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Giving Up Hope Won't Save the Planet. Ending Poverty Might.

We haven't inherited this planet from our parents; we've borrowed it from our children.
Image: A forest burns during an operation to combat illegal logging in Apui, Brazil
A forest burns during an operation to combat illegal logging in Brazil's Amazon on Aug. 4.Bruno Kelly / Reuters

We are destroying the world at a very rapid rate, and an awful lot of people are just giving up hope and thinking, "Well, there's nothing I can do." The rain forests are disappearing everywhere. Big dams are draining whole countries of their water supply: The famous Serengeti, in Tanzania, is threatened by a dam in Kenya; and the Nile is being threatened by a huge dam in Ethiopia. There's mining, there's fracking, there's drilling for oil. We're in the middle of the sixth great species extinction; we're losing biodiversity in place after place. We're burning fossil fuels very, very fast.

We are breeding billions of animals to eat them, and that means that whole habitats are being destroyed to grow grain, masses of fossil fuel are being used to take the grain to the animals, the animals to slaughter, the meat to the table. In addition, the animals are producing masses of methane gas with their digestion, and that's a very virulent greenhouse gas.

Not only is the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic melting, but, very frighteningly, the permafrost is, too, releasing even more methane. This plus carbon dioxide, and a couple of other gasses, are blanketing the earth and trapping the heat of the sun. And that's led to climate change with terrible hurricanes and flooding and droughts.

Image: An iceberg floats past Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago
An iceberg floats past Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago on July 24.David Goldman / AP

There are certain things that must be done if we're to put the world right. One is alleviating poverty. Because if you're living in desperate poverty, you're going to continue destroying the environment in order to live.

People understand perfectly well that cutting down the last trees in a desperate effort to grow food is going to lead to terrible erosion. That erosion, in turn, will lead to the silting up of the water. Meanwhile, if you live in an urban area — including the U.S. — and you're very poor, then you buy the cheapest food. You can't afford to ask yourself how many miles did the food travel, did it harm the environment, did it result in animals suffering, did it involve child slave labor and so on.

But, we do need to start thinking how everybody else can lead more sustainable lives, particularly the very rich. There's just so much waste. That's partly because food isn't priced properly; there's no account made in the prices of cheap food for the cost that's very often involved in producing it.

The wealthy need to start thinking about their environmental footprint — what do I buy, what do I eat, what do I wear, how was it made, where did it come from — and thinking whether they need all the stuff that they buy and how they could live in more environmentally sustainable ways.

Image: A Chinese state owned coal fired power plant operates in Huainan
A Chinese state owned coal fired power plant operates in Huainan, China on June 16, 2017.Kevin Frayer

The urgent message is that, if we carry on with business as usual, then there's very little hope for sustaining human life on this planet in the manner to which people aspire today. The reason for all my lecturing is to, first of all, try and raise awareness about what's happening and, secondly, to try and help people understand there is something that can be done. So, for instance, by working with the MasterClass, I hope this message, and a whole lot more besides, can get out to a much, much wider audience.

One of the other programs that the Jane Goodall Institute supports is a humanitarian and environmental program for young people called Roots & Shoots. It started with 12 high school students in Tanzania, and now has members from kindergarten through university in 100 countries. The program's main message is that every individual makes a difference every day. Every group chooses itself three projects that are pertinent to the area around them that can make things better for people, for animals and for the environment — everything from planting trees to recycling to raising money for victims of earthquakes and hurricanes to growing organic food.

Of course, they also learn about what's going on in the world, how everything is interconnected and the urgency of trying to do something about it. And even if the young people in the program don't continue with the volunteer work, they certainly continue with an understanding of their life's impact.

Image: Giraffes walk through Tanzania's Serengeti National Park
Giraffes walk through Tanzania's Serengeti National Park in January 2015.Mosa'ab Elshamy

I meet people all over Tanzania, and they say to me, "Well, it taught me that the environment is terribly important and I must try and preserve it. I'm getting my children involved Roots & Shoots in their school." In China, where we have about 2,000 groups, people tell me, "Well, of course, I care about the environment because I was in your Roots & Shoots program in primary school. Of course, I care about animals, I watched your documentaries about chimpanzees when I was in primary school."

I find that young people — when they know the problem, when you listen to them, when they're then empowered to take action — they just roll up their sleeves and get out there and go to work. And, as young people learn more, they are influencing their parents, they're influencing their grandparents — and some of them already are in high positions.

You very often hear that we haven't inherited this planet from our parents; we've borrowed it from our children. But, the way we're living today, we're stealing. We have been stealing for years, and we're still stealing their future today. In many places, we are using up more of the finite natural resources of the planet than nature can replenish. People have to start thinking. We have a window of opportunity for making some changes, for slowing down climate change. But it's going to require much more effort.

As told to THINK editor Megan Carpentier, edited and condensed for clarity.