For decades, you’ve championed wildlife and the environment.
How do you maintain hope?
My reason for hope is—first of all—my youth program, Roots
and Shoots. This is the way I explain why it’s called that: children are like
plants. They start out as a tiny seed. Then wee roots and shoots appear.
They’re weak at first, but the power within the seed is so magical that the
little roots reach water and the little shoots reach the sun. Eventually, they
can push rocks aside and work through cracks in a brick wall. They can even
knock a wall down. The rocks and the walls are the problems we’ve inflicted on
the planet—environmental and social—but roots and shoots surround the world.
Plants can change the world; they can undo a spot of the damage we’ve created.
And young people are definitely going to change the world. As I travel around,
I meet the youth. They’re filled with hope and enthusiasm and innovative ideas,
and that’s very inspiring. Roots and Shoots is now in 132 countries.
Secondly, my reason for hope is the resilience of nature.
The places that we’ve destroyed can become beautiful again. And then there’s
the human brain, which is utterly amazing. I think of the scientists who
drilled down into the permafrost and brought up the remains of an Ice Age
squirrel’s nest. In the plant material, they found three living cells and from
those living cells they managed to recreate the plant, which was a meadow’s
wheat. It’s 32,000 years old, but it’s now growing and seeding and reproducing.
That’s the resilience of nature, the incredible human brain, and the
indomitable human spirit. Sometimes people say that something won’t work, but
there are other people—like the scientists who recreated this Ice Age plant—who
don’t give up. They overcome tremendous obstacles, and that’s very inspiring.
It gives me hope.
in your book, Seeds of Hope, you talk about the
reverence people tend to feel when they’re with trees. Why do you think trees
engender these feelings?
They engender these feelings for me because—rooted in the
ground—they can be so strong. They can withstand wind. They even withstand fire
sometimes. It’s difficult for me to stand by a tree with my hand on its bark
and not feel that it has a spiritual value as well as a materialistic one.
There is the whole symbolism of the roots going into the ground and finding water
deep, deep down, and the leaves reaching up. There’s the fact that they’re
purifying our air and removing the Co2.
You use the word spiritual. How would you define
It’s the opposite of being materialistic. Some people
believe that everything is just there for its material value, or just as a
thing. And then other people believe there’s something more than that, which I
happen to believe. I don’t know if I can define spirituality—I’m not sure anybody
really has—but it’s something that you either feel or you don’t. It’s an
awareness of life that’s more than just the physical presence.
In your work as a primatologist and an ethologist, what
anecdotal evidence have you discovered that demonstrates animals can feel
compassion or love?
I’ll give you one story. There was an infant chimpanzee
named Mel. He was three and should still have been riding on his mother’s back,
sleeping with her at night, and suckling. but his mother died. If he’d had an
older brother or sister, he would have been adopted by that individual, but he
didn’t, so he was on his own and we thought he’d die. Then he was adopted by
Spindle, an unrelated male who was twelve, which is about like being a fifteen-
or sixteen-year-old human. Spindle let little Mel ride on his back. If it was
cold or Mel was frightened, he let him cling to his belly as a mother would. If
Mel crept up to his nest at night and made whimpering sounds, Spindle reached
out and drew him in. They slept curled up together. When Mel begged, whimpering
with his hand out, Spindle would share his food. And most dramatic of all,
Spindle protected Mel. Adolescent males tend to be scapegoats. If one male is
being dominated by another, he takes it out on somebody lower ranking, so the
adolescents keep out of the way in times of social excitement. And the mother’s
job is to keep her infant away, but of course, Little Mel didn’t have a mother,
so Spindle took that job on, even though it meant that he himself often got
bashed by the adult male. There is no question that Spindle saved Mel’s life.
What do you see as the most important thing individuals can
do to effect positive change for the environment?
The most important thing we can do is remember that every
single day every single one of us makes a difference. And we all can choose the
kind of difference we’re going to make. It does require becoming a little aware
about what we buy. Where does it come from? how was it grown? Did it involve
the use of child slave labor or chemical pesticides? And then there’s all the
little ways in which you interact with the environment. Do you bother to help a
sick dog? Do you respond to appeals for help when somebody is in trouble?
The big problem today is that so many people feel
insignificant. They feel that the problems facing the world are so huge that
there’s nothing they can do, so they do nothing. And as an individual maybe
there really isn’t that much, but when you get thousands, and then millions, of
individuals all doing the best they can every day for the environment and for
other beings, then you get huge change.
Can you give Shambhala Sun readers some concrete examples of
taking small steps to effect change?
There’s one man who moved to Japan, where he likes to walk
in the woods. but sometimes there are violent storms and these little tiny tree
orchids get blown down. Wanting to save them, he began taking the blown-down
orchids home and looking after them. Now when the season is right, he gets as
far up a tree as he can and staples them there with a stapler and they grow
back. It’s a simple thing, but it’s rather charming.
Another example, I went into a radio station in Canada and
in the studio waiting room I saw there were about six potted plants dotted
around. They were all dying because they hadn’t been watered. So I made a huge
thing about it. Then when I went back a year later, all the plants were very
healthy. So little things like that make a difference. Just never blame
somebody. I mean, I didn’t say to the people at the radio station, “Who’s
responsible for this monstrous behavior toward the plants?” I just said, “Oh, these
poor little plants. Please can you find me some water? I want to look after
them.” It’s all a question of how you go about trying to create change.