to children in school, which it wasn’t when I was growing up because there was no need. And also, I suppose the media has been discussing climate change and other environmental issues for a long time, so young people and older people are getting more exposure to what’s going on.

Jamie

Definitely. I got started with my climate work in 2016, and I think even from then to now, there’s been a huge shift in public opinion in how the climate crisis is viewed and perceived. What do you think is our path towards climate recovery, and how do you see us getting out of this whole mess? California’s on fire right now. There are all these hurricanes—at least where I live, in the United States. And we don’t exactly have a president who believes in this. So, it feels like a very dire situation.

Jane

Well, I think first of all, it’s important that people understand how this has all happened before we can think about getting out of it. And certainly, we brought the pandemic partly upon ourselves by our disrespect of the natural world and our disrespect of animals, which created situations that made it relatively easy for various pathogens—like the virus COVID-19—to hop from an animal to a person. And so, because we need to understand this, we also need to understand that it’s the same disrespect of nature that has led to climate change. It’s our destruction of the forest. It’s our pollution of the ocean. It’s our reckless burning of fossil fuels. It’s all these different activities and many more which have created the changing climate.

 

How do we start getting out of it? Well, there are different ways: One, we need to desperately protect forests because forests absorb carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, as you know. And we’re losing them at a terrifying rate. It’s the same with oceans. The oceans are losing their power to absorb CO2. They’re supersaturated because of the acidic conditions being created by pollution. It’s been estimated that—and this is a new challenge that was introduced in Davos this year—it’s been estimated that we have lost one trillion trees over I can’t remember how many years.

 

It’s been estimated that there is enough—I’m not sure I believe this, but it’s been estimated by some scientists that there is enough sort of wasteland that isn’t habitat that’s degraded by us where we can plant trees. We need to plant the right trees: We need to plant trees that are of the area. We need to plant them at the right time of year, and we need to nurture them. So, planting all of these trees, which is something that my youth program has been doing for years and years and years—we must have planted millions of trees. So, protecting forests and planting trees and cleaning up the ocean and thinking about our own environmental footstep. What do we buy? Where did it come from? Did it harm the environment? And questions like that. All of this can help us move away and at least slow down climate change and start to heal some of it, some of the horrible harm that we’ve inflicted on the natural world.

Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic
Photograph by Michael Nichols/National Geographic

Jamie

My family on my mom’s side is from Colombia, South America, and there’s a lot of environmental defenders there trying to defend the Amazon, as well as in other countries. And Colombia has one of the highest rates of murders of environmentalists. I know a lot of environmental activists who are defending certain forests and wildlife are getting killed. So, I’m wondering, How can we support people who are defending rainforests and who are defending wildlife? For those of us who live in cities, how can we stand up to help reforestation and forest protection if we live far away from forests?

Jane

Well, when it comes to the last part of your question, which is the easiest to answer, we can all plant trees and it doesn’t have to be in a forest. Protecting forest, restoring forest, planting trees around the outskirts or wherever has been destroyed and that we want to regenerate, but also urban tree planting. That also is a wonderful way of mitigating climate change.

 

Urban tree planting does several things: It cools down the city, it helps to reduce crime, and it improves health, because it turns out from many studies, we need the greenness. And when we plant trees in the city, if we plant the right trees and nurture those trees: A, we feel better, and B, wildlife is encouraged to come back and we can see birds and things like that. So, this is one way that we can make a difference. We can, at the same time, perhaps provide donations to groups that are fighting for social justice, for the people who are being attacked for defending their rainforest. This, of course, is an ongoing battle.

Jamie

I think a lot of people underestimate the importance of urban planting and caring for nature in urban spaces. I have a similar question about how people who are far away from wildlife can help, specifically animals. I know that a lot of the work that you’ve done has been with primates and other animals. I feel like there’s often a disconnect amongst people who live far away from wildlife, where we don’t get to experience the wonder of relationships with these animals and see how beautiful they are up close. How can people foster a good relationship with nature and wildlife and really care about it on that deep level if we’re somewhere far away from where these animals are in their natural places?

Jane

Well, first of all, there may be many, many people who live far away from the real wild nature that I have been lucky enough to experience. But mostly near where people are, there’s a park or a wood or something like that. And we don’t have to go far away to be absolutely enraptured by some little bird, watching the babies being fed and flying, watching the swifts come back, learning about migration, watching some of these incredible TV shows—especially now that we’re getting virtual reality, and people can actually feel they’re out in nature with some of this virtual reality. So, there are many ways. We have the Jane Goodall Institute. We have a program for young people, which by the way, is very strong in Colombia. It’s called Roots & Shoots.

 

It began in 1991 in Tanzania. It involves young people from preschool, kindergarten, university, and everything in between. They get to choose between three projects: one to help people, one to help animals, one to help the environment—because we’re all interconnected. It’s now in 68 countries and growing. And there are groups that we don’t even know about because they’re so remote and they don’t have the technology to share what they’re doing, but they’re my biggest hope for the future. These young people and others who have similar projects, they are changing the world. They are actually changing the world as we speak now.

