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The Enduring Hope of Jane Goodall

17 minute read

In the early years of World War II, when Jane Goodall was around 6 years old, she was often woken from her sleep by the blare of air-raid sirens. The sound warned that Nazi planes were flying over Bournemouth, the English seaside town where Goodall’s family had moved at the outbreak of the war. Her younger sister Judy would be up like a shot, bounding down the stairs to the bomb shelter. But Goodall refused to budge. “I did not want to leave my bed,” she says. “They had to take me down with all my bedclothes.”

Eight decades later, Goodall, now 87, is standing in the living room of the same house, an imposing redbrick Victorian building with cavernous ceilings, thick carpets and heavy armchairs. The bomb shelter is still here, now home to a washing machine and a fridge. In the rest of the house, wooden shelves are crammed with books, figurines and photographs—souvenirs from Goodall’s life as the world’s best-known naturalist. Her grandmother bought the house in the 1930s, and it has the thick layer of bric-a-brac of a home occupied by the same family for many years.

The new occupants on this late September morning are a camera crew, moving between rooms in search of furniture to take to the garden for a photograph. Goodall, though, is still, arms crossed and eyebrows raised. Her voice cuts through the commotion. Speaking softly yet with conviction, she suggests the crew try her preferred location: her attic bedroom. She exudes the same stubbornness as the girl who clung to her bed in wartime, then leads the group upstairs, victorious.

Goodall’s quiet determination has powered her through a lifetime of waiting for others to come around. In 1960, at 26, she sat for months in the forests of Tanzania, biding her time until chimpanzees accepted her presence and she could observe them up close. When she finally did, she made the seismic discovery that they use tools, transforming our understanding of the relationship between humans and animals and catapulting her to global fame. In 1962, while pursuing her Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge in the study of animal behavior, when professors criticized her for using human names and emotions to describe chimps, she says, “I didn’t confront them. I just quietly went on doing what I knew was right.” Although she learned to couch her observations in more scientific language, her contention that chimps are intelligent social animals is now widely accepted and has paved the way for much tighter restrictions on their use in lab testing.

Jane Goodall Time Magazine cover
Photograph by Nadav Kander for TIME

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After Goodall shifted from research to activism in the 1980s, her steady, non-confrontational approach allowed her to become one of the most prolific environmentalists in modern history. She leveraged her own life story—drawing on the powerful image of a lone woman living among the animals—to get people excited about environmentalism in an era when it was a fringe activity. Through the Jane Goodall Institute, which she founded in 1977, she fundraised for habitat conservation projects, poverty-alleviation programs and animal sanctuaries. The JGI now has chapters in 24 countries, from the U.S. to the United Arab Emirates. In 2004, she became a Dame Commander of the British Empire.

And as she traversed the world, she added countless new stories to her repertoire: on history, animal behavior, human ingenuity and more. These, rather than protest, became her campaign tools. “If I’m trying to change somebody who disagrees—I choose not to be holier-than-thou,” she says, perched on a well-loved armchair. “You’ve got to reach the heart. And I do that through storytelling.”

Before the pandemic, Goodall traveled 300 days out of the year to speak to school assemblies, at conferences and on talk shows in an effort to instill some of her determination in others. Through her stories, she has built a popular brand of environmentalism centered around hope—a word that has appeared in the titles of four of 21 books for adults Goodall has published since 1969.

A fifth comes in The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, co-authored with Douglas Abrams and Gail Hudson, a memoir cum manifesto on the centrality of hope to activism. The book, coming Oct. 19 in the U.S. and next year in the U.K., documents three sets of interviews between Abrams and Goodall. In their conversations, Abrams questions Goodall on how she can remain hopeful despite the environmental destruction and violent human conflicts she has witnessed, as well as the grief she has experienced, in her lifetime. (Goodall lost her second husband to cancer, less than five years after marrying him, in 1980.) She gives four reasons: “the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of young people and the indomitable human spirit,” fleshing out these concepts with the color of her life.

Something about her—her enthusiasm, the brightness of her eyes, the detail in her unusual experiences—leaves readers and audiences feeling hopeful that it’s possible, with enough effort, for us to save the planet, and ourselves, from environmental destruction. “She’s an amazing woman,” naturalist filmmaker David Attenborough told TIME in 2019, praising her ability to inspire. “She has an extraordinary, almost saintly naiveté.”

The tenacity of Goodall’s hope, in the face of the crises we now endure, might seem naive. Despite decades of institutional efforts and dedicated activism by millions across the globe, humans have driven the planet to the brink of ecological and climate catastrophe. With a long-awaited U.N. climate summit just weeks away, scientists say world leaders have failed to even pledge enough carbon-emissions cuts to make a livable future, let alone begun to deliver on their promises. The situation has led a younger generation of activists to take a much more confrontational approach than Goodall’s.

