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If you like Richard Leakey's story, you might also like:
Robert Ballard,
Lee Berger,
Athol Fugard,
Jane Goodall,
Stephen Jay Gould,
Edmund Hillary,
Donald Johanson,
Meave Leakey,
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Edward O. Wilson

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Hear Richard Leakey participate in discussion of Global Warming and the Environment in our Audio Recordings area.

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Richard Leakey
Richard Leakey
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Richard Leakey Interview (page: 5 / 7)

Paleoanthropologist and Conservationist

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  Richard Leakey

In 1969, you were diagnosed with kidney disease and given ten years to live. In 1993, a plane you were flying had a malfunction and crashed, and yet here you are. What does that tell us about Richard Leakey?

Richard Leakey: First of all, I think it tells you that medical predictions should be taken with a grain of salt. Doctors have a tendency to be somewhat pessimistic. I often think that it isn't necessarily wise to believe everything you are told by any professional, particularly the medical profession or the legal profession. I think one wants to go into this with a slightly more open mind, and a sense that they may be wrong. I think that's healthy.

My kidney disease in '69, it wasn't pleasant. I had a transplant much later. I got 11 years out of my kidney failure. Then I had a transplant. I got 26 years out of that, and I had another transplant last year, and I am fine. I'm getting expert now at kidney disease. It's a tough disease, and many people don't survive it, but I am one of the lucky ones, and it's worked. Even the latest transplant, which -- my wife very kindly gave me a kidney. She's not a blood relative, but the drugs today are very good, and if you've got a good attitude, I think you're fine.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

I lost my legs, but the way you look at it is, "What happened if the legs had lost me?" I buried the legs rather than myself, and so that's a good thing. Walking on artificial legs isn't the best way to get around, but there are advantages. People go out of their way to help you. You get wheelchairs through long queues, and lines at customs and immigration. If the seat's too small in an airline, you can take your legs off and fit in very comfortably. So there are a number of positives about this, and I wouldn't by any means think it was all negative. It taught me a great deal about bipedalism, which is the fundamental of humanity. I had always lectured about the important steps in becoming a human, one of which is bipedalism. It happened six, seven million years ago probably. I never really thought about the implications of being bipedal, and to me, bipedalism is the key to the extraordinary levels of compassion that we seem to be programmed to. People don't necessarily come to that conclusion.

[ Key to Success ] Courage

When you have no legs, you are totally dependent. If you have no legs, you can get quite quickly to a stage where you have one leg, as they fit one prothesis before the other. Being one-legged is no better than being no-legged, and again, you are totally dependent on help. Become bipedal again, you become independent again to a very large extent.

What struck me is -- if we developed bipedalism six or seven million years ago on the African savannas, rough, thorny country -- there can't have been a single individual who would have lived 20, 30 years who didn't at some stage have his or her leg -- or legs, one or two -- incapacitated. If one leg is incapacitated with a sprain or a break or an abscess or a thorn, unless somebody looks after you on the African savanna, brings you water, brings you food, fends off the hyenas and the lions, you won't make it. Given that everyone was bipedal, there has to have been genetic selection for empathy, for compassion. I believe that is the single strongest characteristic of being human today, and that is our propensity and natural ability to feel empathetic and compassionate and sympathetic. That is the one character that, to me, really sets us apart from other forms of life. That is the one character we really need to rely on to get us through the difficult years and to think globally as opposed to thinking nationally or racially or on the various mini-forms of bonding that we approach. So losing my legs taught me that, too, in a very real sense, and it has become a major part of my public message. Let's go back to fundamentals. We are compassionate. With compassion, we can solve a lot of the problems that threaten us today.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

What do you think are the biggest challenges we face on earth in the years ahead?

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
Richard Leakey: I think by far the single biggest challenge we face on this planet for the next 50 years is climate change. There is no question about that. Perhaps 15 years ago, it would have been hard to answer your question. There is nothing in my judgment that measures up to the implications of climate change and our inability at the moment to really think through what this could mean to us as a species. We are beginning to think of what it could do to us in terms of a business. We are beginning to think of what it could do to us as a community within a country, within a state, but we are not thinking in terms of a species. The implications for our species, given the interdependency of the planet today, is the way we should be looking at this.

If a country like Bangladesh goes under water in the next 30 years because of rising sea levels, there are 160-odd million people there, many of them poorly educated, who will be refugees. If it was only the Bangladesh country that went under water, maybe we could deal with it, but we could have a billion people on the run within the next 30 years. Where are we going to put a billion people? The U.S. is having trouble with 11 million illegal refugees, immigrants. What are we going to do when there's a billion of them? Where are we going to feed those sort of people when much of the rice-growing areas of lowland might disappear? The implications of what is coming are enormous, and most leadership is not addressing it outside the framework of their own elected terms.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

If you were making a commencement speech this month, what would you be talking about? What would you be saying?

Richard Leakey: If the commencement speech was in the United States, I would ask them to realize that...

No matter how powerful and how important civilization and technology of the U.S. and the West has become, it cannot be sustained in isolation from the world, and it cannot be sustained if the world is allowed to degrade itself to the extent that is now projected with climate change. Many of the concerns that we're addressing may not be immediate to the suburbs of Virginia or the suburbs of New York or the suburbs of London, but in 30 years, if the sea level has risen and we haven't put in place global steps to address the consequences, the suburbs of London and Virginia will be just as affected in very serious ways.

We talk about new energy, not that the new energy today is going to stop what is already in the pipeline, but it may stop it getting considerably worse in the 50- to 100-year time span.

We've got to slow down -- and eventually stop -- carbon emissions. We've got to find alternative fuels. We've got to find a way of putting a cap on the mess we have made of it. Young people in the West, young people with access to the education, learning and capital resources that are available here, really have an opportunity not only to do something good for the planet, but to do good for themselves. Alternative energies, alternative strategies, are not necessarily loss-making. They're huge wealth-making opportunities in doing things differently in the future. If that's what gives you your buzz, making money, make money for the good of the world this time, as opposed to making money for the bad of the world.

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This page last revised on Oct 28, 2010 14:41 EDT
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