Today’s guest, Professor Ben Garrod, is an evolutionary biologist, author, broadcaster and primate conservationist, who has worked alongside Dr Jane Goodall and Sir David Attenborough to ignite a love of the natural world in a wide audience, young and old.
In this episode we explore bio-anthropology, the existence of rituals among non-human primates, our fractured identity with the natural world, and why we need to fall in love with the earth if we are to save it.
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PROFESSOR BEN GARROD
Ben is the Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia, he holds a Masters in Wild Animal Biology from the Royal Veterinary College and his PhD at UCL focused on studying the early stages of speciation in island-living primates through molecular and anatomical changes.
He started broadcasting in 2014 with the award-winning BBC4 series Secrets of Bones, and has since presented a range of TV shows, including Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur (2016), The Day the Dinosaurs Died (2017) and Hyper-evolution: The Rise of Robots (2017), as well as Bone Stories and The Human Hive on BBC Radio 4.
In 2018, Ben released six children’s books in the series So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs?, and his new book, The Chimpanzee and Me will be published this summer.
Written, recorded & produced by Nathalie Nahai © 2019.
NN: Hello, and welcome to The Hive Podcast. I’m really excited about today’s show because I’m actually going to interview a very dear friend of mine who I went to college with, and he’s a very special guest. This episode, I’ll be talking with Professor Ben Garrod, an evolutionary biologist and primate conservationist who’s also a broadcaster for television and radio, and who’s written several fantastic books covering a broad range of subjects from evolution and anatomy to animal behaviour and natural history.
Ben is the Professor of Evolutionary Biology and Science Engagement at the University of East Anglia. He holds a Master’s in Wild Animal Biology from the Royal Veterinary College, and his PhD at UCL focused on studying the early stages of speciation in island living primates through molecular and anatomical changes. He started broadcasting in 2014 with the award-winning BBC Four series Secrets of Bones. He’s since presented a range of TV shows including Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur, The Day the Dinosaurs Died, and Hyper Evolution: The Rise of Robots, as well as the bone series and Human Hive on BBC Radio Four.
In 2018, he released six children book in the series So You Think You Know About Dinosaurs, and his new book The Chimpanzee & Me will be published this summer. So really exciting stuff going on there. Ben, thank you so much for joining me today to chat about your ideas, your research, and your adventurous life.
BG: No worries. Thank you. That seems to be the most impressive introduction I’ve ever had. I wondered who that guy was there. Thanks, Nat.
NN: I want to do you justice because it’s good to be able to do that. I want to kick off by actually sharing one of the early stories that you told me, which I vividly remember, about your first encounter with the wonderful Dr. Jane Goodall. It stuck me because of the way in which you connected with one another. I wondered if you might be happy to share that story with us now.
BG: Cool. Definitely. So I was third year Animal Behaviour student and, like many students, I had my heroes. It was Dian Fossey. It was Jane Goodall. Of course, it was David Attenborough. But Jane Goodall herself held this really special place in my heart, and I wanted to be the next Jane. Now for those who don’t know, Jane was a young biologist in the 1960s who went to Tanganyika, which is now Tanzania, and was the first person really to study great apes in the wild in any real depth. It’d been done a little bit before, but people had given up and said it just wasn’t possible. Whereas Jane went out there and blew our socks off in the scientific community. She saw chimpanzees hunting for the first time. She saw non-human primates making and using tools. This really helped us redefine what it meant to be not only human, but our place in nature. As you can probably gather, she was a bit of a thing for me, Jane.
Now during my university I obviously worked very hard but, I also had several other jobs. I worked in a pub. I also worked as a silver service waiter at one of the big colleges, at Cambridge University. Now I’d just been away for three months. I’d broken my wrist, so obviously couldn’t lift big heavy plates. My very first night back the whole hall was decked with quite weird, quite cliché African ornamentation. There was leopard print tablecloths and knickknacks all over the shop. It was horrific. I asked what the reason was and my boss said, “Oh, some monkey lady’s here this evening.” “Who’s the monkey lady?” “Oh, Jane someone?” “Oh. Oh. Okay. Is it Jane Goodall?” “Yeah.” So as staff we weren’t meant to talk to the people we were serving, unless they spoke to us first. It really was that archaic. It probably still is, I’m afraid. I’ve served a whole load of wonderful, posh, incredible, amazing, all different, you can name them, I’ve served them and very rarely spoke to them. Stephen Fry, Ian McKellen, all these people.
