At the heart of the climate crisis is a profound clash of worldviews. People live in different ideological camps — beholden to their own beliefs, values, judgements, and ideas about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. The failure of climate activists to engage the broad public effectively is largely attributable to this great blind spot in climate communications by remaining ignorant of the central struggle to define reality in our moral terms.
In this article, I will lay out an analytic framework for making sense of ideology and worldview for climate activists. Think of it as a kind of “laying the tracks” on which to build inroads into the undiscovered country of the human mind. My approach will be to show how ideology operates like an ecosystem comprised of cultural units known as “memes”. In order to change a culture it is necessary to introduce new memes that out-compete the current ones. This requires a different way of thinking about culture through the lens of evolutionary principles. Let’s begin, shall we?
Ideologies operate according to the rules of cultural evolution.
When we begin to think of ideologies as living beings that want to survive and reproduce, it gets easier to think about culture as an ecosystem of predatory ideas, symbiotic beliefs, and parasitic values that increase in complexity in the same waves of succession that enable a shrubby woodland to transform itself into a mature forest over time. At any given moment, the environment is filled with available niches for specific functional roles to be filled.
During a time of food scarcity, for example, the ideology that lays blame in a way that resonates with innocent victims will be able to spread across the human population. It will serve the dual functions of (1) reducing anxiety in an uncertain world (by offering feelings of order and control); and (2) being a conduit for releasing anger (in the self-righteous attacks on those who have been painted as the evil creators of harm).
This is why there’s no point arguing with Fox News. They offer a worldview that blames liberal elites for the deterioration of society. Their authoritarian ideology brings much needed coherence and order to a hostile world. Attacking them with countervailing facts won’t do any good at all — because such an approach does nothing to alleviate anxiety or channel anger — only a replacement morality tale can do this.
The same can be said for the anxiety and anger caused by the impacts of industrial civilization. Only a worldview that fits the psychological landscape of needs can replace the mythologies of free market capitalism, perpetual economic growth, and humans as exploiters of natural resources that treat nature as outside the realm of economics. The only way to change culture is to cultivate new memes that replace the current ones.
People as “Idea Replicators”
The first thing you’ll need to know is that ideologies operate according to the rules of cultural evolution. Humans are unique in the fact that we are able to create semantic filters for making sense of the world built on the conceptual capacities of our unusual brains. Our enlarged neocortex — the frontal lobe that stores massive amounts of information as “activation networks” of neurons — gives us an ability to create elaborate cultural systems like no other animal on Earth. Our biological nature makes us a product of our evolutionary history as mammalian primates who walk upright and live in cohesive social groups. What makes us stand apart from the other primates is the way that our minds have become a breeding ground for ideas, giving them a life of their own.
We’ll need to make a “foreground/background” shift and think about ideas as organisms that use humans as a vehicle for their own transmission. This frees us from the constraints of biology that require all organism traits to be shaped by natural selection in order to replicate the genes of the species. What meme science tells us is that the ideas themselves can be replicators — spreading according to their own selection rules regardless of whether they benefit their human host.
This conceptual move allows us to see why people sometimes act against their own best interests. We already know from the massive evidence of psychological and marketing research that people don’t operate according to the rules of self-interest. What this front-back shift does is allow us to explain why… ideologies seek to replicate themselves, even if it harms the reproductive prospects of their human hosts.
This is why people will lay their lives on the line for an idea — be it the nationalism that causes so many young men and women to step onto the front lines of war or the religious sentiments that lead jihadists to strap bombs to themselves in order to attract followers to their cause. The cultural DNA of ideas are what we call “memes” and they follow their own rules of adaptation and fitness. It may not be beneficial for poor people to support elite financial policies that extract wealth from their labors to be hoarded by the rich, but it is in the interest of the worldview that asserts that this is both natural and good to infect as many minds as possible. Clearly, those memes are doing quite well in today’s political environment here in the United States!
The Framework for Dealing with Conflicting Ideologies
By now it should be clear that climate activists need to think about ideologies as ecosystems of memes. This will allow them to analyze the cultural landscape and reveal functional needs that current pathological ideologies fulfill. Only then can alternative memes be introduced strategically and effectively.
The framework we have developed at DarwinSF looks like this:
(Click to enlarge)
We begin by mapping the meme landscape to discover both which memes are present and how they relate to each other. This is where we reveal how the various ideologies compete for mind space in a given culture. Some are predisposed to be supportive of one another while others will be outright hostile and parasitic. Strategic actions cannot be planned in the absence of this knowledge.
Then we link to human ecology to show why successful ideologies thrive in the minds of people — by fulfilling psychological needs within the constraints of human biology — while others flounder and remain on the margins. This is where a pathway forward reveals itself in the analysis. We begin to see which elements of a faulty ideology must be changed so that it can evolve and adapt to meet the needs of its host.
And this leads us to a design of transition stories that tweak the language of the climate discourse into a meme-worthy composition of ideas and beliefs. Now we are ready to engage the hearts and minds of people with the tools that have been created during this journey of discovery. The memes we’ve found that work for humanity in the current context can be crafted as “attack stories” that weaken oppositional ideologies alongside “dream stories” that empower people to participate in the making of a better world.
It’s Time to Begin!
Climate activists everywhere can participate in this effort. It is probably obvious to state that cultural change is difficult and will only work through the coordinated efforts of like-minded people. The ‘memes-eye-view’ presented here makes explicit what it means to be like-minded — those minds that harbor and nourish the same memes are built on shared values, beliefs, and vision.
You can get involved in many ways. Here are a few that come immediately to mind:
1. Share these memes with others!
Our memes have brought us to this place, with powerful insights about the evolution of culture. You can spread these memes by passing this article along to your friends, talking about them in conversations you have with colleagues, incorporating them into your own writings and presentations. Feel free to credit us… or don’t! All that matters is that these memes take on a life of their own.
2. Join the Climate Meme Project!
Our memes can evolve together by remaining in continuous dialogue. You can support our crowdfunding project, sign up for our newsletter, post comments below, hunt for memes, become an action partner, and friend us on Facebook. This way your mind will be connected with ours in a shared meme space.
3. Build on these themes!
Bring your own expertise to bear on this body of work by creating materials that build upon, challenge, and improve on our thinking. You’ll be spreading memes with every word typed, video produced, song vocalized, and graphic visualized. This is extremely important because we know that memetic change will only come from a buzzing diversity of creative practice.
I hope this introduction to the memetics of ideology brings you greater insight and empowers you to create ripples of change in the cultures you are working with. Please let us know how you’d like to see materials like this developed further so that it becomes even more useful.
Thanks for dropping by to play with our memes!