A little more than one year ago, I wrote a post titled “Why, in a Few Years, Nobody Will be Talking About Climate Change Anymore.” It turned out that I was completely wrong: Greta Thunberg changed everything. My mistake was the typical one we all make when we try to predict the future. As I tend to say, “the surest way to make wrong predictions is to extrapolate past trends.” And I fell into the trap myself!
Look at what happened: The interest of the public in climate change had been fading for years and then, suddenly, it started rising. Now it is the highest level ever reached in the Google Trend record.
Isn’t that fantastic? The Greta Thunberg meme, alone, changed the worldwide trend. There is no other explanation for the restarting interest in climate.
So, what’s happening? Let’s see if we can learn something from my wrong prediction. First of all, I based my prediction on the data from Google Trends that showed a constant and robust decline of the public’s interest in climate change. It had been ongoing for more than a decade. I noted also how the Trump government was practicing the propaganda technique known as “deception by omission.” It seemed to be successful in generating a self-reinforcing feedback that led the public to forget about climate change, distracted by other issues.
Then, bang! Complex systems always take you by surprise and Greta Thunberg surely surprised everybody. What made her so successful in a task where the best scientists in the world had failed? The birth and the development of the Thunberg meme will be studied for years to come: it is truly a remarkable innovation in a memesphere where, so far, only negative memes seemed to have a chance to affect the public opinion (Climategate is an example). Surely, Ms. Thunberg was supported by a top-notch public relations agency. They did everything right from the beginning: the target, the delivery, the positioning. But it was the person, Greta Thunberg, who was absolutely perfect in her role: flawless on all occasions.
At the same time, the forces of darkness trying to stop Greta Thunberg managed only to propel her further forward. A large number of angry old men made fools of themselves by insulting her. Many so-called “experts” on climate could only show their ignorance. Most attacks against her backfired, also because the young lady turned out to be both smart and resilient.
But there is more, here, than a flawless P.R. operation. The time had come for a major memetic transition. Most of us were expecting it as the result of some climate disaster, hurricanes, sea-level rise, heat waves, this kind of things. But we were hit by every sort of climate disasters and the result was the opposite: in the wake of each terrible event, the public interest in climate change diminished!
Again, we should have expected that: the memesphere behaves very much like complex physical systems, it undergoes phase transitions. If you ever worked with this kind of systems, you surely noted how phase transitions occur, or do not occur, mostly when they please. If the conditions are not right, the chemical compound that took you months of work to synthesize will refuse to condense and precipitate. Or, it will do so when you don’t expect that to happen. The memesphere does the same: when the conditions for the diffusion of a meme are right, it will diffuse. Otherwise, it won’t.
So, Greta Thunberg was the right meme at the right moment. And, as all good memes, it diffused explosively. And now what?
Memes have a limited lifetime in the memesphere — it is because they are akin to living creatures and they consume the resources that make them live. They flare up rapidly and then decline slowly. If nothing changes, this is the destiny of the Greta Thunberg mem — it might be hastened by ongoing demonization campaign: if there is something that modern Western propaganda can do is demonizing people. After decades of operation, they have learned to do it well.
So, there is a definite chance that Greta Thunberg will fade away and disappear, as her enemies surely hope. But that’s not necessarily her future. It is also possible that the meme will mutate, becoming more structured, more propositive, more engaging. It seems that it is what’s happening: Greta Thunberg is updating her message and she is starting to propose actual solutions to climate change with a recent video in which she promotes reforestation. That video has some problems and so far it didn’t have a big impact, but it is a step in the right direction.
And here we are: complex systems always surprise us, and surely we are in for more. But with Greta around, the future is not anymore so bleak as it seemed to be just a few months ago.
Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy and he is also a member of the Club of Rome. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it