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 8 2012: I think this is a really great idea. The use of memes to promote sustainability has the potential to spread the ideas that have potential to be important to the greater population or environment. I think the key in making these successful is, like Rishi states, the focus on how we, personally, can gain from being sustainable. It is hard for some people to think into the future, and understand how we need to act now so we can prosper later, so the focus of memes that we want to pass on needs to be on the “I”. This is especially true in places were sustainability is commonly forgotten, such as in the developing world. People of high standing are more consumed with “survivability,” and solving short problems, and are not so focused on the future. The questions “how can I gain from this?” or, “what does this do for me?” or “why should I care right now?” are the focus of these people. I think it is a hard task to conquer to make those who are focused on instant gratification to think out of the scope, and into the future. It will take some creative minds!

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