Are Environmentalists No Wiser than Monkeys Reaching for the Moon?

A few months ago my karate sensei shared with his students the Zen story of The Monkeys Reaching for the Moon. If you haven’t heard it, there are many versions. Here’s mine:

If we just stretch (our minds) a bit more, we can definitely create reach our goal. (Monkeys Reaching for The Moon by Ohara Koson. Public domain)

One evening, as a group of monkeys gathered on a tree branch to go to sleep, they noticed that below them, on the surface of the lake that their branch extended over, the moon was shimmering and rippling. One cried out, “Look! The moon has fallen into the lake.”

Another shouted, “Oh no! We must save her.”

And quite quickly, the monkeys, being a kind and caring bunch, organized themselves for a rescue operation. One wound his tail around the branch, anchored his feet, and reached down. The next climbed down and looped her tail around the body of the first. The third did the same. And the fourth. Until they could almost reach the moon. The last monkey climbed down the monkey ladder, anchored her tail and reached out to save the moon. But as the monkey touched the moon, the disturbance rippled the water, making the moon disappear. Startled, the monkey jumped back, jarring the whole lot. This cracked the branch and launched all the monkeys into the lake.

When the monkeys looked up from their bath, they realized the moon was back in the sky. Had it played a trick on them or had they made a mistake?

Sometimes the lake in the story is a well, sometimes the monkeys are insubordinate adolescents getting their just desserts for not listening to their elders; sometimes it is one foolish monkey who drives the others to act. In one, a deity even speaks out offering the moral of the story.*

But I do like the version where the monkeys are working collectively to do something good, even if foolish: to save the moon and deliver it back to the sky. Even here, at its core the moral is the same: “The monkeys stand for unenlightened people who cannot distinguish between reality and illusion.” Like the prisoners trapped in Plato’s Cave confusing shadows for reality, these monkeys cannot distinguish between what’s real and what’s reflection.

Parabolic Parallels

The funny thing is that when I heard this parable it made me think of mainstream environmentalists. As we pursue a consumer economy based on renewable energy—blanketing the Earth with solar panels and wind turbines (properly insulated against the cold of course)—we’re reaching for the mere illusion of sustainability rather than sustainability itself.

Now I don’t want to spend the whole essay explaining that—as I’ve done that before, here and here for example, but in short, building out a renewable energy infrastructure where 8, 9 or even 10 billion people are pushed ever more by marketers, policymakers, and peers, to consume ever greater amounts of stuff and services leads us to ecological collapse—no matter how it’s powered and no matter how much we tell ourselves otherwise.

Environmentalists, like the monkeys, are reaching for a goal, organizing themselves to cooperate, making sacrifices, stretching and twisting (including their minds to believe this’ll work), risking life and limb (theirs and the tree’s), all to obtain a goal that isn’t even real.

And what isn’t shown in this environmentalist version of the story is that while the monkeys are reaching, a logger has been cutting down the trees of the forest—with the story ending with the final tree—the one the monkeys just tumbled from—being felled.

Observe this monkey examining persimmon seeds to identify the best to plant in order to help improve her forest. (Monkey on the Tree by Ohara Koson, 1910.)

Environmentalists are so distracted reaching for renewables that they’ve ignored the bigger effort to transform cultures away from consumerism—from fighting marketers and the half trillion dollars spent convincing people each year to consume more to limiting the wealth of the extreme rich (who, as study after study reveals, do the lion’s share of damage to the environment); from advocating for Earth’s rights to sparking a cultural shift where Gaia is given Gi’s proper place at the center.

Now, it’s unfair to say environmentalists aren’t doing all those things. Many groups are devoted to that. But they’re not organized like the renewable energy monkeys. Perhaps because they don’t have wealthy allies like the solar and wind industries urging them on and supplying them with bananas? Or perhaps because it’s only the renewable energy monkeys that promise the illusion that we can eat our cake and have it too, and thus draw so many more monkeys to the fight?

But the point is: until we recognize that the goal of a consumer economy fueled by renewables is a will o’ the wisp, all the great lengths we’re going to are in vain. Instead we need to envision a different goal and work together to achieve it. Perhaps the monkeys see that their troop has been growing larger these days and there’s starting to not be enough food in the forest for all of them. They could organize to care for the trees so they become more productive (pruning broken limbs, eating the bugs attacking them, or planting persimmon seeds around the forest so one day they’ll have more of their favorite fruit to munch). Or they could explore the woods and try to discover and care for new edible plants—ones they might have overlooked in the past. And they could better share the food they do find. And have a stern talking to the monkey king, who has been hoarding far too many persimmons these past months—fruits that others could eat rather than letting them ferment in his cache. There are many alternative strategies to the illusory renewable energy transition that could bring about a truly sustainable future, but only if we reach for them.

Rekindling the Moon

I can imagine a sequel to this fable, where the monkeys, looking up now, instead of down, discover that a few weeks later the moon’s light has gone out. Now, more panicked than ever, they once again organize themselves, one on top of the other with the goal of reigniting the moon.

If it hadn’t been for Mack, or physics, perhaps Yertle could have reached the moon. (Screenshot from this reading of Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle)

Of course, this is an even more laughable goal—and at best, as with Yertle the Turtle,** the stack of monkeys will crash down to the ground long before they reach the moon.

This is a lesson environmentalists may need to grapple with too (not to mention those trying to colonize space).*** If the moon is a symbol for true sustainability, it may be out of environmentalists’ reach—no matter what they try. We may have already crossed too many tipping points to prevent a massive ecological state shift—one that will lead to hundreds of millions, even several billion deaths. But even in that case, the story plays out the same. Pursue real achievable goals—reduce consumption, stabilize human populations (and their derivative populations of livestock and pets), heal ecosystems, preserve biodiversity, reduce inequality, and strengthen equity and social capital. In that scenario—where everyone has enough, rather than the majority feeling exploited—making collective sacrifices, as cities and even entire countries need to be abandoned, will be a lot easier than in our current divided and unjust reality. Granted, it’s not as simple a story but a better one nonetheless.


*In this Tibetan version a deity utters these words after all the monkeys fall in: “When the foolish have a foolish leader, they all go to ruin, like the monkeys which wanted to draw the moon up from the well.”

**And not like Gumby.

***Considering the epic waste of resources and hubris, space colonization represents—resources that could go to healing Gaia—this really reinforces the need to redistribute resources away from delusional rich men and use those resources for planetary and societal healing.

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3 Responses

  1. Tom Read

    Erik, this is a beautifully written and illustrated essay! Thank you. Re-telling cross-cultural ancient stories looks like a great way to understand and act on our collective predicament. Bravo!

    –Tom Read

  2. Brian Stewart

    Great timing! This was the perfect post for my students, following on the heels of another item demonstrating the great advantages of moving to an electric transportation system. Sustainability is not for wimps.

  3. Michael Harris

    I concur about the timing. I tried to make a similar point to the collective CT energy network just last week. I will send this article as a follow-up (and copy you).

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