By Paula Musto
The start of a new year is always a good time for hope and optimism. Concern over mounting environmental issues that threaten the health of our planet, however, may dampen spirits. Here’s a suggestion: an inspirational account of why we should be hopeful for a better future by world-renowned scientist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall. In her memoir, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times, the author makes her case for hope in a troubled world.
Anyone interested in nature and wild animals will be impressed by the lifework of this passionate woman whose pioneering study of chimpanzees changed the way we look at other species. The book, co-written with Douglas Abrams, traces her field work in the African jungle, but also, sadly, documents the destruction of wildlife in their natural habitats. In Africa and elsewhere, once lush and green forested lands have disappeared at alarming speed since Goodall began her work more than half a century ago, threatening the survival of native wildlife. Add to this a global pandemic, the climate crisis and ongoing global tensions, and why should we be optimistic?
Goodall offers four reasons in what has become a New York Times bestseller. First, the human brain. While an intelligent animal “would not destroy its only home” as our species is doing, she believes humans have the intellectual power and ingenuity to come up with innovative solutions.
Second, the author cites the mighty resilience of nature witnessed by species that have been brought back from the brink of extinction and reintroduced into the wild. Third is the advocacy and power of youth awakened to the pressing issues inherited from previous generations. Many are now motivated into action. Finally, there is the indomitable human spirit. Goodall writes that throughout history forceful leaders have stepped up to accomplish what was thought by some impossible (Nelson Mandela, for example). Still, Goodall warns that we cannot leave it up to others; we all must act in ways large and small. “There’s not much time,” she writes. “The planet’s resources are running out…[I]t’s up to us to save the world for tomorrow.”
So, what do other naturalists and environmentalists think? I asked members of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AWR), an Asheville area nonprofit that cares for injured and orphaned animals, if they shared a hopeful stance. Perhaps, to no surprise, their answers echo Goodall’s reasoning.
“There are so many ways that people can get involved and help make a difference, many times right at their fingertips,” says certified wildlife rehabilitator Savannah Trantham, executive director of AWR. “In the Asheville area specifically, we see a lot of individuals consciously trying to do better and make better choices, putting in the effort to make a difference or a change to help the environment.”
People seek out Western North Carolina to reside in or to visit, she says, to be closer to the natural world and to live a greener lifestyle. They are making small changes that can make a big difference. Trantham also cites the powerful resilience of nature. “Given a small space and a little time, Mother Nature is able to heal herself quickly and abundantly,” she says.
Carlton Burke, a Mills River-based wildlife rehabilitator who operates Carolina Mountain Naturalists and serves on the AWR board of directors, believes youth are an important component in creating a more sustainable future. “We need a lot more environmental awareness to be taught responsibly to our younger generation, as they are much more likely to accept the need for change and practice what they are taught,” he says.
Burke also stresses the need for government intervention, adding, “I am very hopeful that we can greatly improve our environmental situations if we make the preservation and improvement of the environment a priority with realistic and practical laws and regulation.”
Longtime AWR volunteer and board member Winslow Umberger says that while the earth’s environmental challenges are daunting and changing behavior is hard, she is encouraged by Goodall’s optimism. “Her insight into the human brain resonates with me,” says Umberger. “Every action is preceded by a thought, and more and more people—particularly our younger ones—are becoming attuned to thinking about how their actions impact wildlife. The more we are willing to think about wildlife as worthy of protecting, the greater the hope that more people will put their minds to solving the imbalances that are threatening our world’s wondrous biodiversity.”
Goodall lays out the facts in her highly readable book and calls each of us to action. “Let us use the gift of our lives to make this a better world,” she says. Certainly a worthy New Year’s resolution!
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wildlife Refuge. Visit AppalachianWild.org for more information on how you can support wildlife and make a difference.