When I talk to Dr. Jane Goodall, she’s sitting in her childhood home in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England, where four generations of her family have lived. The 86-year-old environmentalist is wearing a Patagonia jacket and sitting in front of a bookshelf displaying black-and-white pictures of her mother.
It’s an appropriate setting. Goodall credits her parents with laying the foundation for her illustrious career. When she was a child, Goodall received a plush chimpanzee she called Jubilee from her father. This sparked her lifelong fascination with chimpanzees. When Goodall decided to go to Tanzania to begin her research on primates, her mother went with her.
Goodall believes that parents can play an instrumental role in fostering their children’s interest in nature. And now that our fragile planet is seeing the effects of catastrophic climate change, she believes parents must help children understand they have a critical role to play in preserving the planet. To bring awareness to this process, the Jane Goodall Institute is partnering with Crate & Barrel to create a collection of kids’ decor that is designed to cultivate their curiosity in wildlife and spark conversations about conservation. The line includes play chairs and tables, sleeping bags, rugs, quilts, and towels, all featuring images of wildlife. There’s even a playhouse modeled after Goodall’s first research camp in Gombe, Tanzania.
Here, Goodall talks about her first base camp, why she decided to collaborate with Crate & Barrel, and why kids are our best hope for saving the planet.
Fast Company: Is your stuffed monkey Jubilee still living in this house?
Jane Goodall: Jubilee is locked up in the Becoming Jane exhibit in the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. He was around (this house) until then. I almost didn’t let National Geographic take him, but the curators said they would make a bulletproof glass case, and they wouldn’t send him over with the rest of the exhibit, but hand carry him.
FC: What made you decide to do this collaboration with Crate & Barrel?
JG: It seemed like such a good idea to bring the outside world into a child’s bedroom. I think that the children who get these products are very lucky. I hope that they’ll appreciate these things because billions of children in the world couldn’t possibly enjoy anything like this. The children who get these things are privileged. I hope they realize this, and get the feeling that they want to go into the big wide world and make it a better place.
FC: That resonates with me. My parents came from Malaysia, where they didn’t have many opportunities, and in a single generation my 4-year-old daughter is now living an extremely privileged life. But I often think about how all of this privilege—this overconsumption of the world’s resources—is partly to blame for the environmental crisis we’re in. What do you recommend for parents who want to cultivate a sense of responsibility in their children for the planet’s future?
JG: There are many programs that help teach children about sustainability, including ours, Roots & Shoots, which starts with preschool. Our whole ethic is for children to better understand the environment and their place in society. We’re finding that little tiny children are changing their parents, saying, “Mummy, why are you using plastic? Mummy, this is supposed to be recycled.” My niece had to stop taking my grandnephew to the store because he had just learned to read and would go to every single product and say, “You mustn’t buy this it has palm oil in it” and “We shouldn’t eat animals, we should love them.” Once they understand, they care.
FC: What do you think happens to kids as they grow up that causes their wonder in nature to fade? And how can we stop this from happening?
JG: Sometimes its parents who push their kids to think about pursuing careers that allow them to make more and more money. One thing this pandemic is teaching us is that we’ve got to stop disrespecting nature and animals. We need to move to a different kind of economy and get away from this crazy idea that we can have unlimited economic development on a planet with finite natural resources. It’s not possible, especially with a growing human population.
FC: I love the little playhouse in the Crate & Barrel collection that is a mini replica of your base camp in Gombe, Tanzania, when you were 26. What was your actual base camp like?
JG: It was so primitive. The camp was one old secondhand ex-Army tent, without a proper ground sheet or mosquito netting. Snakes and scorpions came under the air flaps. The kitchen was four poles with a grass roof and an open fire. We used charcoal because back then we didn’t know that charcoal could destroy forests because that destruction hadn’t happened yet. There hadn’t yet been a population explosion in the area.
It was very different from the little playhouse. It can’t possibly replicate the original. But it can get imaginations going. The idea of having a tent and living with nature all around you, that’s what is being re-created here. Then, hopefully kids like your little girl will read books and go out to watch animals and birds. You’re playing the role my mother played; she supported me and helped me understand that I was lucky. I learned to take nothing for granted.
FC: Your mother has played such a pivotal role in your life and career. What can we learn from her?
JG: My mother came for the first four months (in the base camp in Gombe, Tanzania) because I wasn’t allowed to be on my own. She didn’t come in the forest with me, but she stayed in the camp. Children like me who have supportive mothers are so lucky. There were mothers I knew who were more focused on their next hair appointment than romping around the wild with their child.
So it’s the parents we have to educate too. Parents can very gently help their kids learn about the world. They can read stories about nature and about children in other parts of the world, and ask them questions. There are plenty of children’s stories about our changing climate. I’ve just written one about a young African girl who sees the forest disappearing and what can be done about it.
There are millions of parents who don’t care about the environment, and then we must hope that the child has a good teacher who can teach them about the planet, so they can in turn teach their parents. It can work both ways.
FC: It sounds like you have some optimism that we can turn things around, when it comes to the destruction of our planet.
JG: We have a window of time. The important thing is that we get together now to make a change. Unless we move together toward a new, greener economy and a more sustainable lifestyle, we’re doomed. If we’re privileged—like you and I are—we can think about our daily choices. We can be conscious about what we buy: Did making it harm the environment? Did it harm animals? Is it cheap because of child slave labor? If millions of people move toward ethical choices, then we make change.