Climate change may be one of the most consequential challenges of our time. It disarranges the fine balance of ecological systems and has a myriad of social consequences, including mass migration and reduced crop productivity and fueling wars. While our understanding of the problem is growing, the solutions are not clear and given the current political climate, a feeling of anger and pessimism is spreading. In this post, I’ll explore how memetics, activism, economics, and politics serve as mechanisms for change and their role in paving the way out of this crisis and argue for rational optimism.
Scientists draw similarities between biological and cultural evolution in a field of inquiry called Memetics, focused on how ideas travel. Loosely, it is the study of culture and information through the lens of Darwinian evolutionary biology.
In memetics, the most fundamental unit is a meme. A meme is a unit of knowledge or culture. It can be an idea, a belief, or a pattern of behaviour. The constant bombardment with memes –a landmark feature of modern living– has deep implications on how we live our lives and the social norms which we adopt.
Abstractly speaking, memes are founded on the idea of universal Darwinism, which consists of three properties that give rise to many emergent phenomena: variation, selection and heredity.
A meme is analogous to a gene, insofar as it tends to replicate itself in hosts, i.e. human minds. Replication is the process in which the meme travels from one mind to another. During replication, changes (variation) emerge because the replication process copies the explanation rather than an exact copy. This is why following a lecture on Minsky’s financial theory, we’d probably find it impossible to perfectly parrot the lecturer’s sentences, all the while grasping the theory well (heredity).
A popular example of memes at play is The Most Interesting Man In The World. A beer advertising campaign depicting a debonair gentleman who radiates allure. He’s proclaimed to be the most interesting man in the world. The campaign’s ads end with the catchy meme: “I don’t always drink beer. But when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”
His small talk has altered foreign policy. He’s the most interesting man in the world…
The internet meme community, with its jungle-like evolutionary nature, has taken the essence of the meme and given it a new life. Meme generators made it easy to create versions of the “I don’t always X, but when I do, I Y”. Curiously, in its mutated form widespread across the web, it was often self-deprecating, e.g.
In the MIMITW (most interesting man in the world) meme, we naturally get variants of the meme as they spread online and new variants emerge. If you’ve never seen this meme, simply play along and replace the X and Y in the template and you’ll get a new variant. Selection is the natural process by which the most adaptive (“popular”) memes spread. Because not all ideas are created equal, some tend to spread faster and in more. Lastly, heredity is the idea that features of adaptive (“popular”) variants are retained and passed on to other memes.
It’s important to stress that memes aren’t just internet memes. They underpin so many aspects of our society, like cultures, sub-cultures, religion, education, and technology. They’re the medium we use with one another to create and spread knowledge. The question of how much of our cultural evolution can be attributed to memetics is controversial. Its critics will claim that it is reductionist. Conversely, its proponents like the Biologist Richard Dawkins –who coined the term meme– will attribute it great consequence in the human story.
In 2015, a distressing video of a marine biologist pulling out a straw from a sea turtle went viral. At the time of writing it has 37 million views. This meme evolved and spread as Greenpeace launched an alarming campaign in 2018 calling for a reduction in plastic consumption due to its impact on wildlife.
Later in 2019, the European Parliament approved a new law banning single-use plastic items, notably including straws. The topic has come up more than once in some of my woke circles and I believe the decision marks positive progress.
Given the timeframe and my personal experience, I think it is reasonable to trace back the political reform to the sea turtle video and subsequently to the Greenpeace campaign and heightened public awareness. This speaks for the effectiveness of memes in creating the collective awareness that drives political change which in turn changes consumer behaviour in an open market. A ban on single-use plastics simply decreases the plastic waste that the European union generates.
In 2019, there are still many crackpots with very little expertise and veracity who argue that human activity has no role in global warming. This is part of a broader phenomenon known as science denialism which frequently denounces relativity theory, evolution and climate change. Science denialism is a form of pseudoscience.
A Nasa article on the topic cites an intergovernmental panel consisting of 1300 independent scientists who concluded there’s more than a 95% probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet. Though unlikely, they could be wrong and there’s never absolute certainty (This principle is often referred to as fallibilism–the idea that no claim can be conclusively justified).
Every Internet user is in a filter bubbles because the Internet is mostly funded by advertising (measured with page impressions and clicks). Platforms like Youtube and Facebook use algorithms to optimise for clicks. Almost every “free” app or service you use depends on this process of unconsciously turning your attention into dollars, and they have built sophisticated algorithms of reliably doing so. As it turns out, anger and outrage are most effective at getting users to click. It naturally follows that the effective memes tend to be the ones that trigger anger and outrage.
This leads to the political tribalism and polarisation which characterises our time. Exacerbated by the filter bubble phenomenon, they tend to radicalise opinions and grow the chasm. Some of the symptoms of this problem include an inability to talk about what is even true. Some claim that we live in post-truth era. The problem with the idea of post-truth is that truth is foundational and will reliably affect irrespective of our agreement with it or feelings about it. Hence we must stay committed to truth rather than our political affiliation.
