Her newest book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder From the World of Plants, cowritten with Gayle Hudson, chronicles her lifelong love of all things leafy. In it, she writes: "There would be no chimpanzees without plants — nor human beings either" and confesses that she might never have started studying apes had she not, as a child, been obsessed with Africa's forests.
Goodall, now 79, runs the Jane Goodall Institute to protect chimpanzees' habitat, and Roots and Shoots to encourage children to become conservationists. She's also a U.N. Messenger of Peace and a Dame of the British Empire. We spoke to her to find out what compelled her to spend years writing a book about the botanical world.
You’re known for your work with primates. Why the newer focus on plants?
The last book I did, Hope for Animals and their World, was about saving animals from extinction. I had a long section on plants but it got too long, so almost all of that was left out. I felt bad because I'd talked to so many botanists and they were so excited that Jane was going to put plants in her book. So I thought, OK, I’ll add to what I’ve done and it’ll be a booklet that perhaps we could sell in botanical gardens. That was the original idea.
But it was as though the plants put little roots into my brain. They said, “Look, Jane, you’ve spent all your life doing stuff for animals. It’s our turn now.” So it ended up being this incredibly inclusive book, which led me into very dark areas of human history, into the plantations and the slave trade, all the horrors of modern agriculture with its chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and then — what I'd just planned to mention but what ended up turning into a huge chapter — genetically modified plants. That was the most chilling of all.
Why was that so chilling?
I can best answer that by telling you about another new book. Steven Drucker's Altered Genes, Twisted Truth is the most chilling thing I've ever read. It's about the huge conspiracy by the big companies who do genetic modification to keep the public from knowing the truth, to subvert the course of justice. It’s really a terrifying read. I didn't realize that when you put other genes into a plant, you have to shoot them in, and the plant fights every bit it can to keep those alien genes out. The plant doesn’t want them. So they have to shoot them in like miniature cannons.
There was a vote here in California.
I know all about that vote. I wish they’d have counted every single vote. It might actually have been defeated. I just hope people won’t give up. I hope that this can be done again.
A similar thing happened in New Mexico.
What other surprising things did you learn while writing Seeds?
I found some utterly fascinating stories. Here's one: An Israeli botanist heard about archaeologists who had discovered ancient date-palm seeds while they were excavating King Herod's mountain fortress outside Jerusalem. Though they were reluctant to share anything, she persuaded them to give her three of those seeds. Two were damaged by carbon dating — they were 2,000 years old — but the third one grew. And that tree, known as Methuselah, is now fully grown.
And then there's an even more extraordinary story: Scientists who were drilling into Siberia's permafrost found some material from the nest of a prehistoric ground squirrel. And in that material, they discovered three living cells. From those cells, they were able to re-create the plant, which was a meadowsweet. Not only did it grow from those cells, but it's reproducing and making seeds. And it's 32,000 years old. Thirty. Two. Thousand. Three cells. And they’ve got a plant.
Wow. If that doesn’t give you hope, I don’t know what will.
Exactly! And in addition, there are stories about how plants help us restore the land that’s being desecrated by us, plants that can remove even nuclear materials from soil.
Which plant does that?
Hemp. It's actually the most magical and amazing plant. It's ridiculous to ban people from using it. It has nothing to do with marijuana at all. And it can remove nuclear waste from soil. You just grow it, and then you cut the poor thing; it's done its work.
I had never heard that. That’s amazing.
Yes. It was meant to be a short book. I wanted to include so much because it was so fascinating.
What does your book say about how we as individuals can help protect the plant world?
There’s a whole section on what people are doing. Instead of having carefully manicured gardens, people are going back to using natural landscaping that provides homes for birds and insects. It’s all about buying and growing organic food, which helps the land and helps the plants. And just becoming aware. People are planting beautiful plants — wild plants, though — along highways, in waste areas. It’s just all very inspiring.
What do you tell people who aren’t convinced about buying organic?
I say that if they really investigated the chemicals that are in nonorganic foods, they wouldn’t want to eat them. And they say, “Oh, but we’ve been eating all this chemical and GMO food for ages and it doesn’t hardly hurt us.” But look at the rise of autism and attention deficit disorders among children since the end of World War II, when all these agricultural chemicals began. There are all kinds of diseases which nobody really knows why they’re increasing. If you look at the chemicals that are in the plants, you don’t want to have them in your body.
When did you become a vegetarian and why?
I became a vegetarian at the end of the ‘60s when I read Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. I hadn’t known about intensive farming. The next time I looked at a piece of meat on my plate, I thought, “Hmm. This symbolizes fear, pain, death. I don’t want to eat that.” So I stopped, just like that. Then I began learning more about all the terrible harm that heavy meat-eating is inflicting on the environment as more and more people eat more and more meat. It’s not just the suffering of the animals, which is what started me off on it. It’s the cutting down of the rainforest to get grazing land or to grow grain for cattle, it’s the huge waste of water in changing plant protein into animal protein. It’s the fact that the poor animals, to be kept alive, have to be fed antibiotics — you should only get antibiotics when you’re sick, not routinely. And so the antibiotics are getting out into the environment and the bacteria have become resistant. There are many, many downsides. But for me it started off because of the horrendous cruelty.
