100 Monkeys and Change

The Macaca fuscata monkeys had been observed by scientist on the island of Koshima in Japan for over 30 years. One morning in 1952 scientists observed an 18 month old monkey take the extra time to rinse the sand off the sweet potato provided for her before she began to eat it.  Soon the little monkey’s playmates and siblings copied her and began to rinse the unwanted grit off their sweet potatoes too. Within a period of  six years all the young monkeys on the island washed their sweet potatoes as did a few of the older monkeys.  But this is not the amazing part.  After years of this behavior spreading among the monkey tribe, there was a tipping point, a saturation event, the moment when critical mass was reached.  And overnight, all the monkeys on the island, except for a few elders, began washing their sweet potatoes.  But the most amazing thing about this jump from individual thinking to group think was that around this same time, monkeys on other islands, that had no contact with this isolated monkey tribe, began to wash their sweet potatoes, too.  No monkeys came over from Koshima to their place and taught them this trick. There was no monkey exchange, where a visitor to Koshima swam back home to show her peeps what she learned over there and no monkey texted a YouTube video on how to wash your sweet potatoes before eating them. It seems the knowledge was transmitted in a shared monkey consciousness.   A group mind. Hive behavior. Since then this phenomena has been dubbed  the 100th Monkey.

You may say, “That’s neat. But what does this have to do with us?”  Or more precisely. “How does sweet-potato-washing-monkeys on the other side of the earth effect me?  We are not monkeys.” No, but we homo sapiens share 97% of our DNA with monkeys, so maybe we are more like our closest cousins than we’d like to believe.  And like monkeys, we may not be aware of much of our thought processes – how we learned something or how we know it,  yet we all seem to be privy to certain knowledge. Did we watch someone do it, hear others talk about it, or do we just know these things by osmosis?  We Americans love to think we are all individuals.  Our every thought is original and we spout off ideas like we invented them, but most of us are hive thinkers. We believe what everyone in our group believes. We behave like our family, our tribe, the people we identify with. We find it hard to do otherwise.  But humans can and do change. Just like the little Japanese monkeys we can be innovative and learn new behaviors, and even make a difference in how the whole hive thinks and behaves.

So how does this critical mass phenomena make me hopeful for the future? On so many levels I can see this playing out, even as it has already taken place in our past. For example, our group consciousness in NO way believes that it is OK to own or sell humans, to let children work in coal mines, or to use torture to administer justice. Yet all these things were acceptable just 200 years ago.  In my lifetime group think has changed drastically concerning many cultural norms, such as tossing trash out of your car window, smoking cigarettes anywhere by anyone, even pregnant women, and the segregation of facilities for Americans of African descent. All ideas that we cannot fathom as being acceptable today, but were the norm less than 60 years ago.

Freedom Island Waste Clean-up and Brand Audit in the Philippines

How can we use this magic for good? I for one believe we can bring about changes in our group consciousness that will translate into the behavior needed to save this planet. We will do it by disseminating information, scientific facts in private and public forums, in images and ideas that are easy to grasp. As individuals and in groups we can arm ourselves with truth.  Learn something new and recall it and repeat it until you know it. Then share what you know. Spread the word, make it visible, readable, knowable. So that no one can say, “I didn’t know that the oceans were contaminated with floating plastic waste that is killing animals and ecosystems.” Or “What’s the big deal about using plastic water bottles?” Know that it’s OK to hold each other accountable when we are too lazy to grab our refillable bottle, but instead buy water in 16 oz plastic bottles that will probably end up in a landfill or in the ocean. When you walk into the market without your cloth totes, go ahead, turn around and go back to your car and get them. Keep them in your front seat, so you won’t forget them next time. Use them at any store, whether shopping at Wal-Mart, Home Depot or Kroger. Tell everyone “These bags are not just for groceries anymore.” Not only your words, but your behavior will be observed and others will follow, feeling more comfortable doing something new.

In the early 2000s we lived in a small rural town in Ohio where I would carry my cloth bags to Kroger each week.  I would get dirty looks and complaints from the baggers as they had to stop their automatic process of filling 10 – 15 little plastic bags to slowly fitting my purchases in my bulky Yellow Stone Wolf bag, Books A Million tote and my favorite NWF (National Wildlife Federation) Polar Bear Bag. But I would explain why I wanted to use my own bags and tell them that many stores in larger cities were on board, selling cloth totes for their customers to use. I like to think my behavior helped in some way, by giving others permission to do something different. My thinking was part of the new wave, making it not only acceptable but commendable to not use those horrible floating plastic phantoms that litter our landscape. One cannot go a mile without seeing one or many of these evil scourges hung in bushes, hooked on fences, in trees, or just flying through the air like a ghost.

You may say, “Hey, I recycle,” but that is just not good enough. “Typically, 50% of what you put in your recycling bin is never recycled. It’s sorted and thrown out,” according to Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, a recycling company in [the Atlantic article entitled: The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle; What happens after you toss it into the bin?

But I am hopeful. I truly believe that in the next 20 years we will experience the shift from the over-use of plastics in every way to the more sustainable reusable materials like glass, metal and biodegradable products. Company’s like LOOP, that bring back the Milk Man delivery model for many food and household items, will soon be available in most major cities.  And as these new ways of thinking and doing things, spread, the ideas will eventually be absorbed by the masses. It has already taken hold in smaller groups, the Snowflake Tree Hugger Progressives, and the Retired-White-Ladies-who-need-a-cause, but it will spread. And when critical mass is reached, and the 100th human believes, then we all will know.

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