That all changed this evening when I was serving Jane. I’m not the most nervous person in the world, as you know, but I had to serve my hero soup, and I was shaking when I served The Jane Goodall soup. She turned around, very sweetly, halfway through me serving ladles of soup and said, “Hello. What’s your name?” All I could squeak was, “Ben.” “Hi, Ben. My name’s Jane,” to which I replied, “I know.” I lost all credibility that evening. Now throughout the evening serving her different courses, we’d snatch a little bit of conversation each time. “What are you doing? Oh, you’re studying animal behaviour. What do you want to do afterwards?” “I want to go to Africa. I want to be like you, Jane. I’m really sorry. You must hear this a million times a day.” And then I would go and serve somebody else soup or vegetables or whatever.
Across, right at the point we got to coffees and then mints, we’d had a little bit of a conversation, and she finally said, “Right. Sit down,” which I wasn’t meant to do at all. She pulled a chair all the way across the high table floor, and it echoed through the chamber. It was terrible. Sat down, took one of my hands, and said, “Right. What are we going to do with you?” I said, “Jane, I just want to go to Africa in some way, shape, or form, and I just want to study apes.” She took my hand, she looked at me in the eyes for probably about 30, 40 seconds, I don’t know. I can remember thinking, “I’m not sure what to do now. As a primatologist, does she want to outstare me? Do I have to outstare her? Do I need to be dominant? Does she need to be dominant?” All this crazy emotion was running through my head. I don’t know what she was thinking. She just broke off and said, “Okay. We’ll sort something.”
BG: Then two months later I’d finished my degree, I was in Northwest Uganda running a huge program, running ecotourism, research, habituation for wild chimpanzees, law enforcement education, and that was it. It was all through serving Jane Goodall soup that I managed to get the job of a lifetime.
NN: That is absolutely extraordinary, and the moment at which you lock eyes and she just held your gaze for that time sounds very powerful. I just wanted to, yeah, include that because it’s an extraordinary story. So since then, you’ve actually lived and worked all over the world from Central Africa, working on great ape conservation with the Jane Goodall Institute, Southeast Asia for orangutan conservation, Madagascar where it was about marine life, and you’ve even been to the Caribbean where you studied introduced monkeys. What is it that moved you, if you can narrow it down to maybe a couple of reasons, to explore the natural world in this way, and primates in particular?
BG: I grew up, as you did, in Coastal East Anglia and as a kid I spent a lot of time on the beaches with my grandparents. I think it was that real physical proximity to nature that just inspired me. My grandfather wasn’t an academic in any way, shape, or form. He was actually a mole catcher.
NN: Oh, wow.
BG: But he didn’t know the answers to the questions that I had. So we used to, together, make up these incredible stories that were absolute rubbish and full of lies, but we used to make these incredible fun stories. I realize now that we gave narrative to science. We gave the narrative to the natural world, even as a three-, four-, five-year-old. That’s still with my now. I think this area of exploration of the natural world, and trying to put a narrative to it, has really inspired me.
I’ve always been in an environment where through mom, dad, and the rest of the family, they’ve always said, and I’m so fortunate for this, “You can do whatever you want.” So growing up in those pubs I was always told, “If you want to go study the other side of the world, you can.” “If you want to be a doctor, totally.” “If you want to be an astronaut then have fun in space.” Looking back it was an incredible thing for them to do, but it just set me on my path. As to why nature, I don’t know. I feel so calm, so relaxed, and so at ease with myself when I’m surrounded by the natural world.
