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Jane Goodall on conservation, climate change and COVID-19: "If we carry on with business as usual, we're going to destroy ourselves"

Species extinctions accelerating, study warns
Time running out to save biodiversity as species go extinct, leading scientists say 06:47

While COVID-19 and protests for racial justice command the world's collective attention, ecological destruction, species extinction and climate change continue unabated. While the world's been focused on other crises, an alarming study was released warning that species extinction is now progressing so fast that the consequences of "biological annihilation" may soon be "unimaginable."

Dr. Jane Goodall, the world-renowned conservationist, desperately wants the world to pay attention to what she sees as the greatest threat to humanity's existence.

CBS News recently spoke to Goodall over a video conference call and asked her questions about the state of our planet. Her soft-spoken grace somehow helped cushion what was otherwise extremely sobering news: "I just know that if we carry on with business as usual, we're going to destroy ourselves. It would be the end of us, as well as life on Earth as we know it," warned Goodall.

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Dr. Jane Goodall at a reception in honor of Disney Conservation Funds 20th anniversary on April 18, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. Gustavo Caballero / Getty Images

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Jeff Berardelli: Destruction of nature is causing some really big concerns around the world. One that comes to the forefront right now is emergent diseases like COVID-19. Can you describe how destruction of the environment contributes to this?

Dr. Jane Goodall: Well, the thing is, we brought this on ourselves because the scientists that have been studying these so-called zoonotic diseases that jump from an animal to a human have been predicting something like this for so long. As we chop down at stake tropical rainforest, with its rich biodiversity, we are eating away the habitats of millions of animals, and many of them are being pushed into greater contact with humans. We're driving deeper and deeper, making roads throughout the habitat, which again brings people and animals in contact with each other. People are hunting the animals and selling the meat, or trafficking the infants, and all of this is creating environments which are perfect for a virus or a bacteria to cross that species barrier and sometimes, like COVID-19, it becomes very contagious and we're suffering from it. 

But we know if we don't stop destroying the environment and disrespecting animals — we're hunting them, killing them, eating them; killing and eating chimpanzees in Central Africa led to HIV/AIDS — there will be another one. It's inevitable.

Tracing the link between epidemics and our interactions with nature 06:04

Do you fear that the next [pandemic] will be a lot worse than this one?

Well, we've been lucky with this one because, although it's incredibly infectious, the percentage of people who die is relatively low. Mostly they recover and hopefully then build up some immunity. But supposing the next one is just as contagious and has a percentage of deaths like Ebola, for example, this would have an even more devastating effect on humanity than this one.

I think people have a hard time connecting these, what may look like chance events, with our interactions and relationship with nature. Can you describe to people why the way that we treat the natural world is so important? 

Well, first of all, it's not just leading to zoonotic diseases, and there are many of them. The destruction of the environment is also contributing to the climate crisis, which tends to be put in second place because of our panic about the pandemic. We will get through the pandemic like we got through World War II, World War I, and the horrors following the World Trade towers being destroyed. But climate change is a very real existential threat to humankind and we don't have that long to slow it down. 

Intensive farming, where we're destroying the land slowly with the chemical poisons, and the monocultures — which can be wiped out by a disease because there is no variation of crops being grown — is leading to habitat destruction. It's leading to the creation of more CO2 through fossil fuels, methane gas and other greenhouse gas [released] by digestion from the billions of domestic animals. 

It's pretty grim. We need to realize we're part of the environment, that we need the natural world. We depend on it. We can't go on destroying. We've got to somehow understand that we're not separated from it, we are all intertwined. Harm nature, harm ourselves.

If we continue on with business as usual, what do you fear the outcome will be?

Well, if we continue with business as usual, we're going to come to the point of no return.  At a certain point the ecosystems of the world will just give up and collapse and that's the end of us eventually too. 

What about our children? We're still bringing children into the world — what a grim future is theirs to look forward to. It's pretty shocking but my hope is, during this pandemic, with people trapped inside, factories closed down temporarily, and people not driving, it has cleared up the atmosphere amazingly. The people in the big cities can look up at the night sky and sea stars are bright, not looking through a layer of pollution. So when people emerge [from the pandemic] they're not going to want to go back to the old polluted days. 

How the pandemic is improving air quality 02:23

Now, in some countries there's not much they can do about it. But if enough of them, a groundswell becomes bigger and bigger and bigger [and] people say: "No I don't want to go down this road. We want to find a different, green economy. We don't want to always put economic development ahead of protecting the environment. We care about the future. We care about the health of the planet. We need nature," maybe in the end the big guys will have to listen.

I often think our economic future, which is always put at the forefront, is actually dependent upon our ecological future. Without an ecological future, there is not going to be any economic growth. Would you agree? 

Absolutely. I mean, it's all been said again and again, but fossil fuels are not infinite, they will come to an end, leading to a lot more destruction of the environment for sure. Forests and natural resources are not infinite and yet we're treating them as though they are, and in some places using them up more quickly than nature can replenish them. 

We have to have a different kind of economy, we need a different way of thinking about what is success. Is it just about having more and more money, more and more stuff, being able to show off to your friends, and the wasteful society we live in? We waste clothes, we waste food, we waste laptops and cellphones. That pollutes the environment. So we've got to think differently, haven't we?

