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Jane Goodall's quest to stem the human plague

  • 12 July 2017


Flying into Sydney one recent morning, our pilot was directed to join the queue of planes lining up to land. To kill time he flew westwards, over the city's burgeoning outer suburbs. It was a beautiful day, clear as glass; Sydney lay beneath us, freshly-polished, blinking in the sunshine.

As the plane banked, the city's endlessness became apparent, for it stretched in tiny matchbox configurations to the furthest edges of the horizon. As I beheld this sprawling concrete landscape rimmed with green, a realisation struck me sharp as a slap to the face.

We humans are a plague upon this earth. A blight upon the landscape. An infestation of destructive creatures whose numbers have grown so huge we now occupy almost every cranny, whose appetites are so insatiable we have exploited earth's every last reserve. A species so certain of its own sanctity, we have wiped out entire ecologies in pursuit of our own wellbeing.

A few days later, I interviewed the British ethologist, anthropologist, environmentalist and UN Messenger of Peace, Dr Jane Goodall, during her visit to Australia.

Revered for her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in Tanzania's Gombe Stream (during which she documented tool-making and tool-using among these apes, man's closest genetic relative), Goodall has spent the past three decades travelling the world in an effort to alert its human inhabitants to the alarming news: we are destroying the planet.

But this urgent message, gleaned from her extensive environmental observations, seems to have been lost on those in a position to halt the change (politicians, corporations), for research scientists have just reported that a mass extinction is currently underway, a biological annihilation of wildlife in which billions of regional or local populations have already been lost.

The report pinpoints several contributing factors: habitat destruction, overhunting, pollution, alien species invasion and climate change. But the definitive cause, it says, is human overpopulation and overconsumption (especially by the wealthy) which threatens, most ironically, human civilisation itself.

One of the report's authors, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, warns there is only a small window of time in which humans can act to reverse this obliteration of species — and says the shrinkage of the human population is essential for its own survival.


"If we don't buy the product from the businesses that are harming the environment, they'll do it a different way. And if enough people support the politicians who do stand up, then they'll get reelected." — Dr Jane Goodall