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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,
Ernst Mayr,
Richard Schultes
Wole Soyinka,
Kent Weeks,
Tim White and
Edward O. Wilson

Richard Leakey can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

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: 6 / 7)

Paleoanthropologist and Conservationist

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  Richard Leakey

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
If a young person came to you and said, "If I wanted to do what you did, how do I go about it? How do I prepare to do this?" What advice would you have?

Richard Leakey: It's very hard to give people advice, because you don't know their personality. Personality is a big part of that. Everybody is faced with passing opportunities. Many people watch the opportunity come and watch it go. I say, if an opportunity comes and you have got the self-confidence, grab it. Ride it for a bit. If it's not the right opportunity, do something else, but be positive about opportunities. Opportunities are there for the taking. Most people in this life don't take it. If you want to make a difference, you can make a difference, but you have got to grab the opportunities and then work within that opportunity to achieve things.

People say, "What can an individual do to impact on the future of the planet?" Well, every individual knows another individual. That individual knows another two. You can network. You can create. We talk about energy. We talk about fuel. What about water? We're not talking about water. Although there is plenty of water perhaps in some parts of the world, the water availability on the planet is under threat with climate change and global warming. We really need to start thinking about our own personal habits with regards to water. I say to people, "It makes a difference whether you shower once a day or twice a day, and whether you soap yourself with the shower running or you soap yourself with the shower off. It's much more efficient to switch the shower off when you put the soap on and then rinse it off by turning the shower on again. Most people don't do that. Two-thirds of the water we run through the faucet is wasted. Why are we doing that? Does it improve the standard of your life? Does it make you a more civilized person to send back to the kitchen two-thirds of what's on your plate at the end of every meal? Why not eat everything that's there? They say, "Well, there's too much." Well, why did you take too much? Why don't you ask for a small portion? And if you're still hungry, ask for a little bit more, instead of piling your plate up -- cafeteria and restaurants or at home -- and sending it all back to be trashed. Every piece of food we eat costs energy. Why are we wasting it? These are the questions I think, as an individual, we can all address.

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
During the course of anyone's life, there are obstacles, setbacks, failures. How have you dealt with that?

Richard Leakey: I think there are lots of failures. You enter into a relationship. It fails. I was married before, didn't work, divorced. You move on. You try not to be bitter. You try not to be acrimonious. You set up an institution that is doing very well. You leave it. You hadn't thought of some things, and it collapses. Well, you move on. You stop the poaching of elephants and bring the price of ivory down. Fifteen years later, the price of ivory is up, and people are poaching again. If we hadn't stopped it when we stopped it, maybe there would be nothing left to poach. The fact that there's something to poach means it worked. Has it worked permanently? No, but it has worked, and other people will make things work. I think you have to take failure. I mean, you lose your legs. Shame.

I'd rather not have lost my legs, but it doesn't stop you functioning. You can still do things. You can still have fun. You have a lot of fun without legs. It depends on how you spin it, but I think you ought to have the courage of your own convictions. There are a lot of people who want to be popular. I have no interest in being popular. I have an interest in pursuing my own goals, hopefully not selfishly, but if necessary, selfishly, and take the knocks. People say, "But you know, you've got a lot of enemies," and I say, "Well, probably I do. Probably I have a few friends, but my purpose when I left my mother's womb wasn't to have a lot of friends. It was to make a dent on this world."

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

What haven't you done in your life that you've wanted to do?

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
Richard Leakey: I don't think I will ever be able to do what I would liked to have done. I think at some point in my life, I would liked to have had the privilege of being an academic and sitting back and having a lot of intellectual time thinking about issues in a very philosophical sense and somehow being able to make a contribution by some mega thoughts. That would have been intriguing. There are a lot of other things that I would like to have done, but none are that important. I'd love to travel. I'd love to go to places I have never been to, but I probably don't need to do that. You can see them in other media now. No, I'm a very satisfied person. I have no regrets for the past and no regrets for what the future won't contain. So, I'm happy.

What do you think it's going to take for us, as a civilization, to come to terms with climate change?

Richard Leakey: We're not going to deal with climate change unless we get over the idea that people are different, that there's somehow "those people" and "these people" and us. I think we've got to get past what used to be called racism. It probably still is racism in a sense. I think we've got to think of ourselves in species terms, not nation terms. We have got to think in terms of time frames that are not four- or eight-year terms in office, but are hundreds of years. I think if you look at climate change in terms of the last major climate change, that was 10,000 years ago. Present climate change is almost as dramatic. That climate change, 10,000 years ago, gave rise to agriculture and domestication and civilization. This climate change must have impact of similar magnitude. What it will be, I don't know. It could be large mass die-offs. It could be a totally new way of looking at the world, and looking at the world on the basis of a single species with a time frame, that it goes beyond what has traditionally been our projected time frame.

How would you like to be remembered? What would you like your legacy to be?

Richard Leakey: I'm not sure one can guarantee one will have a legacy. The world is moving on so fast, apart from archives that people probably don't go to.

I would like to have made an impact, first of all, on getting people to understand their biological roots, and looking at us as a biological entity that can be explained on the basis of the fossil record and our understanding of genetics. I would like that, if you like, to lead to what I believe will come, to a point where it's understood that, in reality, we created God in our image, rather than the other way around. I think that would be constructive. In the process of doing that, I hope we can impact on ensuring that this species, our species and many others, don't go to extinction simply through arrogance and negligence. At the moment, there is a possibility that could happen in a relatively near-term future.

What do you understand about achievement now, that you didn't when you were younger and starting out?

Richard Leakey Interview Photo
Richard Leakey: I suppose for me, achievement falls into two parts. One, what you personally feel you have achieved, which may not necessarily be understood or recognized by the community around you. You may get a lot of personal satisfaction from having done something that you believe will, in time, have an impact on the broader community. There is another form of achievement, where the public perceives you to achieve things which you may or may not have done, but because of the broader appreciation of that achievement, you can have an influence on the public, or get actions taken that will take them in a direction you think they should go. So there is a sense of achievement that is external to one's self that is very powerful in terms of getting things done, and there is a sense of personal achievement that may or may not lead to a broader group getting things done, but gives you the confidence to go on and try something next. Sometimes the two are the same, but they're often not.

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