Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson – Hope Is Courage and Taking Action Together (Jane Goodall Hopecast #15)


Full Transcript  

Jane Goodall  0:00   

JANESPLASH: When I was a child, we had quite a wild garden. It wasn’t very well looked after. I mean, it was wartime. So you didn’t really look after your garden, you just grew a few vegetables. And in the garden were quite a few trees. And I learned to climb every single tree and one tree was a beech tree. And it just had a lovely place up near the top, where you could sit and I used to take my homework up there very often. I used to take books, I used to take Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle. And I felt close to the birds, close to the sky. And I loved that tree so much. So one day I wrote out a will. And I called it the last will and testament of my grandmother. And in it, I made her deed me Beech, he was called Beech. When I wrote that will, I must have been about 10 years old. She signed it. So according to this, this little will that I wrote out myself, Beech is mine. And that’s where I sit every day to have lunch. I can’t climb him anymore, but I can sit under him and the beech branches come down, almost touching the ground, sometimes touching the ground. It’s like being in a green tent. It’s really you’re right there in nature. 

CONSERVATION CHOIR: Together we can achieve more. When we foster our relationship with animals it allows our survival. She is unwavering in her mission and has proven that one person can unite others. I aspire to change the world, too, because of the hope she gave me. She devoted her life to it. Together we can save the world. Together we can, together we will. What is your greatest reason for hope? I’m Jane Goodall. And this is the Hopecast.  

INTRO: On today’s episode, I get the absolute pleasure of sharing my love for our oceans and our planet, with one of the people most excited about both, Dr. Ayana, Elizabeth Johnson. Dr. Johnson, a marine biologist, fell in love with oceans and the natural world when she was a child. But she continues to channel that lifelong passion as the founder and CEO of Ocean Collective, co-founder of the Urban Ocean Lab, co-host of the podcast, “How To Save The Planet”, and co-editor of “All We Can Save”. She exemplifies the power of creating community around environmental action, and champions the need to address inequality in innovative ways. She’s a true leader who harnesses storytelling, courage, and a holistic approach to help lead humanity forward in climate action. I hope you enjoy this hopeful conversation with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.  

INTERVIEW: I am so happy to meet you, Ayana. Dr. Johnson. Can I call you Ayana? You call me Jane. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  3:26   

Please call me Ayanna. It’s such a pleasure to meet you. 

Jane Goodall  3:30   

What’s so fascinating is you spend your life totally immersed in the ocean. And I have spent my whole life on the land, with the land animals. And yet, it’s fascinating to think that at this time of climate change, both are absorbing carbon dioxide, both lose the power of doing that, as we destroy them and pollute them. And both of them give us life giving oxygen. How did your fascination with the ocean begin? What started it? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  4:05   

I think my answer there is not terribly unique. I think most children who have the opportunity to experience nature, in a safe way where they are allowed to just be delighted by it, and to embrace their curiosity. I think it’s really hard not to fall in love with nature. It’s just that my first love happened to have been the ocean and the Caribbean, in particular. My dad is from Jamaica. And so when we got the chance to go on a family vacation, he was very excited to go to the Caribbean and somewhere warm and we ended up in Key West Florida. And that’s the place where I learned to swim and that’s where I went on a glass bottom boat ride. And that changed my life, right? Just the chance to really see this whole other world that was happening. All the buisiness and vibrant colors of life that I just had no idea were there. And getting to hold a sea urchin in my hand when I went to the aquarium later. And just to think about the diversity of life, that there are creatures with hundreds of tube feet under them, and they use those to crawl around. And these crazy mouths to, like, gnaw algae off of coral reefs, and the whole thing just blew my mind. And I think that experience is pretty common to have your mind just blown by the splendors of nature. But what is less common, especially as a girl who grew up in Brooklyn, is the chance to really see that through. 

Jane Goodall  5:48   

I agree with you. Once you’ve seen nature, you’re hooked as a child. I was speaking from the house where I grew up in Bournemouth, England, and we were lucky enough to have a big garden out there. And I spent all my time outside, watching the insects and the birds and the squirrels, you know, getting more and more fascinated, and war broke out, World War Two, couldn’t go anywhere. And then, of course, as there was no television, I grew up with books, books, books, always about animals. And by the time I was 10, I was determined to go out and go to Africa and live with wild animals. And that’s what I did. The circumstances around my childhood led me to study creature on the land. And your amazing trip to the Caribbean really sort of honed you in on the ocean. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  6:44   

So, Jane, what I find fascinating is not just the parallel tracks we’ve taken on ocean and on land. But there’s another key difference that really strikes me, which is your absolute depth of knowledge. You have had such focus on a place, on an ecosystem, on a species, and spent your whole career expanding upon that. And sometimes I’m a bit jealous of just the level of detail with which you understand that ecosystem, because my work has just, from the very beginning been quite broad, right? Like fisheries management in the entire Caribbean and looking at all of these different things. And then very quickly shifting to policy and how science can play a role in policymaking and then, expanding to climate and then expanding to, you know, coastal cities. And so it’s, it’s been about collaborating with people with really deep expertise, but it’s not something that I’ve been also able to develop. So I’m curious how that feels for you. Because I assume it must feel incredible to know something that well. 

