Why Global Warming Won’t Go Viral

Posted on March 5, 2013 by Joe Brewer in How-To Guides, Meme Science, Project Update

For nearly 30 years, scientists and activists have been warning us about the impacts of global warming.  They have testified before Congress, rallied on the mall in Washington, presented at United Nations forums, produced and distributed movies, written emotionally powerful songs, and so much more.  Despite these valiant efforts, the problem is scarcely closer to being solved now than it was when it first appeared in mainstream press in the early 1980′s.

Contrast this with global sensations like the spread of Gangnam Style in recent weeks or prior “viral” phenomena like Facebook, the YMCA dance, or the internet itself.  These cultural forces could not be kept at bay no matter how disruptive they turned out to be.  They each have a very different quality than the global warming meme which seems to do the exact opposite — no matter how vital it is for concern and strategic action to spread across all of humanity, it just doesn’t budge.  And now we know why.

Last Friday, the first meme analysis of global warming ever conducted was completed and made public here on this website.  We gathered more than 5000 climate memes (nearly 1000 of which were unique), coded them for semantic content, and statistically analyzed them to reveal the underlying structure of the discourse around climate change.  What we found is a confirmation of what we have long suspected plus a whole lot more.  We hypothesized going in that global warming is not a good meme.  It doesn’t spread easily across diverse social networks, nor compel people to incorporate it into their behaviors and lived stories.  This was confirmed by our results.  We also learned specifically how people express thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about this complex topic “in the wild” — in the minds of people whose behaviors have been changed by the existence of global warming as a cultural phenomenon.

Prior to the completion of this study, we were unaware of what shared tensions drive denialists and advocates alike to dismiss expert opinion.  We had no idea that the memes themselves contain the poison pill that makes global warming unspreadable.  There was a blind spot in our knowledge about the composition of ideas, values, attitudes, and behaviors that comprise the global warming meme.

Describing the Global Warming Meme

Perhaps we should start by unpacking what we mean by “5000 climate memes” that comprise the global warming meme.  When we talk about the analysis of a meme, what we are really doing is creating an ecosystem map of interdependent memes that make up a complex meme system.  In other words, what we refer to in shorthand as the global warming meme is actually an ecosystem of cultural elements that each live in the minds of people and are replicated by imitation in the minds of those around them.  Each of the 5000 memes we gathered was retweeted at least once and stands on its own as a unique thought or behavior that has been successfully shared by at least two people.  They are all relevant to the discussion about global warming and are related to each other in often subtle and hidden ways.

Our analysis focused on revealing and describing these inter-relationships.  By mapping out the correlations across different memes, we were able to reveal the unresolved tensions that define the underlying psychology of the global warming meme ecosystem.  These tensions are what we call “meme dimensions” in our report and there are five of them: Harmony, Survival, Cooperation, Momentum and Elitism.  Each dimension has two poles (just like a magnet has north and south poles) that tell us what the core tensions are for the meme landscape.

We want everyone to understand what it is that we are doing here so you can see how significant these dimensions truly are.  They capture the essence of the global warming meme ecosystem by telling us why the memes are spreading and what they do to the minds of people who carry them.  For example, the Harmony Dimension tells us that an unresolved tension exists between memes about disharmony and conflict and other memes about resonance and harmony.  A large number of the memes — 17% of the correlations across the entire data set — align with the themes of harmony and disharmony.  These poles capture the sentiments about a fundamental discord between humans and the Earth, both where we experience ourselves as disconnected and separate and where we feel interwoven with and part of the biosphere.

The global warming meme is this web of cultural expressions about the human relationship with nature (Harmony), with one another (Cooperation), and the threat of extinction for the human race (Survival) that evokes a wide diversity of sentiments about expert authority and political power (Elitism).  This is what appears in the data when it is analyzed for memetic structure.

Global Warming is a Bad Meme

Seeing that this composition of tensions makes up the global warming meme tells us a great deal about why it won’t go viral.  People have built-in protection mechanisms that activate psychologically when threats arise against worldview and identity.  In normal circumstances this is a very good thing.  A healthy person will not be crippled by anxiety to the point of dysfunction when she comes into contact with a worldview-threatening meme .

