The Green Column #45

Jane Goodall in Nebraska

March 16, 2011—Over 50 years ago, a young British woman made a discovery in a remote African rainforest that would change the way we think about our own species. Young Jane Goodall was wandering through the forests of Gombe in western Tanzania, hiking to her typical vantage point where she would watch her chimpanzee subjects. On her hike, she noticed one of the chimpanzees sitting on a termite mound. The chimpanzee seemed to have a stick that he was using to poke into the mound. As Jane watched in the next few days, she realized that these chimpanzees were taking branches, stripping the leaves off, and using the branches to obtain termites from the termite mound. This was the first scientifically recorded sighting of an animal species other than humans using tools.

When Jane relayed her discovery to her sponsor, Louis Leakey, he said, “Now we must redefine ‘tool’, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” This was a revolutionary moment in recent human history. Society had to take a hard look at the meaning of being “human.” A “human” was not the sole master of the environment as we once had thought. The world had to fundamentally examine humans’ relationship with the environment.

Jane was subsequently elevated to international fame and her work has been featured in many news sources, scientific journals, and publications such as National Geographic. She continued conducting her research and started the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 to promote great ape conservation and global understanding. Currently, Jane travels over 300 days a year talking with people around the world about promoting environmental awareness, world peace, and youth involvement.

She will be in Lincoln on March 19th to give a lecture as part of the Peacemaking Workshop XXIV.

One of Jane’s four reasons for hope is “the determination of young people.” She cites the energy and passion of young people that she witnesses when she travels around the world. Jane’s program for young people, Roots & Shoots, is an outlet for that energy and passion and has led to successful community social and environmental projects from Tanzania to Nepal to the United States. The issues that young people will have to face in the coming decades will provide daunting challenges, from climate change to warfare. Roots & Shoots groups all around the world have been inspired by Jane’s message and are taking action to make their communities better places.

Jane says about Roots & Shoots, “Roots creep underground everywhere and make a firm foundation. Shoots seem very weak, but to reach the light, they can break open brick walls. Imagine that the brick walls are all the problems we have inflicted on our planet. Hundreds of thousands of roots and shoots, hundreds of thousands of young people around the world, can break through these walls. We can change the world.”

As we examine the problems that face our society, we should hearken back to Jane’s discovery in Tanzania: a redefining of humans’ place in the environment. The challenges that stand before the world today and tomorrow are immense: entire countries in the South Pacific will likely disappear due to climate change, two billion additional people will be added to the world largely in developing countries, and the world?s resources will continue to be strained in order to feed, house, clothe, and acquiesce to the desires of the additional human beings.

If we approach these issues with a redefined sense of our role in the natural world, we can attempt to solve these problems.

Recent research has shown that humans have a tremendous impact on our world and an impact that upsets the existing ecological systems. We put too many nutrients into our waterways and causes deadzones in coastal ecosystems around the world. We have cut down forests at a rate that far exceeds replacement and have caused massive deforestation in many forest ecosystems. We have harvested seafood at a highly unsustainable rate and risk losing commercially viable fish species by 2040. Moreover, we have put more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and by doing so, the natural systems cannot compensate for the additional gases causing climate change.

The human species is essentially operating in an ecological deficit each and every year that we’re not paying back. And because almost everything we do is based upon the environment, that ecological deficit turns into an economic deficit too. Every year we don’t pay the ecological deficit back, we lose in the long run. And the young people of today lose when they’re older. So, it is important for us as humans to think about how our society interacts with the environment. Jane’s discovery taught us once how to redefine ourselves, but we need yet another redefining.
Jane’s most influential words of advice are, “Every individual makes a difference.” Each one of us contributes to the ecological deficit, but also each one of us can contribute to solving that deficit too. Be sure to see Jane Goodall when she visits Lincoln on March 19th to give her lecture at Nebraska Wesleyan University as part of the Peacemaking Workshop. Visit for all of the information.

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