In Mombasa on the coast of Kenya is a place called Haller Park. People flock there to see 180 indigenous species of plants and trees, and a variety of animals including hippos and giraffes.
In The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams (Gail Hudson is an additional author), discuss the park as an example of how our injured Earth can be restored and healed. At one point the park was "a monstrous five-hundred-acre scar where almost nothing grew" because a cement company created a quarry that ravaged the land. The company's CEO decided to repair the damage and slowly, year by year, with horticultural tending and introduction of wild animals, the area was transformed.
I start with this story in honor of Goodall's forceful argument that hope for our ailing planet is galvanized through storytelling: It's crucial, she says, that people — especially young people — know how positive action can still turn around the frightening trajectories of climate crisis, biodiversity loss, and the ongoing global pandemic. "It's mostly because people are so overwhelmed by the magnitude of our folly that they feel helpless," Goodall states. They need to hear stories of "the people who succeed because they won't give up."
Jane Goodall is one of those people herself. She is the world's foremost chimpanzee expert; UN Messenger of Peace; winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize; activist through the Jane Goodall Institute and its many projects that help local communities and the environment; and author of numerous books, the first of which, In the Shadow of Man, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
While The Book of Hope is marketed as written by Goodall and Abrams, that's a little misleading. The text is a skillful arranging of transcribed conversations between the two, with Abrams speaking in first person and Goodall directly contributing only the introduction and conclusion. This observation is not a complaint. On the contrary: This format makes perfect sense, and not because at age 87 Goodall needs to take it easy. She remains committed to a grueling schedule of public speaking and interacting with others about our planetary crisis.
Abrams is co-author also of The Book of Joy that brought together the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu in conversation. To speak with Goodall, Abrams traveled first to her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and later to a cabin at which she was staying in the Netherlands; the final meeting, planned for Goodall's family home in Bournemouth, England, took place over Zoom because of the pandemic. In this third set of conversations, Goodall spoke to Abrams surrounded by familiar and loved objects that she described for him. I found especially moving the objects from around the world given to Goodall, including a bell fashioned from the material of land mines left in the ground after civil war in Mozambique and a piece of limestone from the quarry where Nelson Mandela labored while imprisoned on Robben Island, South Africa.
From these conversations emerge an informative road map of ideas for ways in which every person may help bring about positive change in the world. This guidance is rooted firmly in an awareness of how bad things really have gotten. It's good to see Goodall mention nationalism, racism and sexism in this context, as well as global inequalities in wealth, though her focus remains on the environment. "Any discussion of hope would be incomplete without admitting the horrible harm we have inflicted on the natural world and addressing the real pain and suffering people are feeling as they witness the enormous losses that are occurring," Goodall says. "We only have a small window of opportunity — a window that is closing all the time."
First of Goodall's four reasons to hope is the amazing human intellect. While an intelligent animal "would not destroy its only home" as our species is doing, we have the intellectual power to come up with new innovations all the time, including "renewable energy, regenerative farming and permaculture, moving toward a plant-based diet."
Next on the list is the resilience of nature, attested to by the example of Haller Park I've already discussed. Goodall tells stories of animals brought back from the very edge of extinction, including a species of black robin whose population has grown so far from seven to 250.
Reason for hope number three is the power of young people, from elementary school age right through to college. Back in 1991, a dozen Tanzanian students approached Goodall with their concerns ranging from live animal markets to poaching in national parks; this interaction led to the Jane Goodall Institute's founding of Roots and Shoots, a youth organization now active in 68 countries.
Last of Goodall's reasons to hope is what she calls the indomitable human spirit, the ability we have individually and collectively to wrest a victory from what appears to be an inevitable defeat.
In one way, this section goes a little awry. Reminiscing about her second husband Derek Bryceson's partial leg paralysis as a result of a WWII injury, Goodall tells of an aunt, a physiotherapist, who noted at the time that he was walking "by sheer willpower." Other anecdotes follow of individuals with serious injuries or disabilities who live cheerfully with them or overcome them in "inspiring" ways. I have no doubt that each person mentioned was, or is, a courageous person. Not everyone with physical limitations, however, will be able to overcome them, nor should they be celebrated only if they can; disabled and abled people may show an indomitable spirit in many different ways.
One of the book's most welcome aspects is that Abrams plays the role of a skeptic, repeatedly voicing questions that may occur to us as we read. Regarding the power of young people, for instance, he asks what is truly different now than before, different enough to give us hope for change? Goodall replies that today, young people are not only keenly aware of the pressing issues they have inherited from previous generations, they are also more politically motivated to do something about it.
Goodall speaks plainly and effectively throughout the book. At one point, she conveys her belief that a "spiritual power.... seems to have sent me on this mission." She adds a welcome comment, that "there are many people leading ethical lives, working to help others, who are neither religious or spiritual."
Most of Goodall's statements do — or, I believe, should — speak to all of us. "I personally believe that animals have as much right to inhabit this planet as we do," she says.
And, as troubling as this current pandemic is, "we must not let this distract us from the far greater threat to our future — the climate crisis and the loss of biodiversity. "
Most wonderfully of all, Goodall calls each of us to action: "Let us use the gift of our lives to make this a better world."
Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist emerita at William & Mary. Her seventh book, Animals' Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild, was published in March. Find her on Twitter @bjkingape