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Written by Jim W. Harper - BT Contributor   
December 2011

Jane Goodall urges us to stop monkeying around and get serious about the environment

Pix_for_Going_Green_12-11Jane Goodall is freezing. Trapped inside the Ritz-Carlton in Coconut Grove, her tiny frame cannot stand the extreme air conditioning. “Let’s go outside,” she says, “so that we can talk in comfort.”

Dame Jane Goodall, 77 years old, a global icon, can handle extreme conditions. She spent decades living among chimpanzees in Tanzania, and her mangled thumbnail proves it. Nowadays she travels the world constantly; the day before this interview, she barely escaped the worst flood in Panama’s history.

But the Miami-style A/C is killing her. She opens her hotel room’s window for relief, but she has an even simpler solution. “If you don’t need it, turn it off,” she says.

Goodall is here to address leaders from Latin America and about 100 other attendees at a forum sponsored by the Americas Business Council Foundation. Speakers at the three-day event include Jeb Bush and Lance Armstrong, but Goodall speaks first.

So what does the chimpanzee lady say? “Oh, oh, oh, aw-aw-aw!” Her impression of how a chimpanzee says “good morning” warms the heart. Next she reveals that the world’s oldest chimp, 73-year-old Little Mama, lives up the road at Lion Country Safari in Palm Beach County.

Her second topic is overpopulation. Unlike humans, her chimpanzee family has maintained a fairly constant number since 1960, when she first began observations. “They are not overpopulating their environment,” she says.

Humans, however, are to the point of self-destruction. “It really is scary to hear that the seven billionth child was born,” says Goodall, referring to a United Nations announcement in November.

For her, the planet faces three main problems. They are poverty, wealth, and overpopulation. The rural poor do desperate things such as cutting down forests to survive. “Surely no country has worse problems than Haiti, social and environmental,” she says.

The wealthiest populations consume resources insatiably, and that lifestyle simply cannot persist in a finite system. What’s more, the human population keeps expanding and pushing the boundaries of sustainability. “If we continue like this, what will the future be for our great-great grandchildren?” asks Goodall.

Her solution? Children. Goodall’s own foundation created a youth-inspired program in Tanzania that has spread worldwide. Roots and Shoots has clubs at two schools in north Miami-Dade -- Miami Country Day and Hubert O. Sibley Elementary -- and at more than 150 locations across Florida, in all 50 states, and in 120 countries, including China. Goodall’s passion for this program seems to equal that for her chimpanzee research.

Children tell her they feel their future has been compromised. Yet she finds hope in their growing concern and determination to save the planet. “The most important thing is the growing awareness of young people around the world,” she says. She feels hopeful that they may be reaching a critical mass and, instead of just educating them, she calls for “informing and empowering.”

In addition to young people, Goodall names three other reasons for hope: the resilience of nature, the human brain, and the human spirit. In Africa she has seen how micro-credit can allow local businesses to grow in sustainable ways and how the education of girls is vital for stabilizing population growth. (Birth rates drop as education rises.)

“We can’t shy away from population growth,” she says. “It’s a fact.”

Even in places with explosive population growth, local people recognize the problem. Goodall tells a story about men in Africa who request vasectomies and villages that cry out for education: “When we introduced family planning, the villages said, ‘Why didn’t you come before?’”

As for the human intellect, she believes in its power, but she also advocates for a reconnection to the compassion of the human heart: “How come we’re destroying our only home? We have lost something I call wisdom.”

So what does all this mean for us in South Florida? Number one, our students need to learn the truth about the environment. Teachers need to step up. Schools need to reach out. They can start by contacting the Environmental Education Providers of Miami-Dade County.

Second, we can use our connections to Haiti and other needy populations in our hemisphere to support the education of girls and of communities in need of family planning.

Third, we can reattach our heads to our hearts by paying greater attention to the traditions of Native Americans and to early Floridians. They knew how to live without air conditioning.

Fourth, we should switch quickly to solar energy and promote green buildings, because buildings are the biggest consumers of energy.

Don’t discount the power of even small gestures, like recycling plastic bags. “All the little things seem small, but awareness levels are rising,” says Goodall.

Today we can turn off the A/C in her honor.

Goodall holds out hope that the sun will warm her from the cranked-up air conditioning in her room. She is opening the door. Let’s follow her outside.

 

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