Jane Goodall  8:08   

Well, I started off indeed, at Gombe, and I spent many years learning about the chimpanzees in that one ecosystem. And that was a wonderful feat. I mean, I got to know those chimpanzees in the early days. I wouldn’t say they were like my family, but I really knew them. I really, really knew them. I knew them as individuals. I knew their little different personalities. And the great thing is that even though I’m no longer doing that research myself, we just celebrated our 60th anniversary of when I first arrived, and we’re still learning new things about those chimpanzees. But then, when I realized how fast forests and chimpanzees were disappearing across Africa, I knew I had to leave what I love in order to try and do anything I possibly could to help to save it, to save the chimps. But anyway, since I left Gombe, I’ve been gathering information about all these other disasters that are hitting the planet. And you’ve been in a way slightly more focused on the things that interested you to start with. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  9:17   

Yeah. And listening to you say that just reminds me of if I had started my career 40 years earlier, I might have had a very different trajectory, right. I might have been just studying the behavioral ecology of octopuses, because that’s pretty fascinating. But I think by the time I reached college in 1998, and graduate school in 2005, coral reefs were already crumbling. And the way that I think about it, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking is that even in 1985 when I saw a coral reef for the first time, I was falling in love with them as they were already dying, and so I never had the chance to just enjoy it. 

Jane Goodall  10:18   

Thanks to chimps being so like us biologically, they really helped me to break down that ridiculous barrier that never existed between us and other life forms. We’re part of the natural world. You say that a lot. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  10:35   

Yeah, I always like to remind people that we are one of millions of species on this planet. I think it’s really important to keep that in perspective. And I know that you are so thoughtful about how you use words and just, sort of, the power of language and helping us frame and understand things, right. When we think about humans and nature as separate things linguistically, that sets us up for thinking that there’s a sense in which we could somehow be fine without it, which is obviously absurd. 

Jane Goodall  11:09   

I think it’s really fascinating. When I think of your world, there are all these creatures like crabs and mudskippers. And they can be both. It can be in the ocean and out of the ocean. So they’re linking the two worlds, really, aren’t they? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  11:26   


Jane Goodall  11:26   

Think of the little turtles, the eggs are laid on in the sand. And then they, as soon as they hatch, they got to get into the ocean really quickly, before they are preyed upon. And you watch them and then they’re running towards the ocean, some instinct propels them towards where they’re supposed to be. And then these big waves crash over them, and they get rolled around like this. And what must it be like, what do they feel like? What makes them do it? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  11:54   

I have had the chance to see this down in Jamaica, and it just blew my mind. These little tiny turtles just like sprinting but of course, like sprinting, but with flippers. Which is like… Also just completely delightful and charming. Like, I dare you to not be charmed by a baby turtle trying to run into the ocean. 

Jane Goodall  12:17   

It’s fabulous. I saw it in India. In Sunai. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  12:22   

One of the sort of sad things about watching that is knowing of course, how endangered many of those species or nesting populations are because of exploitation by humans, but also because of climate change, because the heat of the sand determines the gender of the turtles. And and then with like sea level rise and erosion of the coasts, we’re losing a lot of their beaches, and then of course, all the development of resorts and homes and infrastructure on the coast as well. So it’s one of these things where, when you do get the chance to see these magnificent displays in nature, it’s a bit melancholy for me sometimes, because I know that it’s more rare than it should be. Is that a feeling that you have sometimes? 

Jane Goodall  13:19   

Yes. Thinking of your baby turtles, the percentage that will actually live, come back and lay eggs there. And when they do get back, will the beach still be there? Of course, it’s depressing. But you know, have you heard about the program that I began called Roots and Shoots? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  13:37   

I have, it’s incredible. 

