Politics & Society

Dr. Jane Goodall Discusses Human Environmental Impacts—and How to Counteract Them

Written by MasterClass

Nov 21, 2018 • 5 min read

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Dr. Jane Goodall Teaches Conservation

Between air pollution and the depletion of natural resources, humans are negatively impacting the environment more and more each day. As the human population expands and more countries move towards a consumerist culture, large areas of the earth face a devastating loss of ancient natural environments, species, and water—just to name a few. Climate change—which is occuring due to over dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels, water pollution, the destruction of the ozone layer, and soil erosion loom—threatens the way we live our lives.

Anthropologist and environment activist Dr. Jane Goodall—best known for her work with wild chimpanzees in Africa—wants us all to sit up and do something about it.

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How Dr. Goodall Became an Environmental Activist

Dr. Goodall knows the moment when she changed from scientist to activist. The year was 1986, and Dr. Goodall had published a book called Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. The head of the Chicago Academy of Sciences told Dr. Goodall that her book warranted a conference, so they held one.

At the conference, scientists talked about different aspects of chimp behavior in different areas and their various habitats and cultures. There was one session on conservation, however, that opened Dr. Goodall’s eyes. What she learned in the conservation lectures was appalling. Scientists showed slides and movies of the destruction of forest habitats. They had data that showed declining chimpanzee numbers. They discussed another problem, the bushmeat trade, which is the commercial hunting of wild animals for food. Chimp mothers were shot so that their babies could be stolen to sell for entertainment, to circuses and zoos for medical research.

At the same conference there was also a session about the living conditions of captive chimps. Dr. Goodall learned about the very cruel training of chimps used in entertainment. She watched secretly filmed footage of chimpanzees in medical research laboratories. The bare cages surrounded by bars in which the chimps were kept were only five feet by five feet. After seeing these images, Dr. Goodall couldn’t sleep for nights. She didn’t know it yet, but she would leave that conference an activist.

“I went to that conference as a scientist with a wonderful life, planning to go on studying chimpanzees in Gombe and without making any conscious decision, I left as an activist,” Dr. Goodall says. “Because I knew I had to try and do something for these chimpanzees who had already given me so much.”

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Negative Environmental Impact on Humans and the Earth

In addition to learning about the atrocities chimps faced, Dr. Goodall was also discovering the problems faced by humans living near chimp habitats. These people were challenged by poverty, hunger, a lack of education and health care, competition for diminishing resources, and a population growth that was threatening their existence. That’s when it hit Dr. Goodall: How can we, she pondered, even try to save these chimpanzees while people living around the borders of their forest are also in a terrible situation?

“It was shocking,” Dr. Goodall says. “It was absolutely shocking, because everywhere people were showing slides or movies of the destruction of the habitat. Chimpanzee numbers that were dropping.”

Dr. Goodall asked herself how it was possible that we humans, the most intellectual creatures that have ever walked on Earth, were destroying our only home. She saw a disconnect between the clever mind and the human heart. Instead of making major decisions based on how human activities will affect future generations, we make decisions depending on how they affect us right now, even if it means depleting our supply of natural resources and increasing our carbon footprint.

Dr. Goodall realized that we have become caught up in a materialistic and greedy world, and that this has dire consequences for the future. We are so interested in money and personal gain that we are neglecting important things like collective human health, clean air, clean water, and a healthy environment. She resolved to do something about it before it was too late.

The Long-Term Effects of Human Impact on the Environment

Dr. Goodall’s convictions as an activist who cares about the human impact on the environment were reaffirmed in 1991, when she flew over Gombe National Park for the first time since she had arrived in 1960. At that time, Gombe National Park was a massive part of the Equatorial Forest Belt, which stretched along the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika, through Burundi, and curled around through Uganda to continue through the Great Congo Basin and through West Africa. What she saw in 1991 was not the lush forest she knew; only a small, barren oasis remained.

Another incident that drove home how human beings affect the environment happened in Nebraska, where Dr. Goodall likes to see the annual migration of sandhill cranes. Now when she flies over the land, she is hurt by what she sees. From the plane, she gazes at machinery that drills deep down into the aquifer, taking water in order to irrigate land that isn’t suitable for the crops being grown there, like corn. Dr. Goodall sees this as stealing water; the environment which was once abundant and flourishing is now dried up.

The water has been drained for agriculture so that a handful of people can become wealthy, but what these people don’t realize—or perhaps do not care to realize—is that they are causing people and animals to suffer by depleting the environment of water. While Dr. Goodall is hopeful when she sees that there are still hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes in Nebraska, building up resources for their long migrations to the far north, she is still concerned about the problems that our planet faces.

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Dr. Goodall’s Hope for the Future

Dr. Goodall knows that sometimes it feels as though these problems are insurmountable, but if we give up, we lose hope about the future. We must think about the world we want to pass on to our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There are systems in place and government organizations that focus on lessening the negative impacts to the environment; the United States has the Environmental Protection Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme helps countries pass policies that focus on environmental conservation.

As for what we can do on a daily basis? Dr. Goodall hopes you feel empowered. We are each responsible for lessening our carbon footprint, any way we can. Ditch the plastic and the paper; go strawless and digital, take your own bags to the store. Upcycle and recycle: buy second-hand or vintage or support companies that repurpose materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. You can make change in your own life every single day. You may not change the whole world, but the way you interact with your friends, with your parents, with animals, and with the environment all make a difference. When millions and billions of people are making these right, ethical choices and know that what they’re doing makes a difference every day, we all begin to feel that we are playing a major part in creating a new awareness and a new way of thinking.