World renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall believes Australia is “not doing terribly well” when it comes to preserving the natural world.
Calling the approval of new coal mines "disturbing", she said our governments need to be turning away from fossil fuels – which in terms of their environmental impact "couldn't be worse" – and embracing renewables like wind and solar instead.
“How can you have a power station powered by coal today when we know that burning coal is the worst fossil fuel for creating these greenhouse gases,” she said.
Highlighting climate change and the loss of biodiversity as her biggest concerns, Dr Goodall said she hoped there was growing awareness that we as a species were not living in a bubble, but were part of the natural world.
"We actually depend on it for more or less everything," she said.
"And what we depend on are healthy ecosystems, and as you get species becoming extinct it’s like you tear holes in this beautiful web of life and eventually it can become so tattered that you get ecosystem collapse."
Pondering why the fossil fuel industry remains influential in many countries, she suggest it’s primarily down to one reason.
“It’s for immediate profit and power instead of thinking of the effect of your actions on future generations and the health of the planet,” she said.
Disrespect of environment has consequences, Goodall warns
Speaking with Yahoo News Australia from her home in Bournemouth in the UK, Dr Goodall said she was busier than ever despite being locked down for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
She believes the one silver lining of the pandemic is that people are beginning to understand that our disrespect for animals and the environment has consequences.
Dr Goodall rose to prominence in the 1960s for her work with chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania, with her discoveries about tool use in particular leading to a rethink of what makes humans distinct from apes.
At 87 years of age, she is working extraordinarily long hours to communicate her message via Skype and Zoom that it’s not too late to take action to save the planet.
“The message is that we are destroying this planet and there is a window of time in which we can start to heal some of the harm that we’ve done and at least slow down climate change and biodiversity loss,” she said.
“But the window is closing and we need to get together now (and) every one of us take some action and remember that every single day we live we make some impact, and we can choose what sort of impact we make.”
Calling the idea that there can be unlimited economic development using finite resources “crazy”, Dr Goodall said many people are living “unsustainable lifestyles”.
“We have growing human populations and growing populations of our livestock, so if we carry on with business as usual, it’s pretty grim, isn’t it?” she said.
“There is supposed to be 7.2 or maybe 7.3 billion of us on the planet now and by 2050 it’s meant to be closer to 10 billion, so if we carry on with business as usual, I say what’s going to happen?”
Why helping people helps the environment
While researchers have continued the work Dr Goodall began 60 years ago in Gombe National Park, she has expanded her focus to more broadly tackle the planetary degradation affecting chimpanzees and other wildlife living in the forest.
“When I first got there in 1960, it was part of this great equatorial forest belt that stretched right over to the west coast,” she said.
“When I flew over in the late eighties I was shocked to see a little island of forest that’s the tiny Gombe National Park, and all around were bare hills, more people than the land could support, too poor to buy food from elsewhere, farmland overused, infertile.
“And this is when it hit me, if we don’t help these people find ways of making a living without destroying their environment we can’t even begin to save chimpanzees or anything else.”
Dr Goodall’s institute now engages in restoring overused farmland without the use of chemicals, community education, and providing micro-credit loans to develop environmentally sustainable businesses in Africa.
Her work in Tanzania has a particular focus on empowering women through education, which she says leads to less poverty.
Encouraging love of animals in children
Dr Goodall believes allowing children to experience the natural world firsthand is key to saving the planet and is thankful her mother encouraged her own curiosity.
“She supported my love of animals in a way that lots of mothers wouldn’t have,” she said.
“So when I took worms to bed at one and a half, she said: 'It looked as if you were wondering how do they walk without legs.'
“Lots of mothers would have been angry because of course the bed was full of earth.
“She just said: 'I think they’ll die, they need to be outside.' So we took them out.”
Encouraging other children to spend time with animals, grow plants and “mess about” in the dirt is a key component in ensuring the planet has a future, Dr Goodall believes.
“How can you care about something if you don’t have real hands-on experience, and that’s what we need children to have,” she said.
“They’ve got to learn to love to want to care to save the planet.”
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