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What is the net effect of memes that call out the huge impact of big players in climate change?

by hookdump3 min read23rd Jul 20215 comments

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World Optimization
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I've noticed whenever some government or huge company makes a drastic harm to the environment (or generates the false impression of doing so) this specific kind of meme emerges...

Memes that contrast the huge impact big players have against the insignificant impact regular people have:

i.e. Meme with false data after Jeff Bezos space flight.

This got me thinking. What is the effect this kind of meme has on various types of people? I made a quick analysis of around 130 replies of this particular meme on Twitter, and found the following:

  • A - 1.5% believe the fact in the meme but they claim they will maintain their environmentalist efforts nevertheless.
  • B - 2.3% defend the aerospace industry. (?)
  • C - 10.7% refute the incorrect fact quoted in the meme.
  • D - 26.7% believe the quoted fact is true and react with either: neutrality, sadness, or laughter. (Not-angry reaction)
  • E - 8.4% feel their environmentalist efforts have been pointless.
  • F - 3.8% claim they've abandoned environmentalist efforts for exactly things like these.
  • G - 12.2% believe the quoted fact is true and react with either: frustration, anger, indignation, frustration, hopelessness or resignation. (Angry reaction)
  • H - 13% focus on criticizing billionaires.
  • I - 14.5% criticize environmentalist activism, mock it, point out it's foolish, etc.
  • J - 6.9% criticize progressive ideas in general, many attack veganism specifically.

Granted, these categorizations are somewhat subjective, I've made them dynamically as I went through the replies trying to group them in relevant ways. This may not be the perfect way of organizing replies. It's just one attempt.

An important clarification: Of course memes don't magically change people's ideas and motivations. e.g.:

  • Very likely replies of type I and J come from conservatives, and the meme didn't really cause much more than a few laughs.
  • Very likely replies of type H come from progressives who specifically "hated the rich" even before seeing this meme.
  • Very likely replies of type E, F and G come from activists who already felt some form of powerlessness, hopelessness or resignation even before seeing this meme.

In other words, I don't think this specific meme can move you from group E to group A, or vice versa.

However, I wonder if the meme could nudge you in some direction.

Maybe it may nudge some E people towards the direction of group A, that is: into action, into motivation to be the change they want to see in the world, what Susan Sontag would call a witnessing moment. Being touched so profoundly by the media in question that you experience a permanent change in your being, your perception of the world, and your motivations. Arguably, this is desirable for environmentalism activists.

Or... maybe the opposite is the case. Maybe an A person may be nudged towards group E. They may not fully transition groups, but they may grow just a little bit more hopeless. A little bit more powerless. She may still belong to A, she may still acknowledge the limited impact of her individual actions and still decide to maintain such actions... but perhaps with a little less conviction than before.

In summary, a single meme won't radically change your position overnight (neither positively —towards action and empowerment, nor negatively —towards hopelessness and resignation). But I wonder if it may push various people into various directions.

Can we predict this?

Can we study the net effect a meme has had, or would have on certain population?

Has something like this been done before?

Personally, I believe these memes have a negative effect of fostering hopelessness that outweighs the positive effect of raising awareness of unjust, powerful actors doing disproportionate harm. But my belief is not the central point I want to make, but rather, posing the question: How can I build a more accurate belief about this topic? How can I find if my current belief ("net-negative effect") is right or wrong?

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2 Answers

I think the negative epistemic effects of misinformation are much more important than the motivational effects; and that most of the negative epistemic effect comes not from taking the misinformation on its own terms, but from dragging down the conversation so that relevant truths (eg: nuclear power is good, recycling is probably net negative) get lost in the noise.

Recycling as practiced was highly shaped by PR departments of companies that produce a lot of waste and want to shift the responsibilty somewhere else. That's how we ended up with a horrible recycling system. Even to the extend that separating waste does something it's unclear to me why people would hope it does something about climate change.

Memes that criticse this can be helpful. Being clear about that it's the responsibilty of the companies that produce the massive amounts of plastic to reduce waste is important.

The packaging for the meat I'm buying recently changed in a way that reduces plastic waste by 70% (number from memory). This is the kind of action that manages to reduce waste effectively. 

Just pointing to big players and critizising them however won't create change. You actually have to push for alternatives. 

When it comes to the question of a billionaire going to space and producing a lot of CO2 in the process the important question is whether they billionaire does something to offset that CO2. 

If Brandson doesn't buy offsets then pressure on him to buy offsets has a reasonable change of getting him to buy offsets. On the other hand just complaining about him being an evil billionaire doesn't. 

The fair trade mentality makes people think they need to offset going to space with some carbon reducing activity when in reality the net gain would be bigger if they did both the offset and not going to space.

That depends on the value you ascribe to them going to space. I do think that being in the great stagnation is a big problem and I think it's good that new space technology gets developed and this event is part of the development of new space technology.

In general there are always option that can be taken to optimize more into one direction. In a public context like this calling for maximalist position is unlikely to change actions.

I don't think a maximalist strategy leads someone like Bezos to change their actions.

If you are an individual making make memes then saying: "Bezos produced X tonnes of CO2 with his launch but he did nothing to offset the CO2 production" would be a productive position. 

Offsetting is something that a billionare can simply buy with money. If you care about moralizing then asking for something that can simply solved by throwing money at it is bad. If you however care for reducing CO2 asking for actions that are relatively easy to do is the way to go.

Anot... (read more)

Are you saying making memes about climate change is better time spent than sorting your own trash?

The EA community put a lot of thought into how effective action works. 

I don't think separating plastic from other trash is an effective use of my time. I do think that seperating out batteries or other hazadous material makes sense. Climate change isn't the only enviromental issue that matters and I care a lot about mercury from bacteries not leaking into my drinking water.

Preventing plastic from accumulating in the ocean is a worthy cause but given the ... (read more)