Respect nature or risk another pandemic, warns Dr. Jane Goodall

Humanity has no future without biodiversity. It's time to build back better.

If we want a better world after the Covid-19 pandemic, we have to respect animals more, transform our economy and educate children, Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, world-renowned ethologist, Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and United Nations Messenger of Peace, told the BNP Paribas Sustainable Future Forum 2020 Live Series, in an interview with Craig Leeson, Filmmaker and Global Sustainability Partner at BNP Paribas.

Jane, whose groundbreaking research into chimpanzee behaviour transformed our understanding of primate social interactions, used the opportunity to join the dots between the Covid-19 pandemic and our global climate crisis. The session underscored the urgent need for all parts of civil society to play a role in combatting climate change and “building back better“, with banks playing a crucial part in protecting biodiversity through financing.

“We face two problems: Covid-19 and climate change,” she said. “We’ll get through this pandemic but climate change is a huge challenge to our life on earth.” Jane pointed out that the virus is an example of a zoonotic disease – one that jumps between species. Zoonotic diseases are on the rise – “almost all new human diseases are zoonotic” – which Jane linked directly to the drivers of climate change.

Disrespect is dangerous

“Disrespect for animals underlies much of the problem. Factory farming and hunting – including the appetite for bushmeat – are major risk factors.” She also pointed to the thawing of Arctic permafrost as a result of climate change and the loss of biodiversity as sources of increased zoonotic infections. “Our materialistic lifestyle assumes nature’s resources are infinite; they are not,” she added. 

Jane acknowledged that consumerism alone is not to blame. “Poverty is also a great driver of environmental destruction,” she said. But factory farming and intensive agriculture to produce more food makes the situation worse. “It’s wasteful: feeding livestock on grain, then using fossil fuels for transport, plus methane production from animals.” And it uses too much water: “with droughts getting worse, fresh water is getting scarcer and aquifers and rivers are getting lower. Further, chemicals and pesticides from intensive farming are poisoning the land,” she said.

Jane’s session demonstrated candidly the importance of business and banking collaborating to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Asked to elaborate on the similarities between chimps and humans, Jane said, “I was told at university that the difference between us and animals was a difference of kind: chimps can’t have personalities and emotions because these are unique to humans. That was absolutely wrong.” She went on: “We are so similar in so many ways, but also very different: they aren’t able to talk to each other while we have developed language.” The ability to communicate has enabled mankind to create the consumerist society that is driving climate change. “It’s absurd that this intelligent creature is destroying its home so fast.”

Reasons for hope

But Jane has hope. She referred to a book by economist Sir Nicholas Stern, Why Are We Waiting? The Logic, Urgency, and Promise of Tackling Climate Change, in which he argues that there is still time to arrest climate change. “We still have the window of time to create the green economy – we have to do it. But the window is closing all the time,” she said.

An unexpected benefit of the Covid-19 pandemic has been cleaner air and clearer skies resulting from lockdowns. “We have understood that if we give nature a chance, nature can bounce back,” said Jane. 
Jane’s prescription for transforming the economy includes “clean green energy instead of oil and gas.” She added: “we need to re-green cities, which will mitigate heat, clean the air and regulate rainfall,” arguing that “this will also reduce crime and improve citizens’ mental health, lowering the cost of healthcare.” 

How can we influence change? “Each one of us has a role to play and fortunately people have different passions and can group together: between us we can tackle all the different problems.”

If we go back to business as usual our future is ultimately doomed. We can’t go on like this.

Dr. Jane Goodall

One of the best ways of doing this is through the choices we make as consumers. “Consumers have power – we need to put a proper value on what we buy,” she explains. “Poorer people don’t have the luxury but we can exercise choice, which forces companies to make changes,” she explains. “Make ethical choices: it’s not about what benefits us now, but how it affects future generations.”

And by promoting greater equity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, Jane believes many social ills can be cured. “Poorer people are paid ‘slave’ wages to produce the goods we buy. More equitable wages around the world would help re-value these goods and reduce the anger that’s fermenting at the moment.”

Education is the answer

By far the most important force in creating urgent change is education, most especially for children, said Jane. “A lot of what’s done is due to ignorance, not evil,” she explained. The essential importance of informing the next generation about how their choices affect the environment led Jane to start her Roots & Shoots (R&S) initiative in 1991. A hands-on global humanitarian and environmental programme for young people of all ages, R&S aims to ‘foster respect and compassion for all living things, to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs, and to inspire each individual to take action to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment.’

“We have to educate everyone but it’s because of children that families around the world are changing,” said Jane. “I’ve seen a rising awareness: as environmental education has spread into schools, children are influencing their parents and grandparents.” By educating young people, Jane believes “we can drive change from within: children who took part in R&S in 1991 are now in positions of influence,” she points out.

What comes next

In closing, Jane credited her mother for her unique career. “She supported my dream and gave good advice: ‘work very hard and take every opportunity’,” she recounts. Taking the opportunity to change presented by the Covid-19 crisis will be critical, Jane said.

“If we go back to business as usual our future is ultimately doomed. We can’t go on like this.” 

Dr. Goodall and the Jane Goodall Institute do not endorse handling or interfering with wild chimpanzees. These photos show a historical context.