Goodall launched her career in 1960 with a trip to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park to study chimpanzeesCBS/Getty Images
In the 1980s, Goodall began to shift away from field research toward environmental activismGetty Images

Goodall says she understands the bleak projections from climate scientists and the economic and political structures that hinder change. But she argues that hope, and her mission to spread it, are nothing short of necessary for the survival of humanity. “If you don’t hope that your actions can make a difference, then you sink into apathy,” she says. “If young people succumb to the doom and gloom—if they lose hope—that’s the end.”

Read more: Can Hurricane Ida Move Public Opinion on Climate Change?

In March 2020, Goodall had just climbed into a car on the wide, tree-lined street outside the Bournemouth house, the first step on her journey to an event in Brussels. It was one of dozens of trips she had planned for the year, which would take her to cities and forests all over the world, to her house in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and back to Bournemouth to meet with Abrams. But then her sister Judy ran out of the house and told her to come back inside: the event had just been canceled. It was the start of COVID-19 shutdowns in the U.K. and an abrupt end to Goodall’s life on the road.

The 19 months Goodall has now spent in her family home, accompanied by Judy and Judy’s daughter and grandchildren, amount to the longest time she has lived there since school, and the longest continuous period she has stayed in any one place in decades. Over the past year and a half, she has traded hotels and auditoriums for her bedroom, a narrow attic room with a low ceiling, crowded by chests and bookcases, littered with gifts and mementos: a long gray Andean condor feather, a brightly printed South American cloth, dozens of old photos. In the corner, there’s the single bed where she sleeps, and within arm’s reach, a narrow desk, which holds the only two totems of our time: a laptop and a ring light.

Goodall’s determination to spread her message has kept her up here for hours each day, doing, on average, three virtual lectures or interviews between breakfast and bedtime. “That’s including weekends,” she says, both proud and a little weary. “I even had something on Christmas Day and on my birthday.” It’s been hard, she says, to stare into the tiny green light of her laptop camera all day. “When you’re giving a lecture to 5,000, 10,000 people, you say something funny and people laugh, or you say something moving and you see eyes being wiped,” she says. “But if you don’t get the same energy into it, there’s no point doing it.”

If she’d had the option, Goodall says, she would have spent the pandemic period completely alone. “I’ve always loved being by myself,” she says. “If I could have chosen, I would have been in a house with nobody else, and a dog.” She pauses to look disapprovingly at Bean, the gray whippet snoozing on a chair nearby. Occasionally Bean looks up, then noses back beneath a leopard-print blanket to keep the light out of his eyes. “Not a dog like that,” Goodall says, chuckling. “A proper dog. He’s more like a cat.”

During the pandemic, she has maintained an intense schedule of video appearances to spread her messageNBC/Getty Images

Goodall originally wanted to spend her life alone with animals. It’s the dream that sent her to Tanzania’s Gombe National Park in 1960. Although she had no formal scientific education, Goodall had managed to impress Louis Leakey, a renowned paleo-anthropologist, with her passion for animals on a trip to Kenya with a school friend in 1957. Leakey secured funding to send Goodall to Gombe. Her observations of the chimpanzees there dispelled a then widely held belief that humans were the only animals who used tools, or had emotions or personalities. After the tool discovery, Leakey famously wrote to her, “Ah! We must now redefine man, redefine tools, or accept chimpanzees as human!”

Goodall’s mother Margaret came with her, answering a demand of the British research body that funded her trip for her to have a companion, and supported her daughter through the frustrating months in which the chimps ran away whenever she approached. But it was when she was alone, crawling through undergrowth or climbing mountains, that Goodall says she experienced a “spiritual connection” with the forest and its animals. “If you’re alone, you feel part of nature,” she says. “If you’re with one other person, even somebody you love, it’s two human beings in nature—and you can’t be lost in it.”

Goodall was among the last generation of researchers to spend time in the natural world before the scale of humans’ impact on it became a major topic of discussion in the scientific community. In 1986, at a primatology conference she helped organize in Chicago, she attended a session on habitat loss around the world. “After realizing what was going on, it was never quite the same, because then I felt I’ve got to try and save it,” she says. She still feels the spiritual connection when in nature, but there’s something else there, too: “There’s a little plea in it—a plea for help.”

That new understanding would transform Goodall’s life, taking her from the isolation of field and library research to a frenetic schedule of travel, charity work and activism for the next 35 years.

She describes in The Book of Hope an essential realization: if she wanted to protect nature, she would have to take a humanistic approach, striving to alleviate the conditions that drive people to hunt vulnerable animals or cut down trees. In 1991, she set up Roots and Shoots, a youth-activism program that now has local groups across 60 countries, in which young people are running more than 5,800 community projects to support people, animals and the planet. Three years later, she launched the Jane Goodall Institute’s flagship conservation program, which invests in social programs in villages in Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond, and then enlists villagers to help with tree planting and forest monitoring. (Marc and Lynne Benioff, TIME’s owners and co-chairs, have been among Goodall’s philanthropic supporters.) Goodall also began advocating for widening access to birth control in order to prevent population growth from putting too much pressure on natural resources.

