Why Global Warming Won’t Go Viral
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.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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.
The Climate Meme Project