Jane Goodall Discusses Plants and Peace

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Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall has a busy April: She's turning 80, releasing a book and promoting a movie.

Robert Gray / Getty Images

Jane Goodall celebrates her 80th birthday on April 3, 2014, yet another feat for one of the most beloved scientists alive. Not only has she changed how we look at both chimpanzees and ourselves, but she has helped humanize science. It wasn't some prosaic old professor who first reported chimps eating meat and using tools in 1960 — it was a relatable, 26-year-old secretary without a university degree.

Goodall soon earned a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, of course, and became the de facto liaison for our species' closest living relatives. Over five decades, she has also been a world-renowned advocate for animal rights and environmental protection. She's now a U.N. Messenger of Peace and a Dame of the British Empire, among dozens of other titles, and holds honorary degrees from at least 40 universities. As her curriculum vitae can attest, she doesn't have much left to prove.

But even at 80, Goodall is still far from finished. Just this week, she's attending a birthday gala in San Francisco to raise money for orphaned chimps, promoting her latest book, "Seeds of Hope," and helping promote Disney Nature Films, "Bears," a new movie from Disney Nature. "Oh, it's awful," she says, laughing, in an interview with Treehugger this week. "It's just a tough week. It's the three Bs: birthday, book, and bears."

It has also been a tough 12 months for Goodall, who planned to release "Seeds of Hope" in April 2013 before the Washington Post found passages that were apparently taken from other sources without attribution. Goodall was quick to apologize, saying she was "distressed" by the discovery. She has since explained that "chaotic note-taking" led to the lapses, telling the magazine Mosaic "I am not methodical enough, I guess. In some cases, you look at my notebooks, there's no way you can tell whether this is from talking to somebody or whether it was something I read on the Internet."

"Seeds of Hope" was nonetheless shelved by the publisher before its 2013 release. Goodall has spent months revising and adding to the book — both personal and big-picture opus on the plant kingdom, inspired by her already-extensive work on animals — and it was released this week by the same publisher. I spoke with Goodall by phone Tuesday from her hotel in San Francisco, covering her new book and a wide range of other topics. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

In "Seeds of Hope," it sounds like you've had a lifelong fascination with plants?

I just grew up loving plants, animals, and nature. All of it. Those [childhood] drawings and paintings in my book, that wasn't schoolwork. I just loved doing it. Watching bugs and leaves, buds breaking open in the spring. I don't know, I was just born that way I think. I think a lot of children are like that, then they sort of getting swept away from that early love, they're kept out of nature.

What interests you about plants?

I suppose the extraordinary variety and adaptations and the way, if you just take the orchids, the different ways they have evolved all these different ways of pollination. I just find all that fascinating. This strange plant in Africa that's had the same rootstock for 2,000 years. So many different forms have evolved in so many different climates and ecosystems, and that I find really fascinating.

You write in the book that "the peace of the forest has become part of my being." Do you think the world would be more peaceful if everyone spent more time in the forests?

Yes, and not just forests. There is tremendous peace being up in the Alps, in alpine meadows, or the middle of the Serengeti. It doesn't have to be in the forest. I find peace in all of these wild places. I've never been attracted by the desert, but when I'm in the desert, there is so much to marvel at.

Do people need to actually live or work in a forest to appreciate it, as you did in Gombe? Or can a more abstract appreciation be enough?

No, I think you've got to be there. You've got to feel it and be a part of it. You've got to feel what you're walking on or lying on, smell it. You can see it on TV, but you can't be part of it unless you're there.

Why do you think some people don't respect trees or forests?

I think it has different causes. One would be extreme poverty: You destroy the forest because you're poor, you're desperate to feed your family and the rest of the land is not fertile anymore. But then you also get the Western materialistic lifestyle, where the money is almost worshipped in itself. This constant seeking and scrabbling to get bigger and bigger. But how much bigger can you get?

What changes are needed to stop deforestation around the world?

Just think about the consequences of deforestation. We know how it's linked to the release of CO2 into the atmosphere. And the U.N. says climate change is now affecting every corner of the planet. People are struggling with it. The growing middle class around the world is eating more and more meat, which means more animals must be raised and more forest must be cut down to feed the poor things.

So the idea of trying to give a tree a value, so it's more valuable standing than cut down, would be a very good way of moving forward. If governments could make slightly more money by keeping trees standing than by selling timber rights, that's what we need.

What gives you the most hope for saving wildlife habitats?

Two things: One is the youth. Roots & Shoots is now in 136 countries. We reckon there are at least 150,000 active groups, and it's growing all the time. There is more and more interest. We're talking now about partnering with the Boy Scouts, and we partner with many other youth groups. We've started in Iran, Abu Dhabi, and we have 900 groups across China. In Chinese culture, in Confucianism, there are deep roots to nature. Many cultures have this deep respect for nature in the beginning, and so by helping children understand where they came from, that could be helpful.

And the other thing is the extraordinary resilience of nature. Plants are the ones who can bring life back to a dead ecosystem. We've seen it with our own eyes around Gombe.

"Seeds of Hope" was originally going to be released last April, but it was delayed ...

Right, I was accused of plagiarism, which was a real shock for me. There were a few lines that were taken from websites. But that is fixed now. I think if you look at the chapter at the end of the book called "Gratitude," you'll see that I've tried to acknowledge everyone who has helped me in any way.

I just didn't realize that these things can be plagiarism. In hindsight, I think I'm glad because the book is much better now. I've been able to take time and improve it, but also some new things have come to light that I was able to include. It was a shock at the time and I thought "Crikey, plagiarism? That sounds awful." It particularly shocked me because I always try so hard to acknowledge everybody, whether in a lecture or a book or whatever it is. But I'm wiser now.

If the book inspires someone to help or learn about wild plants, what would you suggest?

First of all, just look around more. Don't walk past the tree, look at the tree. Look at the leaves. See how little pieces of plants and grass have pushed up in the most unlikely places, the tenacity of life.

And if they have means to bring native species into their gardens, to help wildlife, more and more people are doing that. And use their voice to say please don't cut down that tree. Find a way not to. People's voices get together and they can make a difference.

Do you have plans yet for your next book?

[Laughs] I'm having a sabbatical. I've been writing a book on deadline, I think, for the past 13 years now. It's all I can do now to keep up with the things coming in from all over the world. The demands are huge. I care about too many issues, that's the trouble.

What project are you most excited about right now?

Roots & Shoots, without question. That covers everything. I can't go devote an awful lot of time to protecting rhinos, for example, but through our Roots & Shoots program we educate the kids and they can work on solutions to it. That's the program I feel like I can accomplish the most through.