Mar 5, 2013 0
conversations with jane
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people that disagree with you because you never know when you are convincing someone. People don’t like to reveal that they might be wrong during the conversation, but later they may think about it.” – Dr. Jane Goodall
If anybody had ever said, “You’re soon going to have meaningful time and dialog with world famous primatologist, Jane Goodall.” I would have said, it’s highly unlikely. But, in my sometimes chaotic world, I got close enough to have several conversations with her. In the process of meeting Dr. Goodall, I meet some very fine people from the Jane Goodall Institute – Netherlands. But first, how I got to the 2013 Future for Nature Awards.
how it happened.
My wife, Fenanda, is a big fan of Jane Goodall. She has read most of her books, has volunteered for “Roots and Shoots“, a Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) program for children, promoting respect for people, animals and nature, and has committed herself to a wide range of environmental activities. I myself have created the design and layout for some Roots and Shoots public service announcements published in Dutch regional newspapers, as well as attended a few of the Roots and Shoots’ meetings, so I am familiar with these organizations.
When Fenanda won a drawing for a chance to spend time with Dr. Goodall during her visit here during the Future for Nature awards event given by the Institute, in Arnhem, The Netherlands, she became giddy and excited. My job was to cover the event and shadow Fenanda as she shadowed Jane. I knew this was important because Fenanda holds her in such high esteem.
arrive early, stay late.
We arrived early, and while Fenanda joined Dr. Goodall, I took photos of animals in the zoo. Later, there was the presentation of award winners, which I describe in a previous blog entry, then Dr. Goodall ended the ceremony with a speech.
After her speech, we all went off to lunch and for the book signing after that. She is very popular and there was constantly a buzz of people around her. There was a long line of people wanting her book signed, and I could see how much work it is being a celebrity. It must take a lot of personal energy because every second in public with her was showtime. So, while she was doing her thing, I had a chance to see what the other people and companies were doing with the many displays and booths of scientists, vendors and entrepreneurs.
Jane Goodall spends 300+ days a year going from presentations, to lectures, to book tours, etc. The day after this particular event, she had a Skype appointment, a lecture, and a book signing. She would probably rather be in the bush with the chimpanzees and writing her books rather than so much traveling and public appearances. She understands what’s at stake and devotes herself fully – so that is inspiring as well.
an escape to simpler living
After the event, I got the chance to follow Fenanda to the “Landgoed” where Dr. Goodall was staying. The Landgoed, built on a location in the Dutch countryside, is an adaptive reuse of a refurbished old garage. The space was big enough that the several members of JGI, Fenanda, and myself were able to relax, rest and get to know each other till morning.
That evening, the atmosphere was very cozy – “gezellig” in Dutch, and we had a fire so it seemed like we were at a campfire telling stories. Of course, Jane had many stories to tell, but importantly, we all had our stories, and we shared them. Some told of their adventures in Uganda, Kenya or Congo (DRC), while others told their various chimp stories, or about their lives in different places. The stories, the fireplace, the candles, and their flickering shadows, created to me, a comforting prehistoric “dawn of mankind” atmosphere.
Remember that these are my first impressions and my reflections on those impressions. My first impression is that she values fairness – and she is somebody that accepts a challenge if there is a contest between women and men. That is, she doesn’t see herself as second class in any way, while at the same time rejecting any claims to privilege. Remember, when she started in 1957, she was a single white woman, in Africa, in the jungles, among the chimpanzees. She has a very self reliant energy. The following interaction may make my point.
We were sitting by the fireplace with a fire Jane had quickly and confidently made, and we placed some potatoes in the fire for our dinner. At a certain point, it was time to turn the potatoes. If I tried to get involved, I felt she would reject my assistance (I didn’t want to get kicked out of the kitchen, and perhaps my projection of her feeling uncomfortable with “fawning hands” around her). At the same time, I didn’t feel comfortable having someone make dinner for me, especially a guest of honor that had been busy on her feet and wit all day.
She accepted no assistance when building the fire or starting the meal, so when it came time for the potatoes to be turned and they were too hot to touch without burning the tips of your fingers, I seized my chance and said, “I’ll do it, I’ve got gloves” and I sprang into action. She seemed satisfied with that, and allowed me to turn the hot potatoes. Not immediately noticing I was using power of “the absurd,” after a few seconds, she was flabbergasted as she realized that I was using fingerless gloves and she said, “That is the single stupidest thing I’ve seen all day!”