NN: I love the way that you were inspired with your grandparents, with your grandfather in particular, to make stories to interpret and relate to your natural environment. What do you think it is about the ways in which we make stories and narratives that connect us to the natural world that’s so, I kind of want to use the word heart opening, because it does give us a sense of peace and connection. I think in a day-to-day sort of rhythm of life we lose that a lot, we lose this connection. So what is it about the power of story, do you think, that’s so important about reconnecting us with nature?
BG: I think the power of story is fundamental to us as a species. We can track the storytelling aspect of humanity as far back as records go. We know that aboriginal tribes still tell incredible stories that go back millennia. The same with traditional North American tribes as well. We have this inherent, not only ability, but this drive to tell stories. Something that always absolutely perplexes me is that we get into science and we drop the narrative because science is clinical, science is quantifiable.
But actually, it’s the greatest story ever told, the story of the universe being created, the story of humanity evolving from something that looked more like a chimpanzee. If we can’t tell stories in science, we’re doing it wrong. So I think it’s this inherent human quality to tell stories with the greatest story that can be told, the science around us. I think, I love the idea of marrying these two up, and it just works.
NN: I think what’s interesting is when you start to see, it’s kind of like a fine line or a delicate dance between our desire for story-making and extracting meaning from what we observe, what we experience, and then making inferences that maybe take prediction a little bit too far. For instance, and I don’t know where that line is, but it really fascinates me. I read recently a fascinating paper in the journal Nature written by an international teams of researchers who were observing chimpanzees in Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau, and Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire.
They were witnessing these chimpanzees throwing stones into certain hollow trees, and creating rock piles reminiscent of a cairn that we might build, you know when people build stacks of stones. It’s something we’ve been doing for a very, very long time. From something like that which looks potentially to be a ritualized behaviour, what might we be able to infer? Is it taking it a step too far if we kind of go, “Well, maybe this is a ritual. Maybe this is meaning-making that we’re observing in other animals”?
BG: Oh, Nat. As scientists, we very often have this very thick armour where it’s a risk to say anything that can be misconstrued or that might be wrong. I almost have to whisper that, but it’s okay to be wrong. We can talk about these things as people and as scientists, and they’re not mutually exclusive. There’s no reason why non-human primates can do things that are ritualistic. Now I’ve often said to colleagues and friends describing a piece of behaviour, and they’ll come back and say, “Yes, that sounds very ritualistic. What is it?” I’ll say, “Well, I’ve seen it in chimpanzees.” And sometimes you’ll hear this, “Ooh, no. No.” It’s like, “Oh, okay. You’ve just accepted it was ritualistic not knowing the species, but now you know it’s chimp it’s not allowed.” I think we’ve got to a point now …
Again, back to Jane Goodall. When she first named her chimpanzees, David Greybeard and Flow and the rest of them, and she noticed that they were using tools and they were hunting other animals within the forests. When she took this back to her, not her supervisor Louis Leakey, but colleagues back in university in the UK, they absolutely ridiculed her. For being, first of all, a young woman who was too emotional anyway, but also, “Of course she’s going to see crazy things that are wrong, she’s given the animals names. The moment you start to see them not as subjects or as data points you’ll see all manner of crazy stuff.” Now we now know that that’s not the case. Of course, they’re different individuals. You look at your dog or your cat at home, they’re individuals as much as we are.
I think we’re still coming to the point where we’re becoming more able to look at these things, such as the cairn building, and make inferences that we’re more confident in. So yes, I totally believe that’s ritualistic behaviour. I think it’s very naïve to think we’ve got this hugely rich human culture, that it just appears five and a half or six million years ago. We know for a fact that Neanderthals buried their dead and covered them in shells and seeds and red ochre.
BG: They were doing that because there was some level of belief there. We know that in two or three locations they buried their dead children with horned animal skulls surrounding the children in the grave plots. If you’re not doing that for ritualistic religious-like behaviour, when why are you doing it? I think there’s this wonderful, wonderful sort of stretch piece of cultural evolution there. That yes, it hasn’t started off where chimpanzees were going to church on a Sunday. That didn’t randomly start in humans either. I think that thing came from our ancestors, but at what point? I don’t know, but it’s a fascinating area and we have to open our eyes to that.