And yet the core themes of the global warming meme evoke exactly this kind of crippling anxiety.  Are we out of harmony with nature?  Is it going to kill off everyone we have ever loved?  Does this mean there is something wrong with us?  Who has the audacity to claim that humans have the power of gods to shape the planet in such profound ways?  Questions like these cause people to react defensively or shut out the conversation entirely.  Our research shows that these are the questions that arise when climate memes enter the minds of people, explaining why both denialists and advocates respond so strongly to the different threats they perceive from the global warming meme.

This is why global warming won’t go viral.  It is psychologically toxic to the human mind and won’t spread on its own.  And this creates a significant problem because we cannot wait any longer for global action.  The planet’s climate has been altered by human activities whether our memes manage this well or not.  So we need to take these findings and put them to use very strategically — and get started right away!

Why Negative Findings Are Positive Knowledge

A conclusion that can be drawn from this study is that global warming is a dead end, memetically speaking.  While this does seem to be the case, it doesn’t tell us what we should actually do with this information.  My research partner and I want to be absolutely clear:

Now that we know specifically why and how global warming doesn’t spread, we know where to look in order to change things so that it DOES spread.

There are three kinds of positive knowledge that have come out of this research so far.

  1. Firstly, we now know that the global warming meme is not going to make it on its own.  That tells us to look outside the meme in other parts of mainstream culture for the solution.  We must weave the global warming meme into a stronger meme ecosystem where spreading can happen more quickly.
  2. Secondly, we now have a meme map that tells us which memes will help the global warming meme to spread and which memes weaken or attack it (see the full report linked above to learn more).  This tells us that we need symbiotic memes that have more spreading power on their own.  Candidates will be discovered by answering the two part question, “Which memes are spreading successfully now that also relate to climate solutions in some meaningful way?”
  3. Thirdly, we now have a baseline understanding of the meme dimensions that must be welded together with the symbiotical memes in order to overcome inherent weaknesses in the global warming meme ecosystem.

Now we know what the next phase of research will entail — we have to map out the mainstream cultural landscape of symbiotic memes.  Only then will we be able to activate concern for climate change that is both constructive and persistent.  Time is of the essence and strategic action is urgently needed so we will now get to work designing this second round of research and come back to you, the crowd of funders who have supported us to get this far, with a plan for deeper analysis in the weeks ahead.

In the next few days I will post more articles like this one to share additional insights from our climate meme research. This way we can dig deeper into the building blocks of culture that give life to the global warming meme.  For now please share any thoughts or questions in the comment thread.

Thanks,

Joe Brewer
The Climate Meme Project

27 Comments

  1. Brilliant Joe! I think a part of your resources should be spent on spreading your research and articles via social media. The idea of moving beyond Global Warming (or climate change) as a meme is truly fascinating and groundbreaking and it deserves public exposure.

  2. If you haven’t seen this study perhaps it may help you (or not!) in analyzing data:

    http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2013/mar/05/big-data-revolution/

    Also I wonder if you have looked at other campaigns that convinced people to abandon addictive but self-destructive behavior, like smoking, or fundamentally sacrifice in the face of a threat, like emigrating from Europe when before the Nazi’s made it impossible to leave.

    From what I have seen, they have to first have the wits scared out of them before they will even try.

    • Hi Gail,

      Thanks for passing this link along. We are definitely following the trends in predictive analytics and big data. The challenge of course is in the analysis of semantic content (which computer algorithms are bad at characterizing). Our methodology takes a human-to-computer-to-human approach where we have human analysts read through our meme database to validate and rank the data, then use statistical analysis via computer to reveal correlations across the database we’ve created, and pass the output back to human analysts to analyze pattern language to characterize the correlations found in the statistical analysis.

      This human-intensive “augmented intelligence” approach is what makes our methodology so robust. Humans do what humans do well. Computers do what computers do well. And the strengths of both are combined to enable a rich memetic analysis.

      To your point about efforts to abandon addictive behaviors, we have spent quite a lot of time studying the psychology and sociology of behavior change and do see promising paths forward based on these kinds of findings. Of course, there is no ability to consciously change behavior if one is not (a) acknowledging they have a problem and (b) actively working to change their situation.

      Unfortunately, our analysis of the climate meme is showing that we are not currently in this kind of situation. It’s going to be a challenge to break through — and I am hopeful that we can discover powerful opportunities through the symbiotic memes already active in the mainstream culture.

      Best,

      Joe

  3. This is solid and insightful. You are on a real roll. I will be fascinated to see what type of symbiotes you identify. It would be nice to have some examples of symbiotic memes and how they function (and do not function).