In economics, an externality is a side effect of an economic activity that affects other parties without it being reflected in the cost of the goods or services involved. A common example of a negative externality is the exhaust gas from combustion motor vehicles. The car emissions incur a health cost on the rest of society and ecological systems who are not compensated for it by the drivers producing the emissions.
The problem with externalities relating to the environment is two-fold: we don’t have a model for the global ecology, which means it’s difficult to quantify the ecological cost of every economic activity. Secondly, vested interest groups spend vast resources into spreading disinformation –with the help of so-called Merchants of Doubt– or simply cheat as in the case of the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
Conventionally, negative externalities are countered with regulation and taxes. For example, diesel cars are taxed more than normal cars, due to their higher emissions; similarly, tobacco is also taxed to account for its health harm. Such efforts to regulate and pass carbon tax laws are often deflected by lobby groups representing the car manufacturing industry. Even worse, in some countries, the line between the industry and government is smaller. In Germany for instance, the State of Lower Saxony owns an 11.8% stake in Volkswagen Group. This raises questions about the potential conflict of interest given the close ties between industry and politics.
Taxes, despite being often despised are one of the most effective ways to change consumer behaviour, for example, tobacco tax –more generally referred to as Pigovian tax– has proven to be the most effective way to reduce tobacco consumption. Taxes act as both a counterforce to the externalities and as a negative incentive. Evidence from countries of all income levels shows that price increases on cigarettes are highly effective in reducing demand. Warning labels — which could be seen as scary memes– had their role too, but it wasn’t until taxation was introduced that behaviour changed. Warning labels were just part of the bigger trend to make smoking uncool. This is very noticeable in North America where smoking is has become frowned upon (while vaping elusively took its place).
In the context of energy, taxing carbon allegedly creates an incentive to innovate and find more sustainable energy sources.
Furthermore, incumbents in electoral democracies often lack the incentive to focus on long term problems, especially ones that incur a short term cost. For instance, reducing unemployment can be at odds with tackling climate change, and so politicians must face the difficult reality of taking away coal mining jobs or introducing a carbon tax which potentially affects lower-income groups who lack access to other job opportunities due to location and education.
International treaties are another mechanism to combat global warming. The Paris Agreement is supposed to be that. The challenge with such non-binding agreements is that there’s a cost to leading the way. For example, switching to a more expensive green energy source creates a competitive disadvantage. In the current competitive and unstable geopolitical atmosphere, politics and power precede collective well-being and so we might find our selves amid ecological collapse.
There’s a growing sentiment that Capitalism is broken and that the pursuit of eternal economic growth is futile if not morally corrupt. Interestingly, this sentiment has originated in some of the most prosperous corners of the developed world. The distaste for greed and all other excesses of Capitalism created a marriage between the social justice movement and the environmental movement. That is how I believe the term climate justice came into existence. Greta Thunberg’s speech is the epitome of that.
There’s a commonly held belief that we must abolish the market economy to reduce our carbon footprint. Perhaps it’s a distate for the system as a whole. But it’s hard to look at the data, and ignore the progress we’re making. This belief is also at odds with the overwhelming agreement amongst economists that carbon taxes are the most efficient and effective way to curb climate change with the least adverse side-effects on the economy. Even though there are arguments against the effectiveness carbon tax it seems to be a question of how rather than whether we should have carbon tax.
There’s already an understanding amongst central banks that the economic system is capable of being wielded to solve the problem. Mark Carney, Bank of England governor says Capitalism is part of the solution to climate crisis. Carney was vocal as far back as 2015 about the fragility of the economic system due to climate and has been instrumental in the formation of The Central Banks and Supervisors Network for Greening the Financial System.
Despite the disagreement about the utility of technology and the economic system in tackling climate change, grassroots movements play an essential role in raising awareness. They empower individuals to take some action which could compound to real change given enough support and action. Collective power is rooted in the idea that the added value of the group is more than the sum of its constituents. In practice, this has been demonstrated by the global Extinction Rebellion movement.
“Extinction Rebellion is an international apolitical network using non-violent direct action to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.”
The movement has been responsible for non-violent protests starting in the UK and now spreading globally. They are now in the midst of the execution of their plan to shut down parts of central London for two weeks. The UK group has 3 demands:
- The Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
- The Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025.
- The Government must create, and be led by the decisions of, a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.
Alas, the second demand has been criticised for being unfeasible.
Despite the complexity of the situation and political challenges, there are beacons of hope. According to the physicist David Deutsch, optimism is the proposition that all evils are due to a lack of knowledge and that knowledge is attainable by the methods of reason and science. This is extremely important because people are likelier to accept the fact of climate change when told the problem is solvable with innovations. We have a long tradition of counterproductive doomsaying.
“Problems are inevitable, because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved. Problems are soluble, and each particular evil is a problem that can be solved. An optimistic civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.” ~ David Deutsch
The mechanisms we have at hand should be taken seriously. Whether on the memetic, scientific, political, or innovative front. We have the opportunity and infrastructure in place to navigate out of this.