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.
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?
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.
Yeah. What can ethology teach us about sustainability and living in harmony with nature?
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.
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.
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.
Well, I think what you’re doing is inspiring! So, thank you.