When you study animals in the wild, you realize how they live and understand the interconnection of everything and how every little species has a role to play… So, you understand that everything is interconnected on this planet.

Jane Goodall

Jamie

Definitely. I do believe in the power of youth and young people and taking action. My next question is kind of related to this: What role does community play in conservation and creating change? I know right now, with the COVID pandemic, we’re quite isolated from each other and it can get lonely—I’ve also experienced this a lot when I’m around people who don’t quite fully grasp the severity of the climate crisis or the environmental crisis. I’m living with this anxiety and this knowledge of everything that’s happening, and it can be lonely sometimes when people just kind of discard it or act like it’s no big deal or try to play it off. And so, how can we make sure that we’re not alone in this fight and find a community so that we have people to take action with, even right now in pandemic times?

Jane

Well, I go back to our Roots & Shoots program, because the Roots & Shoots programs are mostly in schools, but they’re involving family. They’re actually bringing their family into what they’re doing. They’re changing their parents, they’re changing their grandparents, and they’re doing a lot of work out in the community: working in allotments, working in community gardens, helping to start community gardens and gardens in schools, growing organic vegetables and then perhaps donating them to a homeless shelter or a hospital. And so, community gets involved in different ways.

 

The community project that I’m proudest of was in Tanzania, in the communities around Gombe National Park—where we are still doing research that began in 1960. This project began back in 1986, when I went to Africa to learn about the plight of the chimps who were decreasing. And I flew over this tiny Gombe National Park, which had been part of the great equatorial forest belt. But by 1990, it was just a little island of forest surrounded by completely bare hills, more people living there than the land could support with its overused farmland, but they were too poor to buy food from elsewhere, struggling to survive. And that’s when it hit me: If we don’t do something to help these people find ways of living without destroying their environment, we can’t even begin to try to save the chimpanzees. So, we’ve started a program called Take Care or TACARE. It began in the 12 villages around Gombe—very holistic, everything. It’s now in 104 villages throughout the whole chimp range.

 

That program is now in six other African countries around chimp habitat. And so, the communities have understood that saving the forest is not just for the wildlife but their own future. They’ve understood how they need the forest to provide clean water and clean air, to help regulate the temperature and the rainfall, and to stabilize the ground and prevent erosion and that sort of thing. So, the communities are being given tools to protect their environment. They’ve learned to use smartphones, and they go and monitor the health in the village forest reserves where most of the chimps live. They’re very proud of it, and they upload it into a platform in the cloud. It’s really made the villages into our partners in conservation.

Jamie

That’s so amazing. What is it about primates that inspires you the most? Where did that passion come from, and what is it about them that really captivates you and that we can learn from?

Jane

Well, first of all, you have to realize that when I first went out to Africa—having saved up money and never having been to college, because we couldn’t afford it—I had no goal of studying chimpanzees. I wanted to study any animals, and Louis Leakey offered me the opportunity to go and learn about the chimps. So, what attracts me to them is that they’re so interesting. I mean, they’re all individuals, and it’s not just chimpanzees but other primates: gorillas, orangutans, baboons, monkeys. They all have their own individual personality, which was not accepted when I went to Cambridge way back when. We now know it’s the same for elephants, for whales. We’re learning about the intelligence of animals of so many different kinds. And so, it’s really all animals that fascinate me—the chimps fascinate me in particular because this study is now 60 years long. So, we can see the effect of different kinds of mothers on the development of the young and how that affects them in adult life. We’re in the fourth generation now, close to starting the fifth generation. It’s really exciting.

Jamie

That’s so cool. You got to see these families grow up and have kids and then their kids have kids and then those kids have kids. That is so amazing. You said that people at first didn’t accept the fact that animals had personalities. I feel like now, that’s something that’s widely accepted. How did you end up getting them to understand and stop undermining what you’d been finding out with your own eyes?

Photograph by Holly Andres/New York Times

Jane

Well, when I got to Cambridge, as I said, I hadn’t been to college, but Leakey insisted that I go for a PhD. He said, “There’s no time to mess about with an undergraduate degree.” So, I was the eighth person to go to Cambridge without an undergraduate degree. I was extremely nervous about the professors. And I was told that I’d done everything wrong: “You shouldn’t have given the chimpanzees names. They should have had numbers. That’s science. You can’t talk about personality, minds, reasoning, or emotion. Those are unique to us.” But luckily, when I was a child, I had a wonderful teacher who taught me that we’re not the only beings with personalities, minds, and emotions. And that teacher was Rusty, my dog, my childhood companion. Of all the dogs I’ve had, he was the most special of all.

 

I was able to stand up to the professors, and my supervisor came to Gombe and wrote to me afterwards, “In two weeks, I’ve learned more about animals than the rest of my life put together.” So, my sternest critic then became my greatest help. And he taught me to think in scientific terms so that the other scientists couldn’t tear me to pieces.