We laughed because it was true. After she said that, my shtick had been reduced to responding in caveman-like grunts while, in a frenzy of frantic flipping, I avoided burning my fingertips… but continued to flip the hot items until the job was finished. It played like an early troglodyte situation comedy, but I got what I wanted, which was to contribute to the meal, while she got a chance to relax, and to beat on me with a verbal dinosaur bone. She can be playful, and will actually call out something stupid when she sees it, in real-time, so that was fun. The point is that she’s ready to take control and will accept any challenge from a man – which is probably a dynamic as old as humankind.
between anonymity and fame
I’m still processing the conversations I had with Jane. She is enormously influential, and I take her words and actions seriously. We have many common values, but we have stark differences in parts of our outlook and philosophy (as you would expect from two people with markedly different lives).
We are different because ours is the difference between a celebrity and a regular person, thus reflecting our personal approaches to solving problems. Perhaps Dr. Goodall has had time to grow into her celebrity role because she is having to speak more about environmental issues. She said, when she started out, there was no concept of these issues and that the African jungles spread out for as far as you could imagine. Times have changed, and more of us need to be drawn into action. This urgency requires her to act as a celebrity for a necessary cause. She has to communicate to leaders all over the world, and that has to influence how she operates.
In the course of our conversations, our individual differences appeared in two areas:
- I am somewhat ambivalent to the concept of celebrity. Perhaps I don’t watch enough TV, but I can interpret them (at least in many entertainment/political contexts) as one of many, in a wide range of contrived distractions.
- I am a somewhat more adversarial/confrontational than Dr. Goodall, which is likely related to my being a lawyer non-celebrity, blended with my martial instincts and system thinking approaches.
She understands where I am coming from and although we have different approaches, we have common values and goals.We both seem accepting of “both/and” inclusive thinking.
When I suggest that I am somewhat anti-celebrity, that doesn’t mean I don’t like celebrity per se (although I think it can be a misallocation of attention). I mean that I don’t believe celebrity or fame is necessary in order to do meaningful and effective things – her Future for Nature award winners make my point because they’re not celebrities. She knows a lot of famous people and she made it clear as well that fame has its advantages and disadvantages, as she told stories of other celebrities she had met.
I also have issues with loss of privacy, loss of personal time, security issues, and other problems of the rich and or famous, which translate into various degrees of freedom for the anonymous. These degrees of freedom may provide room for an approach that is somewhat more confrontational. I think when you take a stand on certain issues, you lose popularity. Famous people have difficulties with becoming confrontational that non-famous don’t have to worry as much about. Anonymity provides options and flexibility that celebrities don’t have.
Under these circumstances and in the larger sense, I can use the analogy that the celebrity is in the same relationship with their fans as ecosystems have with large mammals. The idea is that to protect the large animals, you want to be effective by protecting the environment that they exist in. I feel the same about people that work with the environmental issues. If you want an environmental movement, you need fans of the environment and their protectors. In the way society distributes affection and adoration, they should be treated like rock stars. On the other hand, in the way that we need a certain amount of privacy and individuality that can only be granted by being ignored, they should be granted a level certain of anonymity. I’m sure in practice it would be a dynamic tension between these extremes.
nature, conflict, and nonviolence
An issue that has been around since humanity – “violence” versus “the proper use of force.” I’m writing about this in the context of the things that she said. One of these important ideas came about when we were talking about cultural conflict and conflicting values. I told her I understood the goals and methods of non-violence (with their roots in both eastern and western philosophies), but know that violence in my experience, occurs under many circumstances – thus I am interested in looking at cases, their underlying conditions, and finding dominant arguments/strategies and solutions. Her way is to identify the common values and look for a solution by re-defining the problem so that all sides have a shared interest. She said if you put things in terms of conflict, then you start fighting. Once you start fighting, then… “off you go.”
I agree that war and physical violence can be the ultimate in “distractions.” They take needed attention away from the underlying issues that need to be discussed and solved. It seems a common thread in all of these projects is that whatever the goal, the idea is to do it in a way that most avoids violence.
She likes re-framing values. As an example, she said that when she was in Barcelona, she was discussing the issue of bullfighting. She admired the bravado of the bullfighter but wanted another way of showcasing that. I suggested doing something like the ancient Minoan civilization did – they practiced bull fighting by flipping off of the bull’s horns (called bull leaping). They likely used another type of bull, but she was excited about the idea. She saw that this could be a way of satisfying the conflicting values of the bullfighter, the bull, and the culture. She said the bull could, after a fixed time as animal athlete, be retired and put out to pasture – alive. So, now she said she wants me to go to Barcelona to work with them on it. I’ll check my agenda.