Now Jane has this wonderful story as well where in the dry season there was a tiny trickling waterfall in one of her hill forest areas. But at the start of the rainy season this tiny trickle turned into a rainbow-fuelled cascade. She said that the first time she saw this, all of the chimps in the area would disappear and end up at the bottom of this little cascading waterfall on their back legs, holding onto saplings, swaying the trees and cooing, whilst watching the water come down for hours, and hours, and hours.
NN: Oh, that’s so moving.
BG: She said she’s never published that, she’s never written that up as a piece of science. She said but they were celebrating, they were not going as far as worshiping it. But in the same area you have animist human beliefs where we celebrate the forest, we celebrate spirits, we celebrate things we don’t understand. Is it a massive leap to go chimpanzees are celebrating something they don’t understand to the same thing with humans in many ways? Yes, we’re more able to give it meaning, but this developing of cairns, this celebrating waterfalls, the dead rituals, are all part of a sliding scale. I think that’s one of the most interesting areas of bioanthropology is when did the things that we think define us uniquely, when did they start to develop in our ancestors?
NN: I love that story. I mean it’s beautiful. I think what strikes me about it also is the degree to which now as a civilization we have become, in many parts of the world, so disconnected from the living natural environment, and so, maybe anesthetized to the beauty and the sacredness of what’s there. You mentioned like animist religions, this idea of everything having some kind of spirit or life force or whatever. I think it’s a deep shame that we’ve lost this sense of awe in many parts of our civilizations, and reverence for something which is profoundly extraordinary, and beautiful, and complex, and rich. To then have the hubris to say, “Well, this is the height and pinnacle of intelligence,” and have that disconnection, and then to allow that to then feed into what has now become a really problematic climate crisis.
If we were to take it down that path, do you think that there is something that we’re missing from, for instance, in science it’s reflected really well. You described the fact that we have such a reluctance in mainstream science to ascribe narrative and meaning and beauty. But what is it about that, that we seek to be analytical and disconnected and objective at what seems to be a deep expense to us and all other species?
BG: I think the reason we do it as scientists, and I understand why we do, is to give quantifiable data to things, to give reliability to observations that we make. We do need that, absolutely, but also we need to not lose sight of the story behind that. It’s really hard, I don’t know the answer. It’s not me saying we’re all doing it wrong, because we’ve all done it, and it’s very hard to give meaning to certain things and to be brave enough to do that. Actually, within the world we’re in, most people don’t want experts anyway, yet alone an expert who’s waffling on about the religious behaviour of non-human primates. We open ourselves up for, as Jane did, sadly. We open ourselves up for ridicule and for criticism.
So I understand that we’ve done this but, I think it’s a wider concept politically, and educationally, and scientifically. Yes, we’ve got this disconnect with the natural world. We, as you said, we are pumping pollutants and toxins and poisons into the very life-giving force that is around us everywhere, the natural world, because we don’t see the cause and effect. How many people would still use all the plastics they use, would still use all the microbeads, would still throw away all these pollutants, if they thought it’s actually depriving us of oxygen, if they thought they were pumping carcinogens into our environment? I don’t know, but we don’t believe we’re doing that, and that’s incredible. It’s an incredible thing that us as a species have that incredible confidence.
NN: And denial. It’s kind of these psychological, I guess psychological straitjackets that we wrap around ourselves, and then live in denial of.
BG: Absolutely. Then also, we have this duality all the time where we are part of the natural world, and we in many ways are doing things that are natural to a species, but also we expect to set ourselves aside and have a higher level of understanding, and accountability, and almost global stewardship. Which, yeah we do, but that’s a huge amount to ask for a species. We see elephants destroying habitats all the time. If elephants have been taken away from an area, the habitat grows back really quickly and becomes a very thick secondary forest. You reintroduce elephants, they destroy that within a year or two. You’ve got another big, iconic, intelligent species there that destroys habitats at a rate that isn’t …
BG: Yeah. But we don’t expect elephants to limit what they do. I’m not saying, of course, we’re very different. But I do come back to this idea that we do tread a very fine line constantly, and we have made it very hard for ourselves. We’re, in many ways, a victim of our own success. We talk about what’s natural, well this is natural for us. What’s natural for a chimp, or natural for a humpback whale, or an eagle, is just as natural for us to develop all this technology, to develop all these plastics, because it makes our life easier or better or more lucrative or whatever. It’s so, I don’t know the answer. It’s so difficult. But actually, we’re doing what comes natural to us.
