“Young people, once they know the problems, they are changing the world.”
Those are the hopeful words legendary English anthropologist and conservationist Jane Goodall shares with audiences through a new IMAX documentary called "Jane Goodall: Reasons for Hope" screening at the Museum of Science in Boston through April.
The film follows the 89-year-old Goodall as she travels the globe to tell stories of people taking action to protect the environment.
Following a screening last week at the Museum of Science, Goodall told GBH News that she views hope as not about wishful thinking but about action.
"I see humanity as at the mouth of a long, dark tunnel. Right at the end, there’s a little star. That's hope," Goodall said. “But we don't sit at the mouth of the tunnel and hope the star will come to us. No, we have to roll up our sleeves and climb over, crawl under, work our way around all the obstacles that lie between us and hope, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, poverty, over-consumption and destroying the soil."
The good news, she said, is that people are already working to solve many of those problems. The new documentary highlights several of those stories.
With action, Goodall believes there’s still time to slow down climate change and the loss of biodiversity, but she acknowledges that things look bleak.
"You can't help but be depressed,” she said. “So, how do you then cope? You cope by saying, ‘I can't save the world, but what can I do locally? What do I care about?’"
"You can't help but be depressed. So, how do you then cope? You cope by saying, ‘I can't save the world, but what can I do locally? What do I care about?’"Jane Goodall
One thing Goodall is most optimistic about is the activism of young people. The Jane Goodall Institute created a youth organization called Roots and Shoots that's working in 60 countries to motivate young people to protect the environment and wildlife.
Goodall said she's not so sure, though, about the approach many young activists are taking. Last month, the group Extinction Rebellion staged a number of protests in Boston, including blocking traffic in front of South Station. Goodall said that approach has raised awareness, but it can backfire by angering people who might otherwise support the cause.
"OK, you want to demonstrate against, you know, the fact that companies aren't paying attention and they’re continuing to burn fossil fuel,” she said. “Well, go and demonstrate peacefully outside their offices or outside the government. Don’t disrupt traffic.”
She says she learned her own approach to activism at an early age.
"My mother taught me right from the beginning: you must listen," she said.
Once she understands a little about someone she disagrees with, Goodall said, she tries to find a story that will resonate with them.
"Because reaching the head with arguments ain't gonna work,” she said. “Because they will be only thinking about ‘How can I refute this silly woman?’"
Beyond teaching communication strategies, Goodall says her mother encouraged her pursuit of what became her life’s work.
"She didn't get angry when I took earthworms to bed with me,” Goodall remembered. "I was one and a half. And she looked at me and she said, 'You were looking so intently. I think maybe you were wondering, how do they walk without legs?' So, instead of getting mad at me, as many mothers would, because obviously the bed was full of earth, she just said, 'I think they might die. We better take them back to the garden.'”
In 1960, when a 26-year-old Goodall had the opportunity to begin what would become her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in Tanzania, she said authorities told her it was unheard of for a young woman to do that by herself.
"So, in the end, they said, ‘OK, but she can't come alone,’” she remembered. “So, who volunteered to come? That same amazing, supportive mother.”
Goodall would go on to spend decades in the rainforest. She said it was the best time of her life. Her research fundamentally changed the way the world understood primates.
At a conference 26 years later, Goodall learned about widespread threats to chimpanzees’ habitat and their use in medical research. She said she went to that conference as a scientist but left as an activist.
“I knew I had to do something to help," she said. "It was a decision that seemed to be made for me."
Goodall has devoted the rest of her career to traveling the world and spreading a message of conservation.
When she first began her research, Goodall had no formal training or education, which she says was a benefit.
"I think that if you have not been forced into thinking in a reductionist way, and you have an open mind, that there's still a lot of scope for young people to change the way we think,” she said.
And that, she added, gives her hope.