By Joe Brewer and Lazlo Karafiath
We all want to live in a world that supports life and promotes human well-being. Okay, do we really want to? That’s a critical question that can only be answered by taking a deep look at the attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions of people in the world. How many people out there believe the world is finite and precious? What is the proportion who see the End Times as a good thing? And what kind of research methodology would even create valid data that can answer questions like these?
A major blind spot in the effort to address climate change is that no one has thought to ask this question before. The reason is simple — most people are not aware that cultural values are empirically real. They don’t know that a scientifically rigorous approach can be brought to bear on this central question of our times. We are here to tell you that one does and it goes by the name Meme Science. Meme science is the epidemiology of ideas. It is the deconstruction of thoughts and behaviors to reveal the aspects of culture that live in the minds of people and replicate themselves by spreading from one brain to another in the shared stories, common practices, and widely held beliefs that constitute a particular community.
This new science has been around for a few decades in nascent form, with all the necessary elements developed and tested across a number of research fields. Basically, you can think of Meme Science as the combination of:
- Capturing of ideas, stories, and experiences that have real meaning in people’s lives;
- Statistically analyzing the emotional and semantic content of the “cultural units” to reveal how they relate to each other;
- Constructing a meme landscape that maps out the social ecosystem of ideas and their interrelationships;
- Revealing the social networks that connect people and ideas through their various conversation channels;
- Gathering insights about what people are thinking and how they feel in order to provide communication and engagement guidance that resonates with them and leads to actual changes in behavior.
Meme science is comprised of inputs from complexity theory, network science, social psychology, statistical mathematics, and neuroscience. When these building blocks are brought together, it becomes possible to treat cultural dynamics as a pattern language that behaves like a full-fledged ecosystem. There are aspects of culture that nurture the spread of some ideas alongside other aspects of culture that limit or prey upon them. We have seen this in the framing of political issues where “death panels” spread like a parasite on “Obamacare” — pushing out any discussion of “Medicare for All” or “Universal Health Care.”
The same is true for the discourse around climate change.
We have watched “drill, baby drill” and “clean coal” spread like wildfire through the communication networks of our media system. Both were repeated several times in the U.S. presidential debates this fall, while nothing was said about melting ice sheets or the mass extinction of species that plague our planet. This is a real problem. It can be stated simply: Good memes are NOT good memes.
The memes that are good at spreading are not the ones that are good for the future of humanity. We see this as a defining problem of our time. This is why we have launched the Climate Meme Project to map out the meme landscape and help spread the memes that will be essential for our collective survival. As researchers who specialize in the study of complex systems, cultural semantics, and meme science, we want to bring our skills to the movement and help wherever we can.
For example, we know that any civilization that remains incapable of managing its impacts on the environment will collapse. Jared Diamond demonstrated this conclusively in his book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. So we must cultivate the cultural soil and tend our meme gardens if we want to survive and thrive.
And what might those memes look like? Here’s a preliminary list that will be vital:
- We are part of this world and must live accordingly.
- A healthy economy is fundamentally linked with a healthy environment.
- Nature is the source of wealth in the world, not extractable “resources” to use up and throw away.
- The Earth is finite and precious.
- All life is an interconnected web, what we do to part of it we do to the whole.
Memes like these should not surprise us. They have been around for quite some time. And yet they are not good memes these days. Instead we find ourselves talking about “economic growth”, “rational actors”, and “free markets” — totally disconnected from the reality of how a resilient economy actually works.
You can help us succeed by joining the Climate Meme Project today. We are all in this together (another important meme!) and we can only succeed through collaboration informed by both foresight and insight. That is exactly what meme science provides. And it is just what the doctor ordered in this great time of need.
Joe Brewer and Lazlo Karafiath are co-founders of DarwinSF, a social impact company whose mission is to help good memes spread far and wide.