Should we be optimistic about the future of our planet?
We’re reaching a turning point. It’s going to depend on what people do. Can there be hope? Absolutely yes. Are we at a point of no return? I don’t believe so for a minute. But I think we could get there if we don’t start changing the way we behave. That’s why I travel 300 days a year, why I’m working so passionately to grow our youth program, Roots and Shoots — the name fits so well into this plant book, doesn’t it?
It does. And you started that well before the book, didn’t you?
It’s in 132 countries and growing, for all ages from preschool through university. If you think of your favorite tree, think of when it began to grow. Mine grew from a little beech seed. Think of the little roots that appear and the tiny shoots. You can pick it up; it’s so weak and frail. But there is a life force, a power so strong that those little roots can work through rocks and eventually push them aside to reach the water. And that little shoot, to reach the sunlight, can work through cracks in a brick wall and eventually knock it down. So you then see the rocks and the walls as all of the horrible things we’ve done to the planet. And it’s hope — hundreds of thousands of roots and shoots around the world can break down the problems and make this a better world. We see it all the time. On my walk with my dog today, I was looking at a little plant that somehow had got rooted in a brick-and-cement wall. How on earth it did it, I don’t know.
How do children relate to your message?
Oh, they become passionate. I mean, it really works. We’re right across mainland China now, about 6,000 groups. There are many more of these groups in Tanzania, where we began. Little Britain has 1,600 active groups. The U.S. has fallen off a bit. But we’re growing up again.
When kids become passionate about environmentalism, do they take it with them into adulthood?
Yes, absolutely they do. There’s no question about it. Children grow up to become the next people in parliament, the next teachers, the next lawyers, the next doctors, and they do have a very different attitude. The other thing is that children are influencing their parents. Do you have children?
Not quite yet.
[laughs] Not quite yet! You may know somebody with children. Tell them about Roots and Shoots. They can start as young as 18 months.
I’d be happy to. What advice do you give young naturalists?
I tell them that I loved animals and nature when I was a child and that I was told there was no future in that for me. But if you’re passionate about it, something’s going to happen. Even if you don’t get a job that’s to do with nature per se, you still can enrich your life hugely by bothering about plants. You can have them growing in your windowsill. You can look for them as you walk around. You look down at the pavement and see what’s pushing up through it. It’s incredible what you can see.
Do you have a life philosophy?
I suppose my life philosophy is that every single one of us makes an impact on the world every single day, and we have a choice as to what kind of impact we’re going to make. Yes, I think that’s it, to remember that we do makes a difference. That’s why so many people lose hope, because they look at the problems and they feel helpless and small and that as one individual, there isn’t that much one can do. But when awareness grows, hundreds and thousands and millions and billions of people all know they can make a difference, and all try to do the right thing, buy the right products, wear the right clothes, treat animals and people with respect, do their little bit every day, then we get a different world.
You’ve cited the Bible as one of your favorite books. Do you consider yourself a religious person?
I would call myself more spiritual than religious. I don’t go to church or anything like that but I detest being a materialist. The actual base of the religions is all more or less the same. They all have the same golden rules, thou shalt not kill, et cetera. I was just at a big meeting summoned by the man who’s known as the Green Patriarch. We were together for four days on this little island called Halki. The reasoning was that all these religions have thousands and thousands of worshippers, and the priests and the parsons and the archbishops and the bishops ought to be doing a whole lot more for the environment. They still do have huge followings, and it’s terribly important that that message gets out into the different churches and faiths.
Do you think it will?
It’s happening. Yes. Probably not fast enough but it’s something we can all do and talk about.
What have you found is the best way to inspire people to protect nature?
Talk to a person as an individual and see what makes them tick. Be enthusiastic about something that might turn them on. Basically, never ever be preachy. Which works OK for me because I’m interested in people, so I like to listen to what they say and then try and have a discussion. That way you can very often change the way people think. But if you start arguing and suing and pointing fingers, give it up.
What inspires you to keep doing the work you do?
I care about the planet, I care about the future, I care about my three grandchildren. And I feel a deep anger about what we’ve done to the planet since I was the age of my youngest grandchild, who is 12.
How do you maintain the energy for it all?
[laughing] Oh, everybody asks that. I think not eating meat is part of it, but it’s just a question of taking it day by day and then being very passionate about what I do. Of course there are times when I’m utterly exhausted and the thought of getting up and going out again and doing another lecture is horrendous. But then I get energized by the people. Everywhere I go, people with shining eyes want to do things differently and tell me their life has been changed. So that’s motivating.
I might be able to guess the answer to this, but what’s your favorite place on Earth?
Well, you think I’m going to say Gombe, and In a way it is. But it’s so different from the Gombe that I loved when I first went there, which was wild. It was just the forest and the chimps and me. Now there are tourists and rules. Forests around the park were cut down and though the trees are coming back, Gombe is not the place it was.
So I love coming back to England because it’s where I grew up. The same trees are there, the same garden, the same beech tree up which I spent hours, the same cliffs, the same sea where I used to wander as a child.
NOTE: After this interview was conducted, the Washington Post reported that early drafts of Seeds of Hope contained unattributed passages. Goodall has apologized for the transgression, calling it unintentional, and the book's publication has been delayed.