NN: So fascinating. I’m also curious to ask, because obviously you write a lot of books and you create a lot of content, especially also for younger audiences, which I find really exciting and inspiring. I’m wondering if you have found that younger people and children’s perception of their relationship with the natural world has varied dramatically from adults. For instance, I know that all the climate strikes, school strikes, that have been happening around the world, that have spread to everywhere bar the Antarctic, that there is something there. There’s this sense of, if we’re talking about natural drive, of younger people having the natural drive not only for survival, which now feels like it’s under immediate threat, which finally is waking people up to the problem, but also to affect change in their environment, to come together, to create something that is important. In what ways do you find younger people engaging differently to the way that adults are engaging?
BG: Oh, this is such a beautiful area of where we are as a species right now because there’s this wonderful pushback, as you said, a global pushback. Young people are angry. They’re angry that they’re not being listened to. They’re angry that it’s their future we’re polluting. I say we, anyone over 18 is responsible for this, and they’re angry at all of us, and they should be, and we should feel bad, and we owe it to them to make the change here. I think the difference with these young people, and there are so many out there, as you said, in so many countries right now. There’s Greta Thunberg from Scandinavia. There’s Dara McAnulty from Ireland. There’s Bella Lack from England. I could name a hundred different young people, easily, who are more influential than some of our most senior politicians.
That’s because they’re passionate, they’re driven, and in their minds they’ve got nothing to lose, because we’re already losing it. I can’t say any better than any of these young people, and the important thing is, none of these young people are older than 18. They’re young people who, in the eyes of the law, aren’t even adults yet. But look, they’re changing policy, they’re changing the way we think. Because they care, because they don’t have this stripped down idealism where you have to act a certain way to keep the job, or to keep someone happy, or to act in accordance with society around you. These kids are angry. I’m not sure if I can say they’re pissed off, but they are.
NN: Yes you can.
BG: Yeah, and rightly so. You know what, I would stand behind these kids, and I will stand behind these kids in everything they want to do because it’s their world. It really is. I genuinely think that it’s not up to us scientists and us politicians anymore. I think it’s up to the young people who want to see the change. I do think that’s where we’ll see this change coming from.
NN: So many of us, especially those of us who are having to earn a living, have conflicts of interest. I feel this within myself. I have to travel in order to work, so that means that I am taking flights. Now I can offset that, and I do, by funding the planting of trees or offsetting my carbon emissions by helping to support people growing, and training people to grow forest gardens. But it would be ideal if I didn’t have to do that. And yet, younger people don’t have these considerations in the same way that people of a working age might. How do you kind of balance that as an adult with these other responsibilities, and the work that you do? Like how, yeah, I’m curious from a personal level, really. It’s tricky, sorry.
BG: It’s really tricky. Anyone who says, “I don’t do this or that,” we’re wrong. We do all these things. I’ve just returned two days ago from West Africa, where I flew out to West Africa. I’ve done eight trips to West Africa this year. Yes, I’ve offset that as best I can, but the work that I’m doing out there is to raise awareness for conservation. It’s a really difficult catch-22 in some respects, but it’s making the differences where you can. Not everybody can afford to plant trees, but what you can afford to do is meat-free Mondays, for example. It’s one thing where you make a tiny difference.