Over the years, elements of Goodall’s philosophy have attracted criticism from some in the environmental movement. Some disagree with her focus on voluntary population control in developing countries, for example, when the wealthy contribute so much more to climate change and pollution. Others see the individual lifestyle changes that Goodall cites as inspiring examples of how “everyone can do their bit”—such as adopting a vegetarian diet or using less plastic—as a distraction from the much bigger changes that businesses and governments need to make, and a little hypocritical, given how often she flies.

Reflecting from her chair in Bournemouth, Goodall says she sees her ideas and her career as a pragmatic response to the crises. “We need to address it on every single side we can,” she says. “I try to be as environmentally friendly as I can with the life that I was sort of forced to lead.”

Goodall, pictured in Tanzania in 1989, has long valued solitude: “If you’re alone, you feel part of nature,” she saysChris Steele-Perkins—Magnum Photos

There’s a hint of martyrdom in Goodall’s use of the word forced. In reality, although she romanticizes the solitude she had in Gombe, she acknowledges that connecting with people gives her energy. Her eyes light up as she picks up the objects she has collected on her travels, using them as prompts to tell stories. And she says she has “five to 12” friends in every big city around the world.

There’s no denying the success of her efforts in spreading hope. Per the JGI, at least 100,000 young people are currently engaged in activism or restoration projects through the Roots and Shoots program. Vanessa Nakate, a prominent 24-year-old climate activist from Uganda, says she read about Goodall’s life online a few years before she began her own work. “Long before I learned about how bio-diversity loss is linked to climate change, I took from Jane’s work an instinctual understanding that protecting our ecosystems is so important,” she says.

For Abrams, Goodall’s co-author, one moment from their talks explained the appeal of her brand of hopeful activism. He asked her if, from what she had seen, she believed humans tended more toward good or evil. She responded that they have equal capacity for both. “The environment we create will determine what prevails,” she told him. “In other words, what we nurture and encourage wins.”

Her hope isn’t a denial of reality, Abrams says. It’s more of a choice: “Whether we focus on the devastation or the regeneration. Whether we focus on the possibility for good, or the inevitability of evil.”

Read more: A Climate Solution Lies Deep Under the Ocean—But Accessing It Could Have Huge Environmental Costs

The devastation of the planet increasingly demands our focus. Extended droughts, destructive storms and unprecedented wildfires are fast becoming part of the daily news cycle. Climate scientists say these events are just the warning shot, with climate-change impacts set to become more frequent and intense—even if we stop emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow. In November, world leaders will gather for COP26, the U.N. climate conference, where they are due to scale up their emissions targets. Expectations are high, but many activists fear the conference will end without strong agreements.

As usual, Goodall is determined to find hope. “I won’t say I’m optimistic, but I have all my fingers crossed,” she says. “The positive thing is that there’s so much more awareness. There’s so much more pressure from the public.”

But the urgency of this moment has led many activists to doubt whether heightened consciousness will be enough to trigger the drastic changes we need. Kumi Naidoo, a South African anti-apartheid activist and former Greenpeace director, says Goodall was “ahead of her time” on raising awareness and that her present-day work is unquestionably valuable. But, he adds, “All of us in the environmental movement, especially those of us who have been around for a while, must acknowledge that notwithstanding our best efforts, our sacrifices, our hard work, we have not delivered the results we set out to deliver.”

A younger generation of activists has taken up more aggressive strategies to demand radical, systemic change, focusing more on the stakes for humans than for wildlife—an approach Naidoo argues is essential for forcing action. International networks such as the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion have blocked roads, occupied buildings and created disruptive spectacles in city centers. Millions of students are regularly skipping school to protest, bearing slogans that excoriate adult politicians.

Goodall says she can understand why young activists feel they need to be more assertive. Still, for her own part, a softer touch has always felt best, she says. “But then I’ve never tried the aggressive route. I couldn’t—it’s just not me.” She believes confrontational tactics can backfire, prompting those in power to pay lip service to demands without actually changing their minds. “If you can get into the heart with a story, you may not know at the time, but people will go on thinking.”

Her own story, meanwhile, continues—although not exactly in the same way as before. She will begin traveling again next year but says she will never resume the “crazy” schedule she maintained before the pandemic, having found she can reach so many more people online. “At 87, one never knows quite what the future holds. Still, I have good genes for a long life on both sides of my family.” She’ll work to spread hope and inspire people for as long as she can, for the sake of future generations. “I’m about to leave the world, and leave it behind me with all the mess,” she says. “Young people have to grow up into it. They need every bit of help they can.”

As if remembering her mission, Goodall picks up her laptop. “I want to read you a poem,” she says, enlarging the text so she can see it. The piece she chooses is by Edgar Albert Guest, a rhythmic, staccato quasi nursery rhyme titled, “It Couldn’t Be Done.” She reads with the joyful, kindly spirit of a grandmother speaking to a child, and it’s hard not to feel warmed by the encouragement. “Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing that ‘cannot be done,’ and you’ll do it.” She looks up, eyes flashing. “Don’t you love that?”

With reporting by Alejandro de la Garza and Julia Zorthian/New York and Dan Stewart/London

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com