Jane Goodall  13:39   

Well, we now have around the world, groups of Roots and Shoots, passionately protecting the beaches where turtles lay their eggs. And there are these programs where you pick up the eggs and hatch them safely, and then reintroduce them to the sea when they mate, when they hatch out of the egg. All these young children, they’re absolutely passionate about it, as you say they fall in love. You know, we have to have hope, right? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  14:05   

Absolutely. I think in particular, the way that you describe how children react in his protective capacity just reminds me of the critical importance of young people in all environmental work. We’ve seen that so beautifully with the youth climate strikes in the past few years. The moral clarity that children bring to environmental discourse is just invaluable because you know, as we get older and older, we’re, we get very used to compromise and and negotiating through the existing systems of the world. And these kids are just like no, there’s a right and a wrong here. Of course, we have to protect nature. Of course, you have to protect our future. Of course, we need to stop burning fossil fuels if it’s ruining everything. Like, of course, we need to protect these other species, and it’s that, of course, that I think, is so powerful, and really drives grownups to get their act together. And then there are other grownups who never lost that, of course, who sometimes feel crazy for holding on to it. And kids certainly make us feel a little bit better about that, too. 

Jane Goodall  15:24   

The lesson they have to learn, you mentioned compromise, the lesson that the children who are so passionate saying, of course, you must do this, they do have to learn that the world isn’t black and white. They do have to learn that change cannot happen like that. They do have to learn that compromise, both sides are compromising, moving towards a joint goal. As long as you don’t lose your values, compromise in that, yes, I understand you can’t suddenly stop doing that, or 10,000 people will lose their jobs overnight. No, we have to find a way of doing it. And that’s one of the good things about Roots and Shoots, because it’s animals, people, environment, all three, each group does all three. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  16:14   

The ways in which all of these things are intertwined is so important, that when we talk about wildlife, and we talk about ecosystems, we’re also talking about human society and community and economy and policy. And the way in which you expanded your work from a study of natural history, ecology, behavioral science primatology, to working with communities in these places, is something that I’ve tried to follow in your footsteps on. I think my work in graduate school studying fish on coral reefs pivoted very quickly from counting fish, to having conversations with fishermen. Because I realized that the fish are actually doing everything right. When we talk about conservation, it’s not about changing what the fish are doing. Although we certainly need to understand what’s happening ecologically and the dynamics at play there. And, you know, my work had been on how do we redesign fishing gear to reduce waste and bycatch, and make it more sustainable. But the real question that I had was, how did we get into this mess? And therefore, how would we put the pieces back together. So I needed to understand what was happening in society, policy, politics, economy. And so I sort of stopped scuba diving pretty quickly, after I started, and was hanging out with fishermen on the docks, you know, interrupting domino games, to try to interview them, and really get a much deeper understanding of how they were using the ocean, what changes they were seeing, and what they thought the causes of all of that changes were. And the most remarkable parts of those conversations were how emotional they often were about being a witness to the ecosystem that they knew so well, degrading. Even as people who were, you know, harvesting fish for their living, they were very, very, very aware of the damage that was being done not by them in particular, but by the magnitude of fishing and by forces well out of their control. Whether that’s climate change, or industrial fishing offshore, or cruise ships, or coastal development for tourism, and all of these other things. And so, the other remarkable thing besides the emotionality that I didn’t expect, I did expect them to have a very detailed knowledge of the ecosystem. And that turned out to be true. The question I asked that was the most interesting in terms of their responses was if you could write the rules to manage fishing, what would they be? And that is a question that they didn’t expect to be asked. They were very happy to talk about their fishing here and the size of the fish they are catching and that, but so rarely do we have these deeper conversations around like if we could actually dream up a better way. If the people who are most intimately connected with these different ecosystems in different parts of the world got to be part of designing that, what would it look like? And it just changed the way I see the world. 

Jane Goodall  19:54   

So what do you think the ordinary everyday general public can do to help save nature? 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  20:03   