What I’m absolutely sick of is people saying, “Oh yeah, but if you don’t use straws, that’s not going to save polar bears, is it?” It’s going to make more of a difference than using the straws. If you just stop using straws, as one person, it will make a difference. “Oh yeah, but if I stop using cotton buds, look at China.” That’s not the answer. Just because someone bigger than you is still doing something doesn’t mean you should stop doing anything. Any single thing that you as an individual, or as a school, or university, or business, or government, or country, can do makes a huge difference. Whether it’s using a different soap, or whether it’s reducing the amount of meat you have, or actually going veggie, does make a massive difference. Not only to yourself but actually to the big chain, and it will have a knock-on effect. I can almost guarantee that.
By these little steps, these little steps combine, and they form an avalanche of change eventually. So yeah, I make the changes when I can, but as we all are, I’m still guilty of contributing to this global problem. But I’m trying to make a difference, and that’s all we can do. No one’s expecting you to go live in a hole and become a hermit. We are a modern species in a modern world. We’re very dynamic. It’s offsetting that in whichever way you can. It can be as little as stopping to use straws or it can replanting trees. It’s finding your way of giving something back, I think is the important thing there.
NN: I’m curious with the things that you’ve experienced with the work that you’re doing, what your biggest concern for the future might be.
BG: Oh, Nathalie.
BG: My biggest concern for the future is that we don’t act in time. We’re a wonderful species in so many ways, and we’re capable of the most tender love and the most incredible creativity, but also the most mind-blowing apathy in any species that I’ve ever encountered. I just worry that we throw this idea around that we’ve got 12 to 15 years left in order to make a difference before there are irreversible differences, irreversible changes in our environment. And still people are responding by going, “Yeah, but look, we’ve had global change in the past and look at the dinosaurs.” Yeah, look at the dinosaurs. They’re not here anymore. That’s my biggest concern.
Of course there are individual things in terms of specific areas of pollution, and population growth is a huge issue right now, but it’s all down to apathy. That can all change if we are galvanized, if we want to make that difference. That has to work at every level of society, but it doesn’t matter where it comes from. That’s the wonderful thing with these kids or these young people. That spark might come from a whole left field demographic, which I think it is. So my biggest fear is apathy, but I am the eternal optimist. I think we’ll be all right because I have faith in young people, I really do.
NN: Yeah. If you’re thinking about the vision that we can work towards achieving, in an ideal world, because as you say, we are a modern society living in a modern world, we’re technologically advanced. We haven’t even talked about things like the development of technology like AI or green tech or whatever it might be. But in the best case scenario, if there is realistically only a certain amount of stuff that we end up doing before or within this window of time, what do you think realistically we can work towards achieving in terms of a vision for the future?
Does it include things like choosing not to have kids, which I know a lot of my peers are choosing not to do because of the carbon footprint, the uncertainty of the future. What aspects might you draw upon and say, “Okay, this is a realistic future that we can hope to create together if we pull our act together enough”?
BG: It’s sustainability. I think that’s the important thing here. We still have a lot of room for a lot more people on the planet, and that’s the reality there, but we don’t at our current rate of usage. In terms of the resources we’re depleting, in terms of the sheer area of land we’re dedicating to cattle farming, for instance. If we reduced our use of meat or consumption of meat or became more vegetarian, all vegetarian, that would have a huge global impact. If we actually stopped the reliance on single-use plastics that would have a massive impact. It’s the little things that makes a huge difference, and they can all be done, but they all revolve around this sustainability idea.
Maybe that’s not having kids, if that works for you then great. Maybe it means becoming veggie, if that works for you then great. But there is no right or wrong that every single person has to abide by. I mean you cannot go out and say, well how are we going to decide who has children, who doesn’t? Is it fair for you to say in sub-Saharan Africa you have two kids because I have two in Spain, or in Britain, or wherever? It doesn’t work like that. But what we can do is we can, and with the advance of technologies we have now, the ability to use things in a sustainable way, to make things from sustainable products, to live more locally. Yes, we are an international species and cosmopolitan is at a global level now, but I hate the idea that you could have strawberries in Scotland in the middle of December.
NN: Yeah. It just seems insane, doesn’t it?
BG: Yeah. It’s do we want to offset the idea that we have a sustainable future for humanity and for our planet, or do you want strawberries any time of the year? It’s as simple as that.
