The Hope Conservationist

Published 22 years ago, before 9/11, before Madoff, before Black Lives, before the pandemic, the January 6 White terrorist attack on the Capitol, and a lot of other things that drain my psyche, Jane Goodall’s Reason to Hope is the book I needed right now. While I don’t know if I am any more or less hopeful, I am inspired.

In addition to chronicling her professional journey to becoming one of the world’s most renown primatologist and nature advocate, Reason to Hope is also a record of Goodall’s moral and philosophical development. From a devout Christian like her grandmother, Goodall’s inquisitive nature pushes her to discover the contradictions in absolutes and the commonalities between seemingly opposite subjects.

For example, she makes some judgmental and somewhat condescending statements about the differences between her generation and the “current” generation. However, she later praises the latter for its conscientiousness and willingness to engage in the world’s issues. Her whole Roots and Shoots initiative is based on the belief that young people can be empowered to mold a more perfect world and solve its current ills. In fact, she cites “young people” as one of her “reasons for hope” in the book’s closing chapters.

The thoughtfulness she expresses in her writing is effective in creating the impression you are “conversing” with her as a writer might converse writing in her diary or journal. For example, she spends time and text pondering her “beginning” before actually deciding to begin her book at her birth.

When Goodall was 18 months old she brought home a handful of earthworms. Her mother told her they would die without the earth so the toddler Jane rushed them back out to the garden. When Goodall was four, she hid in the family’s hen house to observe an egg being laid. She was there for so long that her panicked family called the police!

However, when she reemerged her mother was not upset with her. Instead she listened to young Jane’s story about witnessing the hen laying its egg. Goodall credits her mother’s reactions to these earliest adventures for nurturing and encouraging her “love of living things” and “passion for knowledge.”

Where her mother cultivated her “love” and “passion,” Goodall credits paleontologist/anthropologist Louis Leakey for her professional growth. It her time working for Leakey at the Olduvai site, where she helped him catalogue dinosaur bones, that she says shaped her philosophies on the moral evolution of humankind. She also credits LeCompte DuNuoy’s Human Destiny.

Through the Goodall lens, DuNuoy’s criticism of humankind becoming morally bankrupt is not seen as a crisis but an expected step in our moral evolution. As she puts it:

“Our moral behavior – or lack of it – could be seen in a new light. It was indeed tragic that our selfish instincts so often dominated our loving and altruistic ones, but, nevertheless, we had come a long way in a very short time – by evolutionary standards, that is.”

The chapter on moral evolution is followed almost immediately by the chapter on hope, where she describes her “reasons for hope”:

  1. the human brain (or our capacity to learn and adapt)
  2. the resilience of nature (or nature reclaiming formerly poisoned or decimated land and water)
  3. the energy and enthusiasm that is found or can be kindled among young people worldwide (this is self-explanatory and why Roots and Shoots was founded)
  4. the indomitable human spirit (those individuals who have inspired her by achieving the seemingly impossible)

I know she shares the moment she decided to transition from primatologist and researcher to advocate, activist. However, as I write this, I cannot find the mention (but trust me, it’s there).  Regardless, we are fortunate – our children are fortunate – that Goodall is undaunted by imperceptible progress and the physical weathering of time as she pursues the empowerment of young people and old people like me to create local and global change. We appreciate her stubbornness and her conservation of hope.