TED Conversations

Holly Arnold

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Are memes important for our survival? How can we draw on memetic theory to inspire ideas of sustainability that go viral?

Memes are elements of a culture or behavior that may be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means. Dan Dennet's TED talk addresses memes that are powerful because they inspire passionate, extremist behavior based on idealistic notions of freedom, justice, truth, communism, capitalism, and religion. While not always bad, memes can be destructive and result in conflict and death. Yet, memes have great potential benefit to humanity by eliciting behaviors that promote equality, peace, and sustainability. Sustainability in particular has been suggested to be the most important factor in determining the fate of humanity, as discussed by Paul Gildings. How can we harness the power of memes to inspire notions of patriotism, freedom, and justice that elicit a passionate response for the cause of sustainability, rather than a passionate response that leads to conflict?


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  • Mar 7 2012: It is interesting to consider that ideas are viral in a way that reflects the spread of biological viruses. Awareness of the idea of sustainability makes one susceptible to it, and this means that it will have the potential to spread as an idea and possibly an ideology for many people. As far as memes go, however, sustainability is very complex and requires a lot of factors to be taken into consideration if it is to successfully spread. Since the goodness and badness of memes is entirely subjective to the individual, it is difficult to say what kind of memes will incite peaceful responses as opposed to violent responses. This is further complicated by the presence of memes that link memes associated with sustainability to memes associated with extreme, or conflict provoking, memes. Certain memes associate environmental protection with socialist or sacrificial ideals. Although socialism is not viewed negatively by all, it is by many in the United States, and if sustainability is to be supported by the majority of citizens memes must powerfully depict sustainability in a way that overshadows the more negative viewed association. To take the analogy to its limit, sustainability represents a virus, and memes supporting sustainability act to decrease the immunity of a susceptible individual to its infection and memes demeaning sustainability act as protection against infection. We must decide as a democratic society that sustainability is a virus worth spreading.

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