One other point that she made within a story about her and a disagreeing taxi driver, and one that I agree with, she said, “Don’t be afraid to talk to people that disagree with you because you never know when you are convincing someone. People don’t like to reveal that they might be wrong during the conversation, but later they may think about it.” She said that you should stay calm and reason with “unreasonable” people, they won’t show it, but you may find out later that your words were actually persuasive.
Being able to stand calmly in the face of angry disagreement is vital – just be careful you don’t get hurt. In my experience, I have found what she said to be especially good advice if one is: easily frustrated, easy to anger, or physically strong. The best approach is to stay calm, use reason and the power of your voice, and be as nice as the situation allows.
using my voice
She asked who I was, and so, I had the chance to undread some of my influences in the context of history, anti-colonialism, and capitalism, which I know she understood before I brought it up, because she made reference to some of it in her speech. I explained how my specific background shaped my life. I told them how martial arts empowered me (and those I taught) providing us an intuition for security, and the personal integrity needed fight against oppression (in all its forms), how computers helped me liberate myself and others, and how I used the law to regulate, enforce justice, and protect human rights.
I made clear my sensitivities, because I believe, especially in Africa and the Americas, that the laudable goals of environmentalism can also mask manifestations of privilege and support for colonialist thinking. For example, I noticed one of the award winners was using criminalization/policing methods to reduce elephant poaching, while the other award winners were using more preventative and protective anti-poaching measures. There was an image of a black African in shackles. I never want to see this category of image again. If the goal is to stop elephant poaching, follow the demand upstream and apprehend the ignorant, rich (where the money driving the supply is), or hypocritical celebities driving the demand for ivory, as well as providing economic alternatives to poaching.
She said “You could be a very powerful person.” Which I thought was an important statement coming from her, even though there were apparent but perhaps superficial differences between us. Beyond the obvious, our differences may be related to how we’ve learned to interpret our response between danger and duty.
I told my story – so here I’ll condense my meaning. I think our difference was due to my feeling that there is a difference between reasoning when one is in safety (including attendant security issues), as opposed to when one is in danger. I’ve seen many examples of how circumstance affects thinking and because sometimes I see how people’s dangerous and forced situations play out, like the tragedy of the commons in Machiavellian style – with dilemmas prisoners don’t even want. Thus we should understand how these “forces” affect circumstances and success in society. If humans are a part of nature, aren’t the things that we do the nature of humanity?
Along our entire discussion, she was open minded about my way of being, thinking and doing (which derives from her respect for people) because she showed me consideration of a viewpoint different than her own. Her flexibility and attention to others’ stories, revealed to me her experience and maturity (or wisdom).
Before she added that she liked my hair, she said, “Your dreadlocks are long.” To which I replied, “Because the struggle is long.”
Fenanda and I slept amazingly well considering all the impressions that were rolling around in our heads (and hearts). If there are four main ideas I gleaned from all the things Jane said today, they might approximate these:
- Don’t be discouraged from voicing your ideas and reasons when there are conflicting views.
- Environmental efforts often deal in conflicting values and require conflict avoidance because violence doesn’t solve the underlying problems.
- Re-frame conflicting actions to find common values in order to find effective solutions.
- Finally, from a part the her speech she gave, there is reason to hope for the future because nature is resilient. Intelligent and purposeful work can bring species back from the brink.
I can’t begin to presume, in these few hours, that I know much about her – these are my first impressions. Jane has written many books, and is very good at explaining what she means. In a short time, I’ve had to absorb a lot of information, but it gives me insight into her, her cause, and myself. I haven’t finished reflecting on her words and actions, but I believe that when I do, I will be able to distinguish exactly in which areas we disagree, and amplify those areas we have in common. She certainly does make one want to be a better person.
This meeting is not something granted to very many people, so I treat it as something very special. I am grateful for the chance to meet with such a highly developed person. She says I get to call her Jane now, so I appreciate that and because she has given me much to think about. I am also thankful to Fenanda, for allowing me to accompany her as she met Jane behind the scenes.
I would like to give recognition to the people of Jane Goodall Institute, Netherlands. They organize these successful events for the supporters of the environment, people, animals, and their habitats. Thanks also to: Diederik, Patrick, and Saskia and others I saw but cannot name. They worked hard to develop and host a smooth and well run event. Meeting them afterwards was a pleasure. These are good people with lots to teach, and are supportive of the many different approaches to environmentalism.