    Just as you asked the very cogent question – “is global warming a non-viral meme” you should probably ask “how do memes act symbiotically – what qualities in the memes are necessary for them to act in that manner?” You might also ask, “are there examples of a non-viral meme becoming viral through symbiosis?” And finally, “does being spread by symbiosis mean that the non-viral meme gets acted upon?”

    Those are just some initial issues that seem likely.

    AV

    • Thanks, Anthony!

      These are core questions indeed. You’ve stated them exceedingly well. I am now preparing a follow-up article about symbiotic memes that will address some of these issues. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any thoughts you have… knowing that you are quite experienced in the realms of archetypal branding and social engagement.

      Very best,

      Joe

  4. As Anthony said, you are on a real roll, Joe.

    You know, it is funny how these ideas are born and evolve. I have been, trying to find a way out of the stall in which we are with climate.

    Then, just today, I stumbled into this concept: “memetics” – I had this idea – a meme in itself – that fighting climate change must have to do with memetics….. and then I found your site.

    Maybe there is still hope. Just maybe. Now, tell me if I can help and how. I am not trained in psychology, but I am working with system dynamics and that has a lot to do with the way people think and act on systems.

    Ugo

    • Welcome, Ugo!

      So glad you found us. One way you can help is to spread our work far and wide — and join our email list to stay in touch. We’ll be reaching out to our supporters on a regular basis with updates and opportunities to get involved.

      Best,

      Joe

      • Joe, I am active in the climate field with my blog, “Cassandra’s Legacy”.

        http://www.cassandralegacy.blogspot.com

        And I am an active scientist and part of a network of climate scientists both in Italy and in the English speaking world. Good people trying to to do their best, but it is unbelievable how much time and effort is wasted by good people who do their best, but who don’t have a strategy. Scientists are bad communicators – that’s well known, but their attempts to improve have often made things worse.

        No war can be won without a strategy. We need to start with that.

        • Hi Ugo,

          I completely understand where you are coming from. I was trained in atmospheric sciences (my research focused on 3D radiative transfer and cloud dynamics) before switching fields and going into cognitive science. So I have seen the difficulties in communication and engagement up close as a professional domain of burgeoning practice for nearly a decade now.

          Glad to have you with us from the beautiful Mediterranean peninsula!

          - Joe

  5. Surely there’s a small difference in the cultural background of people living in the US and Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia, Brazil, China etc. (not to forget South Africa, and many others).
    I wonder if you can identify “trans-cultural” memes…

    Best

    uwe r. fritsche
    (from Old Europe)

    • Hello Uwe,

      There are most assuredly differences in cultural backgrounds for people from different social contexts. While this study was limited to English-language sources, it does reflect a global discourse through many diverse cultural lenses. This is one of the strengths of a memetic approach — the memes themselves are ‘culture-defining’ in their own right.

      Perhaps more interesting, though, is the evolutionary nature of meme propagation. Memes frequently jump across cultural boundaries and mutate when they do so. Just last night I attended a talk about how the four-fold symmetry of sacred geometry in Mesoamerican culture was influential in shaping the planar geometry developed by European scholars — evolving to become part of the conceptual makeup of the Cartesian coordinate system.

      This kind of cross-fertilization is typical and captures the biological equivalent to bacteria, viruses, and — at higher levels of structural complexity — animal and ecosystem-level dynamics. The study we have done here can be thought of as a first stage attempt to create the taxonomy of meme species living the mindspace of global warming. We may not have mapped the entire globe, but our study of the English language ecosystem is a modest beginning from which to build upon in future research.

      I really like your notion of trans-cultural memes, especially since there are universals of human bodily experience that enable different cultural concepts to have at least partial flow across cultural boundaries. This is a very rich and important area of inquiry for tackling the global nature of the climate crisis.

      Best,

      Joe

  6. When ecological pressures do not encourage any given gene to be expressed, a mutation for a new dominant trait can still slowly spread,
    Change the habitat’s conditions enough, and such genes suddenly “turn on”. How fast it “goes viral” depends partly on how many individuals got the mutation before the habitat was altered.

    In my view, global warming is just one head of a multi-headed beast like the mythical hydra. The heart of this beast is the absurd notion that we should base the global economy on nonstop, never-ending economic growth. But that’s the mythos we adhere to. Plug an individual into this script, and that person’s psychological needs for a safety and sense of self on the world stage remains – subconsciously – chained to the notion of nonstop, never-ending economic growth.

