Gabriela Herman / The New York Times

Keynote speaker Jane Goodall brought the COVID-19 pandemic into the context of humanity's relationship with the environment.

March 1, 2021

‘We Need to Change’: Naturalist Jane Goodall Urges Repairing Relationship With Wildlife to Prevent Future Pandemics

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In a Feb. 23 webinar, a host of prominent environmentalists discussed how human activity led to the current pandemic and drew connections between pandemic and environmental issues.

“Everything on this planet is interrelated, and we ignore that to our peril,” said naturalist Jane Goodall, the event’s keynote speaker. 

Goodall is best known for her 60-year study on the social behavior of wild chimpanzees, leading to the revolutionary discovery that chimpanzees make and use tools. In the years since, Goodall has continued to advocate for an array of topics ranging from environmental conservation to human rights.

Co-hosted by the World Wildlife Fund, the College of Veterinary Medicine and the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the webinar focused on how to prevent future pandemics by more closely examining the complex relationship between humans and the natural world.

The group emphasized that in order to fully understand this relationship, the pandemic must be contextualized beyond the limited scope of human actions.

By focusing on human cause and effect, Prof. Steve Osofsky, veterinary medicine, explained that people should regard human health as a dynamic interplay between humans, the environment, animals and agriculture — a “One Health” approach.

The panelists explored how human expansion has spearheaded the destruction of natural environments, forcing animals into closer contact with humans. Combined with animal trafficking, the closer contact has increased humans’ likelihood of exposure to zoonotic pathogens, or germs that spread between animals and humans.

In addition to emphasizing human causes of the pandemic, the speakers condemned blaming the pandemic on Wuhan, the city in China where COVID-19 originated. Though Asia is home to many wildlife markets, worldwide factory farms have the unhygienic conditions and animal crowding that heavily increase humans’ risk of exposure to zoonotic pathogens.

This mix of conditions made a pandemic inevitable, Goodall said, even one with origins outside of China.

“No wonder bacteria and viruses can spillover from an animal to a person — we made it easy for them,” Goodall said.

Goodall believed that the prevention of future pandemics begins with shifting the damaging relationship humans have with animals and the environment. 

“We have absolutely disrespected the natural world and we have disrespected animals,” Goodall said. “We are part of that world — we are not separate from it.”

In order to improve humanity’s relationship with the environment and counteract the transmission of zoonotic disease, the speakers emphasized the importance of prioritizing sustainable decision-making — even at the individual level.

However, the speakers said conditions of poverty around the world pose a challenge to sustainability efforts, demonstrating the crucial need to mitigate poverty before ethical environmental decision-making can take place.

According to Goodall, one reason behind this challenge is that those struggling with poverty must prioritize the basic requirements for human survival over environmental issues.

“If you’re living in extreme poverty, what else can you do?” Goodall said. “You’re going to cut the last tree to try and make money from charcoal … you’re going to fish the last fish to feed your family.” 

The best thing individuals can do is educate each other about the environment and other animals, according to Goodall. 

Individuals can control their buying habits on a daily basis to decrease carbon footprint. Goodall encouraged attendees to consider whether they really need certain products, where they came from, whether its production harmed the environment and why they are so cheap.

Thomas Friedman, moderator and New York Times columnist, concluded the seminar by stressing that people must respect humanity’s connection with the environment to build the foundation for a more sustainable world.

“If we are humble, if we respect [Mother Nature], if we are coordinated, and if we build our responses on chemistry, biology and physics — not politics, ideology, and election calendars — we can be in harmony with her,” Friedman said.

David Dayan ’24 contributed reporting.

Correction, March 4, 1:04 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the sentiment conveyed at the event. The speakers at the webinar emphasized the impact human behaviors leading up the pandemic, and the potential for future pandemics, not just humans’ relationship to the environment. The Sun regrets the error.