 

Now, thinking about intelligence, I mean, here’s an example: Pigcasso. Not Picasso, but Pigcasso. I’ve met Pigcasso, and her paintings are selling for hundreds of dollars. She was rescued from slaughter. She was on her way to become bacon. So, when I’m talking to people about the fact that it’s our heavy meat eating that’s causing so much environmental damage and helping in a big way to increase climate change, I show them Pigcasso. And they say, “I wish you hadn’t done that. I can’t eat bacon now.” Or “I can’t eat pork now.” I’m thinking, Yes, that’s why I showed it to you. Of course. And it’s a much better way of changing people than attacking them and being aggressive. I don’t think that works at all.

Jamie

It never works. Because then they just double down. Do you think that the whole sentiment of superiority that only we humans are beings who can have feelings and who can have emotions and personalities is what allows us to justify animal agriculture and all of these horrible ways that we interact with nature and treat our environment? Do you think it’s because of that sentiment, that if more people understood that animals are beings with personalities as well, then people wouldn’t be so indifferent to animal agriculture?

Jane

Well, it would be harder for them to treat animals the way we do. It’s not just the intensive animal farming, which is hideous, destroying the environment, increasing pollution, providing methane gas during digestion, wasting water, all the rest of it. But when hunting them—trophy hunting, which I think is despicable. There’s the horrible medical experimentation that’s going on. Trapping animals. I mean, we’re so horribly cruel, but as more and more people understand that animals are symbiont, it’s going to be harder for them to behave that way. Although as I keep saying to people, we can be extremely horrible to each other, too.

Jamie

Yeah. What can ethology teach us about sustainability and living in harmony with nature?

Jane

Well, I think when you study animals in the wild, you realize how they live and understand the interconnection of everything and how every little species has a role to play. It may seem not to matter if one species becomes extinct, but maybe it was the main food source of another creature. And this can lead to a ripple effect and has, in several cases, led to a complete ecosystem collapse. So, you understand that everything is interconnected on this planet. We realized the importance of protecting biodiversity and protecting the forest and the peatlands and the grasslands and the ocean. And of course, to live sustainably, we have to stop this ridiculous, stupid idea that we can have unlimited economic development with finite natural resources.

Jamie

Exactly.

Jane

I’d like to really emphasize the main message of Roots & Shoots, which is for everyone: Every single day we live, each one of us makes an impact on the planet. And we have a choice. We can choose what to buy, what to wear, what to eat. But then, we have to realize that there are all those people out there living in terrible poverty who do not have the luxury of choice. They have to cut the last tree in their desperation to grow more food for their family or make charcoal, or in an urban area, they have to buy the cheapest junk food. They can’t afford to say, “Is it cheap because it harmed the environment or is it cheap because of child slave labor?” So, we have to eliminate poverty, and that’s what we’re doing with our TACARE program.

 

We have to think about our own individual environmental footprints because the lifestyle of most of us, and I’m including myself, is not really sustainable. And I compare it to when I grew up, during the war when everything was rationed. I’m so glad I grew up then because children today take things for granted—at least in the Western world. And we do have to realize that today, there’s about 7.8 billion people on the planet and, already, we’re using up natural resources in some areas faster than nature can replenish them. It’s predicted that by 2050, there’ll be 9.7 billion or closer to 10 billion. So, what’s going to happen? What’s going to happen? And we’re thinking about this as something we address in Tanzania. In the villages we work in, the women don’t want huge families. They want to educate their children. And they love learning about family planning so that they can have fewer children and educate them nicely.

 

But we also have to realize that one child in the developed world with an affluent family uses up so many more natural resources than probably 10 children in an African village. So, these are the things we have to think about. What do we do about corruption? How do we come out of COVID-19 and develop this new green economy that everybody’s talking about so that we can live more sustainably? How do we develop a new relationship with the natural world and with animals? How do we do it? And I think it’s the young people. They’re so enthusiastic and their minds are working, and some of them are fantastic. That gives me the greatest hope: this energy, enthusiasm, commitment, dedication, and sheer hard work shown by so many young people today.

Jamie

Thank you. That is a wonderful note to end on. And I also love that you emphasize the intersection of the fight for women’s rights with climate justice. I’ve read so many articles about how the advancement of women’s rights, the right to plan for their own families and bodies and all of these things, intersects with the climate crisis. And people often try to separate them: Women’s rights are here, climate justice is here, racial justice is here, poverty is another issue, when in reality, they’re all part of the same thing that we need to fight. So, thank you so much for all of the work you do. One of the things that sparked my passion and environmental work is a lot of documentaries. And I grew up watching documentaries featuring your work, which really inspired me to jump in and take action. So, thank you for inspiring me and my generation.

Jane

Well, I think what you’re doing is inspiring! So, thank you.

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

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In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

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