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, it’s a question I get asked a lot. People are very frequently asking me, what can I do to help? I want to be a part of the solutions. And obviously, I’m thrilled that people are asking this question, but I find it very hard to answer in a general way. Because just like, Jane, what you’re doing is very different from what I’m doing we’re each, we each have a role to play, right? Your work is an expansion of your areas of expertise. And when people ask me what they can do, I have two responses initially. The first is, maybe it’s not about what you can do as an individual, but about what we can do. So who is the we that you want to work with? Right? Is it a Roots and Shoots program? Is it a local chapter of an environmental group? Is it your family or your school? How do we make this bigger than I? Because that’s where we start to be able to make significant changes. My other sort of question or response is, I don’t know, what are you good at? Right, when people ask me what they should do, I need to know more about them. And I think one of the challenges or shortcomings honestly, of the environmental movement, in general has been to ask everyone to do the same thing. Everyone, raise your awareness and share information, everyone donate, maybe march, definitely vote for people who, who get it and are going to enact strong environmental policies. And I do those things, we should all do those things. But right now, I feel like a lot of people are getting very caught up on their own carbon footprint instead of how to make larger changes in the world. And so the way that I now answer the question of what should I do to help is to imagine a Venn diagram of three circles. And the first circle would be, what are you good at? What are your areas of expertise? What magic can you bring to the work that needs doing? Whether that’s professional or social, your network or dollars? What do you have to bring to the table? And then the second circle is, what is the work that needs doing? Are there particular climate or environmental solutions that you’re really excited to be a part of, whether that’s forest protection, or fisheries policy, or solar energy. There’s just a long list of solutions that we can all be putting our energy towards, but we can’t do at all. So we got to pick, which ones are we going to work on. And then the third circle is joy, like, what gets you out of bed in the morning? What absolutely delights you? Because, as you know, so well, this is the work of our lifetime, right? So it has to be something that we can keep doing. And you know, for many people, environmental work is not their full time job. I would argue for many people it could be integrated more deeply into whatever their daily work is. But I find that when people actually sketch this out for themselves, what are you good at, what solutions do you want to work on and what brings you joy and figure out where those three overlap and be in the epicenter of that Venn diagram for as many minutes of your life as you can. I think that will get us much further than all of us doing like one little thing, like carrying our own reusable water bottle. Because it’s so, it can be so reductive and sort of miss the opportunity for these transformative moments and have people focus on little things. And the little things are important because they align the way that we live with our values and the changes we want to make in the greater world. But if we stay thinking about just our own carbon footprint, our own waste, then we won’t get there. And so we have to figure out ways to make these things ripple. And one of those ways is simply through talking about it. So many people don’t talk about what’s at stake, and how they want to participate with others. And so we have this often a strange silence around climate and environmental issues, because people think it’s depressing, or they don’t know where to start. And if we don’t talk about it, it’s almost like It can’t be that big of a problem if more people aren’t talking about it, as part of their daily lives. For those who aren’t sure where to start, I think drawing out that Venn diagram and starting with discussions with the people in your life who, who you might want to team up with or or just think things through with is a great place to start. 

Jane Goodall  24:58   

I mean, okay, more and more people are understanding the major problems that are wrong in the world. You hear this phrase so often think globally, act locally. But quite honestly, if you spend a lot of time thinking of what’s all going wrong around the globe, it’s pretty depressing. And that tends to give people a feeling of helplessness, I know because I’ve met many of them. And if you feel helpless and hopeless, you sink into apathy, and you just do nothing. Every single one of us make some impact on the planet every single day. And we need to think about our impact on the planet and choose what to do. Thinking about these changes that young people are making, I do have hope. A lot of people say, Jane, do you really have hope? You’ve seen so much suffering, you’ve seen so much environmental destruction do you really, really have hope? My four reasons for hope, are, first of all, the energy commitment, passion of young people, sometimes the courage. Once they know the problems, we listen to them, and empower them to take action. Secondly, this incredible intellect, which makes us more different from other animals than anything else, and yet, we’re using it so destructively. How can we be so intellectual, and destroy our only home? And it seems there’s been a disconnect between the head and the heart. And I think we can only attain our true human potential and hard work together. Thirdly, the resilience of nature that we’ve talked about, rescuing endangered species from the brink of extinction. And finally, the indomitable human spirit, the people who tackle what seems impossible, and won’t give up and very often succeed. So those are my four reasons for hope. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  26:55   

I feel more hopeful already. But I will admit that I have a sort of tenuous relationship with hope. And maybe it is because I define it too narrowly. But often, the way that people use the word hope seems very passive to me. Obviously, this is not you, at all. But I hear like, you know, I hope that works out or sort of like, I hope someone does something about that. And that’s not going to get us anywhere, right. I think, as you describe hope, as a foundation for action, I think, is it as a jumping off point as a catalyst is certainly important. But for me, the word that you just said, that really resonates with me as courage, and the anthology that I co-edited, All We Can Save, which is an anthology of essays and poetry by women, leading on climate, the subtitle of that book is Truth, Courage and Solutions. And so I often sort of brushed the word hope aside in favor of that trifecta, right? How do we face the truth of what is at stake? And how much there is to do? How do we then like muster up all of our courage to not give up in spite of the odds? And how do we focus on solutions and what we need to do to be a part of turning things around? This is quite semantic, but for me the differences between the assumption that things will work out, which some people want to know that it’s going to be okay. And it might not be okay. And on the other hand possibility, which is I think, what people like you mean, when they say hope. The possibility of a different and better future, and I very much like to live in what’s possible. We know that having a completely pristine nature, the way it was hundreds of years ago is not possible with 8 billion people on the planet. And we also know that we do not need to have an environmental apocalypse. But there are so much in between those polarities. And every day I wake up, and I think more and more of us wake up and think, what can I do to nudge us closer to a healthy and restored and resplendent nature. And so that’s my sort of tricky relationship with the word hope, but not necessarily the idea of hope. 