    Except NOTHING grows forever, and we all know we can’t just increase the (((((rate))))) of resource consumption, nonstop, forever.

    When our habitat changes so much that the prior paragraph rises up out of our subconscious to take center stage on each meal’s bowl and plate, that will be analogous to a change in our habitat, and the latent gene – the memes of global warming and others – will suddenly be expressed, and once expressed, they will go viral.

    And so I think your headline should add a word to become:

    “Why Global Warming Won’t Go Viral……….. Yet”

    PS The vocabularly word “meme” is new to me, but the notion of ideas being like genes and evolving in similar ways is not. Thanks for giving some tools to talk about it.

    • Hi Mark,

      You completely get what we are up to here. What our research so far has shown is that the global warming meme lacks the spreading capacity necessary for it to go viral (at least in its current configuration as we’ve observed it in the minds of people).

      Getting to the “yet” part of your analysis is the objective for this research. We are deepening and clarifying our understanding of the cultural dynamics at play in order to cultivate “yet” opportunities for the global warming meme to mutate and become a much more potent cultural virus!

      Best,

      Joe

      • What do you mean by

        ” ‘yet’ opportunity” ?

        ========

        I’m suggesting that a mandatory condition precedent to a global warming meme going viral is this:

        Capitalism (aka the delusion of nonstop never-ending economic growth) must so badly fail to meet the delusion of never-ending economic growth, and so badly fail at this for SO LONG, that it loses its grip on people’s psyches.

        Not until then is there any chance of a AGW meme going viral, no matter how it is packaged. Slowly and steadily spreading, sure. But viral? Uh-uh. Not while developed world middle class people can still eat the foods they have always eaten, and get on planes for vacation.

  7. i wonder if the coincidence of the word meme and the current generations attitudes to life being me me has a likely skew on the ability for gw to go viral

  8. Joe – this is a valuable contribution to the overall climate debate:

    http://www.icesfoundation.org/Pages/WhitePapersGroup.aspx?wpgid=30

  9. Thanks so much for this. I feel hopeful. My husband, Marcus, and me have been fascinated by the word meme since we discovered it about six years ago. Onwards and upwards.

  10. Joe,
    Interesting analysis, but maybe too complex.

    Democracies in particular are noted for not reacting to danger until it hits the fan. Right before WWII, for example, the US was selling scrap iron to Japan which they made into weapons. The UK was selling it to Germany up to literally the last minute.

    People just prefer to deny something bad is going to happen. Maybe it is built into us to deal with our death. Our strongest instinct is self preservation, yet humans are faced with the fact we will NOT be preserved. So we have a capability to mentally deflect bad news even when it is a lethal threat.

    The problem is we can’t successfully catch up and react to 500 parts per million CO2 after it is up there. With WWII we could make up for inaction and wrong actions (selling scrap metal).

    I think this human tendency to deflect threatening news about the future is what’s at work with the amazing inaction on global warming when scientists have told us for decades it can terminate life on earth.

  11. Joe,
    Re reading parts of your analysis, maybe I’m saying the same thing you said.

    I am fascinated even serious news accounts in the New York Times, for example, do not fully spell out the final, complete impact of global warming. Instead they use phrases like “if emissions are not curbed, serious consequences will result.” The final result of unchecked emissions is just “news “too big to report” perhaps.

    James Lovelock DID spell it out in his last two books, The Revenge of Gaia, and The Vanishing Face of Gaia saying five or six billion people would perish with business as usual on emissions and he has been attacked brutally – even Joe Romm attacked this man who many think is the world’s greatest climate scientist. The poor man, Lovelock, was so taken aback he retreated from parts of his own analysis – even as his predictions are coming to pass.

    What I’d like to see is preparation for failure to curb CO2 emissions. It seems since we’ve had zero progress in curbing them, it would be reasonable to plan for Phase 2, or whatever we call it. And I don’t mean mitigation like crops that grow at 120 F or sea walls. Those steps ignore that heat will not stop going up until man and nature stop emitting (which will be forced on man at some point).

    We need to explore ideas like survival for a part of the earth’s population in polar regions, something Lovelock says might be possible. But whatever it is, we need to get working on a Phase 2 or Plan B, or we get caught flat footed again as we were with our building up green house gases while ignoring long known impacts of rising heat..

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