NN: How do you think we balance these sort of more selfish immediate gratification types of needs against a longer term values-based desire for a sustainable future? Because the psychology there is so important, and you mentioned earlier about apathy. I think that, for me at least from a psychological perspective, that becomes one of the largest hurdles to overcome.
BG: It does. We’ve created, I think, this is out of my area slightly, but my personal belief is we’ve created a social and political environment or ecosystem in which we live where we’re constantly reinforced to think for the short-term. Our government is a four-year government. If someone mentions raising taxes, or adding this, or adding that because it’ll help us in 150 or 200 years, no one’s going to support that because there’s someone else from a different political party saying, “Yeah, but I’d rather have free education for kids and less tax now.” Most people will want to support that, of course, because we don’t see the future. We don’t look 200 years down the line. Also, it’s very hard to do that. I don’t know the answer to that.
But I think we’re being reinforced constantly to think about the here and now and the immediate future rather than the long-term future. That’s a really hard one, you’re right. It really nicely involves scientists, and psychologists, and ethologists, and economics, and politicians. We all need to band together and think, “Right, how do we work together across disciplines, across political divides, to actually make sure we’re all okay?” I don’t know the answer to that yet, but it would involve a huge turnaround in the way we act as a species I think.
NN: And also, I think, fundamental changes to our culture. When you look at some of the messages that are coming out, again out of these youth groups, a lot of it is revolving around the kinds of lives that we want to live, and the meaninglessness of all of these short-term goals if we have a world that is uninhabitable. I think when you create, again, using psychology to create this stark contrast in which you have option A versus option B, suddenly we have more of a tangible sense of what it is that’s at stake, and what it is that we need to work towards. I think the immediacy and concreteness of that, having two options, either we keep going down this track and this is where we end up, or we make short-term sacrifices for a more sustainable future. When you put it in such concrete terms it becomes a lot easier to make those sorts of decisions I think.
BG: I think so. Also, I’m going to be very controversial here, and I’m probably going to get in trouble from some people who employ me and manage me, but here we go.
NN: Go for it.
BG: The real difference will change when we really see that in the West, when the big players on the international stage really take a hit, I think there’ll be a difference. Because we’re seeing people in, right across the board, making changes. Rwanda, for example, has just outlawed plastic bags, single-use plastic bags, because they want to make an environmental impact. That’s wonderful. That’s a very small country. Why can’t America do that? Why can’t Japan, or Britain, or France, or any of these bigger players do the same thing that that wonderful little country in the middle of Africa has done? Because we don’t care, and that’s the reality, because we don’t see the issue.
When we had a beautiful February recently, everyone in the UK was swimming in the sea, and they were in shorts and t-shirts, and everybody was so happy. Apart from anyone who worked with climate change or the environment, because there’s a horrifying sort of foreboding there. But people see it as a good thing. It’s only, and I’m not wishing this at all, but I think when we start to see real problems in these big decision making countries, that we’ll finally act. I hope it’s not too late, I really do. But you’ve got governments who are real decision makers, but instead they’re led by that thundering idiot, Trump, or they’re spending two years fussing over Brexit and whether it means this, that, or the other. The reality is the UK government has had one major debate on climate change in the last two years, and only a couple of dozen people turned up out of 650.
NN: I saw that. And it’s an extraordinary distraction.
BG: Yeah. Oh, entirely, and that’s it. I think until we really get the kick up the behind that we need, I don’t see us in, not the West but predominately the West, making the changes we need to. I think that needs to happen before we see this real political momentum gather, unfortunately.
NN: Yeah. Okay, so in terms of things that people can do, a single action maybe, or your top three because you have a wealth of different inspiring actions that people can take. What would you suggest as individuals we can do in order to build a more resilient future today?
BG: The first thing I would say is at some point within the next seven days, go and spend at least one hour outdoors, away from buildings and cars and roads. Put your phone in your pocket or leave it at home, whatever. But just go and engage with the natural world. Go and fall in love, either for the first time or re-fall in love with the natural world, because you have to appreciate what we might lose. That’s the most important thing. It can’t be this intangible theoretical idea. It has to be something that’s in front of you, you can smell, that you can see, that you can witness and experience. First of all, go and get inside nature. Go and experience it this week, please. That’s your homework.
