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: Referring to the question of whether memes are important for survival, it seems like we, as a society have come this far due to memes and without them we could have not. The ability to make fire and the invention of the wheel are two examples that have shaped our society. Therefore, I truly believe that now memes can be used to promote sustainable living and equality. In fact, memes may be the only way to achieve these elements. It seems like people who have made a significant difference have been inspire by others who did similar work, and since memes are ideas/behaviors that are passed on my imitation, then people are more likely to engage in sustainable practices the more they see others engage in it.
    • Mar 8 2012: We are at a pivotal point in human history where memes have a major influence on the future of the planet. Since we are focusing on the impact memes have on combating environmental degradation, we must consider the extent to which these memes must go to be effective without being burdensome on the public. The meme in defense of sustainability must make sustainability seem like an attractive and advantageous route for the potential meme user. It is amazing to consider how quickly memes spread in the right hands, or the wrong ones. Take celebrities for example. They spread memes of fashion, quotation, and ideology to millions because of their charisma and notoriety. If sustainability were on the forefront of their agenda, then it is likely that it will be on the forefront of the viewers' agendas. Paradoxically, many of us see celebrities as unable to be sustainable taking into account their generally lavish lifestyles. The same goes for many prominent figures in our society. This means that other role models may need to step up and lead by example in order for sustainability to be successful.
    • Mar 8 2012: I think that is a really good point. Human society is here because of us mimicking each other and abandoning the ideas that don't work. The environmental/resource situation is getting so bad that if the next couple generations don't come up with a new way of consuming or living that works, humanity is going to take a turn for the worse. Every meme that humans have created, in essence, has been an experiment. They have all worked for a time, but it is getting to be the age where our technologies (our memes) are getting to be too much for us to handle and we are starting to become owned by them, we couldn't live if they stopped working tomorrow. Soon we will have to abandon some of these technologies, and add them to the other ideas that have ultimately failed. Western society should resort to a simpler, or at least different, way of living. We are now seeing the long term consequences of settling down from a nomadic life (a meme that today has spread to almost all human cultures). Unless we come up with an idea that is scalable and spreadable to counteract resource scarcity and over consumption, memes might be what made our species great and also what ultimately killed us off.
      • Mar 8 2012: I completely agree with your last statement. It's very likely that memes will be the end of us. Unless, we turn that idea around and use these memes to save ourselves. I don't know if anyone else has experienced this but the most powerful memes that I have come across in the context of sustainability have been very "earthy", nature driven. As in the meme, to me, describes a lifestyle that is much simpler. A life style that we may have experienced in the past. So, maybe instead of moving forward our society needs to move in retrograde in order to conserve what we may have left now.

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