So what do we do? Right now our worldview is based on GDP. You suggest that we think of it in a different way. So do you have a suggestion of how we rate our success other than GDP?

I'm not an economist. I just know that if we carry on with business as usual, we're going to destroy ourselves. It would be the end of us, as well as life on Earth as we know it.

So one thing we can do, those of us in affluent societies can almost all do with a bit less. We have a very unsustainable lifestyle. You can't really blame people, they grew up into it. But if you went through World War II like I did, when you took nothing for granted, one square of chocolate for a week is what we had and everything was rationed. So, you appreciate it. We never wasted even an ounce of food; not like today. 

Then, we also have to alleviate poverty. Because if you're really poor you destroy the environment, you cut down the last trees to make land to grow more food for your family, or fish the last fish. Or if you're in an urban area you buy the cheapest junk food. You don't have the luxury of asking: how is this made, did it harm the environment, did it lead to the suffering of animals like in the factory farms, is it cheap because of child slave labor? You just have to buy the cheapest in order to survive. 

Then the third thing, which nobody wants to talk about, but nevertheless ... there are approximately 7.8 billion of us on the planet today and already in some places we're using up natural resources faster than nature can replenish them. In 2050 it's estimated that there will be 9.7 billion of us. What will happen? We can't just go on burying it under the carpet. 

Population issues are politically sensitive so I talk about voluntary population optimization. So that's OK, it's voluntary, it is your choice. You optimize it for your financial situation. People are desperate to educate their children and they can't educate eight anymore. So they love family planning, and women can space out their children so that they can have a child and look after it. 

Let's switch gears. I don't eat animals. I have a dog. I love my dog. Let's talk about the idea that animals have feelings and that pigs are as intelligent as dogs...

You know, animals are so much more intelligent than people used to think, and they have feelings and emotions and personalities, like your dog, any animal you share your life with. You know, birds now are making tools and octopus are incredibly intelligent. And when we think of all this trafficking of animals, selling them in meat markets or factory farms, when you think that each one one is an individual, can feel fear and pain, can suffer mentally as well as physically, isn't it shocking? I'm glad you don't eat them. I don't either, of course. 

Jane Goodall, the world's foremost autho
Jane Goodall, the world's foremost authority on chimpanzees, communicates with a chimp named Nana at the zoo in Magdeburg, Germany, on June 6, 2004. JENS SCHLUETER/DDP/AFP via Getty Images

The shock and horror because in China and South Korea they eat dogs — well, the thought of eating a dog makes me feel particularly sick, but not more sick than eating a pig. They eat dogs and we don't like it, but we eat pigs, and they are as intelligent as dogs. 

Isn't the point, if you must eat an animal shouldn't you treat it really well, like the Native Americans, respect the animal and give thanks that it's sacrificed itself for you?

This is a bit more of a thought-provoking question: What has led us to this over-consumption in society? There is an idea that perhaps there is a Biblical basis, that we have dominion, that we're in charge, and because we're in charge we're able to do what we want. Can you give me an idea of why we are where we are, as a world right now, and what led us here? 

[Laughing] You think I'm going to be able to answer all these questions?

I know it's a lot, but I know that you must have some thoughts on this. 

Well, first of all, I do think that religion has played a role. I was told by a Hebrew scholar the original translation of that word that you just mentioned, "dominion," is wrong. It's actually something more like "stewardship." That's very different. If God gave us stewardship that's different from saying we have dominion. So I think religion started this thinking that we're so different from all the other animals and I was taught there was a difference in kind, not degree. Thank goodness the chimpanzees are so like us biologically, as well as behaviorally, that science had to start thinking differently. 

So how did we get there? It's sort of been like this all throughout human history. There were so many fewer of us back then that we could have these unsustainable lifestyles and it didn't really matter; they were sustainable. Think of how people have always exploited the natural world just because we can. And so there's been a lag between developing new technologies [which enable us to] destroy whole forests. Whereas the indigenous people might take a week to cut down the big tree, we can do it in an hour. And the moral evolution and the sense of a spiritual awareness and connection to the natural world on which we depend, that's lagged behind as well.

So how do we repair that? How do we rediscover our connection to the rest of the natural world?

As I think you know, I began a program for young people back in 1991 called Roots and Shoots because young people had lost hope in the future. I've met them all over the world. They were mostly apathetic and didn't seem to care. Or they were angry or deeply depressed and they told me they felt like that because we compromised their future and there was nothing they could do about it. And we have compromised their future. We've been stealing it for years and years. And yes, we still are still stealing it today. But when they said there was nothing they could do I thought, no, that's not right. We got this window of time. If we all get together, take action, we can start healing some of the harm, we can start slowing down climate change and we can work on educating people. 

Kids are really good at educating their parents and grandparents, some of whom may be in positions to make a huge difference, like CEOs of big companies or people in government. That program is now kindergarten to university and everything in between. It's in 68 countries and growing. Every group has the message: Each one of us — and that means you as well as me — we make some impact every single day and we have the luxury of choosing the impact that we make. 

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