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SOCAL P.O.V. / PATT MORRISON

Humankind Against the Rest of the World

November 01, 1998|PATT MORRISON

Why the fervid romance with the prospect of life aboard space stations when we already live well above the earth anyway, so disconnected are we from what really happens on it?

It is possible to spend a sanitized lifetime of breathing, dressing, eating, driving, working and consuming without ever confronting how all of that is possible. Perhaps only in natural disaster, childbirth and death must we plug into the raw and real elements of living. Otherwise, we may never see the sweatshops that create our clothes, the forests that produce our houses, the coal mines and oil fields that make heat and fuel, the slaughterhouses that deliver meat, the forests and oceans whose flora and fauna make possible every breath, every footfall.

This perilous dissevering between product and process, between humankind and everything that sustains it, is what has coaxed a slight and gentle creature out of her forest habitat in Africa and into the meeting rooms and amplified pulpits of the world. In her seventh decade, Jane Goodall is taking her considerable capital--decades of work in East Africa among the chimpanzees and the mythogenic status her name and work invoke--and spending it in the cities, in this one in particular, to effect . . . well, what else? To change the world.

The world once came to her; now she is going out into it, to show us, in the most persuasive and inventive ways she can, how to obliterate the battle lines drawn between humankind and the rest of the world, where there ought to be nothing but comity.

She spends more time here than most presidential candidates trolling for contributions. In programs with the L.A. Zoo and the region's public schools, with people from San Fernando Valley community leader Blinky Rodriguez to LAPD police captains, she brings to California lessons learned at a dear price in Africa: too many humans ruthlessly plundering the too-few creatures, trees, plants and waters existing on too precarious a terrestrial crust.

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A couple of years ago, as Goodall hoped to launch her "Roots and Shoots" program in schools here, she found herself one morning with 10 welcome but unexpected minutes to make her case to the shiniest brass in the LAPD. Marching past the "who-the-hell-is-this?" stares, she took the podium and looked around.

"If I were a chimpanzee," she began, "and you were a group of high-ranking male chimpanzees, I would be very foolish if I didn't start with a proper submissive greeting." She uttered the proper chimp hoots and thus had 10 minutes of their undiluted attention.

Such is her MO: persuading, not hectoring. Of her appearances on talk shows like Roseanne's, she explains: "I want to reach an audience who wouldn't turn on a Jane Goodall show." Better than the rest of us she saw the fatal arrogance of what she calls the Dian Fossey syndrome, named for the champion of the mountain gorilla who was murdered in her African stronghold: the husbanding of one little fragment of paradise and damn the rest. "You can't conserve an area with no regard for the people living around it or you are doomed to fail." Yet she doesn't hesitate to use the most loaded of epithets to describe the wholesale killing of entire species that are no less worthy than ours, only different. Pure and simple, she says, it is genocide.

Goodall was in her 30s when Louis Leakey, the magister of paleoanthropology, was incensed to find that she had shot a wild guinea fowl for dinner. Better that, she retorted, than eat a chicken whose beak had been snipped off, its claws cut, a tormented product of factory farming.

She sighs the sigh of a woman who has heard "no" in the polite, impenetrable bureaucratese of several nations. "I do think a lot of people will never change, but if you give children the right experiences, get them asking questions and encourage them to find out for themselves," perhaps things can be changed before they change without us.

She is thinking of kids like the ones at John Muir High School here, who recently put together a show-and-tell on the considerate care of pets, and who gathered a day of garbage produced by the school and spread the contents of the trash bags proudly around Goodall to show her what they had learned about wastefulness.

An accumulation of such wisdom, not an accumulation of possessions, is Goodall's yardstick of our species' progress. Consumerism, a Western lust for "stuff," has become a birthright, an entitlement, a license to ravage and destroy. The day before, she had gone to a Burbank department store for face cream and was appalled to find an entire floor devoted to minute variants in cosmetics--overpackaged, overpriced and often marketed on the suffering of test animals.

Origins and consequences: If the children in the thousand "Roots and Shoots" programs across the world can understand the first and assess the cost of the second, then there is such a thing as hope. "It isn't any good leaving it up to them," Goodall says. "It's literally up to you and me," and without a massive shift, right now, for this generation, this place, "it could be too late." Four constants give her hope: "the human brain; the resilience of nature; if given a chance, the energy of young people," and, finally, "the indomitable human spirit."

Not, on my list at least, in that order.

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