Secondly is make the contributions that you can. I’m not asking you to go and save a tiger. You’re probably not going to go out there and actually work in tiger conversation, and you don’t need to. But there’s something that you can do to make a difference, either to local human communities, local habitats, or local species in terms of animals or plants. If you can do one thing that helps any of those three areas in a positive way, that’s making a huge difference. It might mean a two-minute beach clean on the beach.
The Marine Conservation Society in the UK do hundreds and hundreds of beach cleans every year. We’re talking thousands, tens of thousands of people getting involved, doing two-minute beach cleans. Each one of those people doing a two-minute clean on a beach makes a fundamental difference to that small part of the habitat. You don’t need to go and go to the Arctic and pick up nylon from around polar bear’s feet. I wouldn’t advise it. But you don’t need to do these big grand gestures. It’s something that you can in your local patch.
It’s first of all, going to fall in love with nature again. Secondly, go and make a difference where you can. The third is spread that message. Tell other people. Tell your kids, or tell your parents, or tell your teachers, or vice versa, or tell your politicians. Spreading that word that you want change, that you need that change, and damn it, you’re going to fight for that change. Make a difference where you can, go and fall in love with the natural world all over again, and then spread that message.
NN: I love the sound of that. I think they’re beautiful, powerful, multi-layered actions that people can take. I shall be taking those, especially the spending an hour in nature, because it’s so easy to forget that it exists, and it’s so much more enriching in many ways than our built environments. So if people wanted to get in touch with you or find out more about you, what are the best places to find you?
BG: I’m usually gobbing off on Twitter somewhere. If you’re on Twitter it’s Ben_Garrod, G-A-R-R-O-D, or my website is BenGarrod.co.uk, or you can contact me via the University of East Anglia. But I’m always interested in getting involved with projects, and seeing how I can help, or seeing how, just seeing what’s going on, especially with young people. The amount of work that young people are doing all around the UK, for example.
With the Jane Goodall Institute we have something called Roots & Shoots, which is this wonderful youth group momentum or movement where kids are working with local habitats, local species, and local people or communities, and they’re making change. We’ve had over a million young people in the UK alone over the last 20 years involved with these projects, and across the world we’re in well over 100 countries. So I like hearing about that sort of stuff as well. But yeah, please, always feel free to get in touch, or if you see me on the street, maybe say hello.
NN: I have to ask this before we wrap up, just very briefly. A big inspiration to many nature lovers has to be our beloved David Attenborough. What was it like working with him on the TV show Attenborough and The Dinosaur?
BG: Awful. He’s a monster. No. Now he’s inspiring to me, not because he’s The Sir David Attenborough with the wonderful voice you hear on TV.
NN: I know, such a wonderful voice.
BG: He is but more than that, he’s like a child. He’s not childish, he’s … well, he is a little bit, but he’s childlike in his love for the world around him. This constant drive to explore and explain, and to give that narrative, is just as intense as I see in these young people who are inspired. The fact that he’s got that right through his life to 92 and a half, as he tells me he is at the moment, is wonderful. But also on a practical level, he was always the first one up in the morning down at the hotel, getting the fruit juice for everyone at the breakfast bar, and very often the last one to bed at night, working late into the night very often. But he’s great laugh. Yeah, he’s a real icon for the natural world, and for giving that wonder and that sense of awe, and also that narrative as well. So yeah, the guy’s a legend. We all know he’s a legend. But he’s a legend because he’s down to earth and loves the world around him. That’s why he’s so cool.
NN: Wonderful. Well, Ben, I would love to talk with you for hours because you’re just, we’ve only done some of the questions that I was hoping to ask you. But thank you so much for sharing your insight, and your thoughts, and your experience with me and with my listeners.
BG: Nathalie, it’s been absolutely lovely and I would love to come back on again.