Jane Goodall  29:38   

Well, you see, all that you’ve said, and all of these people coming together with their courage, their dreams and their desire to make change. Don’t you actually hope that what you’re going to do, what you’re going to put your heart and soul into, is actually going to make a difference?  

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  29:56   


Jane Goodall  29:57   

You hope it’s going to make a difference. And without that hope, if people believe that everything they’re doing isn’t going to work, why bother? Let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. My hope is absolutely tied in and fundamental to pushing us forward with hope with action. You can’t have hope, just, oh, I hope it’s going to be okay and not do anything. No, that’s, I think we need another word for that. The hope I’m talking about is, I’m going to do my damnedest to make this happen. And it’s hope that it will happen that’s pushing me to do it. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  30:38   

When you see things grow, it is hard not to have hope.  

Jane Goodall  30:42   


Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  30:43   

I can’t argue with you Jane Goodall. That would be ridiculous. Because you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it unfold so many times in so many places. It’s magical, too, to see that unfold. Jane, I have two rings that I wear every day. And one says science. It’s a brass ring that says the word science on it because I really love science. And I had, four or five years ago, been one of the leaders of the march for science, trying to get scientists to participate more and speak up for the importance of science and the role that it plays in policymaking. And then I realized that that wasn’t enough, right? Science, fascinating as it is, facts alone are not going to get us there, as you well know. Or you would just be collecting data and publishing it in scientific journals. So the other ring that I wear says magic. And for me it is that combination of things like understanding the world and all of those sparks, that open up possibility is the combination that I try to stay focused on. 

Jane Goodall  31:54   

And telling stories. You’ve got to get people’s hearts, I want people to change from within. And it’s so often a story, not confronting somebody and telling them, you know, you’re a bad person, you shouldn’t do this, you should do that, they’re probably not going to listen, they might pretend to listen, very often they don’t. But if you tell a story that gets there, you may not realize at the time that you’ve actually got to them. But actually, change can happen. Ayana, it’s been really fascinating for me talking with you, and I’m totally looking forward to meeting you in person. Unfortunately, I think we’re running out of time for this Hopecast but I really want to thank you so much for taking the time to join me and helping to share the ripples that you’re making out in the world with your activism. So thank you. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson  32:52   

It’s such an honor to be in conversation with you. And I think I needed a little dose of hope from Jane Goodall myself. So thank you for helping me reframe that conversation and many to come. 

Jane Goodall  33:18   

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Never thought it would take this long to get close to the chimps. As I’m not a defeatist, it only made my determination to succeed stronger. My desire was to be amongst and find out about animals in their natural habitat. There was never any thought of quitting. I should forever have lost all self respect if I had given up. 

Feel hopeful and inspired to act with a Jane Goodall Hopecast by subscribing on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, and anywhere podcasts are found. I’m your host, Jane Goodall. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest-Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelssohn with additional violin tracks from Angie Shear. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest-Filler. 

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About Author

Scientist. Activist. Storyteller. Icon. Jane Goodall blazed the trail and changed the world. Now, she's studying new subjects – humans! This brand-new podcast will take listeners on a one-of-a-kind journey as they learn from Dr. Goodall's extraordinary life, hear from changemaking guests from every arena, and become awed by a growing movement sparked by Jane and fueled by hope. Join us as we get curious, grow compassion, and take action to build a better world for all. As we face some of the greatest challenges to humankind and the natural world, we have a unique opportunity: the power of technology to connect and share ideas. Now is the time to galvanize people around Jane’s message of hope in action and bring big thinkers together to change hearts and minds alike. The Jane Goodall Hopecast is produced by the Jane Goodall Institute by Dan DuPont, Shawn Sweeney, and Ashley Sullivan. Our production partner is FRQNCY Media. Michelle Khouri is our executive producer, Enna Garkusha is our producer, and Matthew Ernest Filler is our editor and sound designer. Our music is composed and performed by Ruth Mendelson with additional violin tracks from Angie Shyr. Sound design and music composition for the Conservation Chorus is by Matthew Ernest Filler.