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 the importance of sustainability is starting to break into the mainstream culture. The fact that one can go into a department store and buy a shirt that says recycle on it (ironic, I know) shows that the public does care about the effects we have on the Earth. Throughout most societies the rich have been a huge source of memes for their culture. People imitate what those of a higher social status are doing. For example, pale, plump women use to be considered beautiful, back when only wealthy women were able to eat that much and stay indoors all the time. Now, our culture tends to consider skinny, tan women to be beautiful, in a time when it is a luxury to spend time in the sun, eat healthy food, and spend time exercising. If movie stars and the ultra rich were to participate in sustainable activities, such as having home vegetable gardens, patronizing locally owned businesses, and *gasp* wearing an outfit more than once, the public would take that idea and duplicate it on a fairly massive scale. Especially if they raised awareness, it would be a step in the right direction.
    • Mar 8 2012: You definitely make a valid point. If there was a way to create a meme that would involve the rich and the famous to bring about a sustainability awareness I think that it would be generally accepted. Teens and young adults would see their idols 'going green' and strive to do the same. I know that there have been a few commercials out there that involve these ideas, but if they were to increase such media than we would see an increase in the amount of individuals that joined together in sustainability efforts.

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