How 4 Memes Pose Environmental Debate: Lessons for Design Advocates


Memes are defined by Heidi Huntington in her article “Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream” as “still images that are appropriated from popular culture and news media and remixed by individuals to include additional textual or visual commentary” (qtd. from Milner, 2013). These images mixed with words are especially powerful because their adaptation of popular culture to comment on social issues is condensed in time and space: memes are concentrated messages that index meaning. Design is not just a compilation of “‘visual tricks’ that may give poorly thought out writing an appealing wrapper,” (411) as quoted by Cheryl Ball from Megan Sapnar. The meme’s design is integral to understanding its meaning and use in social practice.

In Kathleen Blake Yancey’s article from 2004, “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key,” she calls for greater visual and screen literacy, real-world genre writing, and teachers acting as a gateway for students learning how to compose with new media. Yancey also describes literacy as deictic, constantly and rapidly changing with new tech. Yancey is especially excited by “the ability of someone to take a given technology and find a use for it that may be at odds with its design” (319). This ability is shown when social media users create and deploy memes to attempt to promote a particular view of the world.

Energy poverty timeline meme

Figure 1. Energy poverty timeline meme.

However, because of the meme’s limitations, this power is not wielded in ways that promote considered reflection on an issue. In fact, as visual enthymemes, memes usually provide the “key points of an argument while leaving the conclusion of the argument unstated” (Huntington, 80). The audience is expected to come to the standard conclusion because of commonly held values and cultural norms that are cued by the visuals and text. In the “Energy Poverty” timeline, the unstated conclusion is that global warming has a timeline and that human actions to reduce carbon emissions by using renewable sources of energy (despite their high cost) will result in failure.

The success or failure of the action portrayed in a meme is often framed in terms of a binary fail/win situation, in which the success of the meme depends on the fact that there is no middle ground possible when evaluating the attendant meaning. The result is humorous because it shows the ultimate failure of humans to avoid their own self-destruction because of concerns about money. But by representing the progression as inevitable, changing course is pictured as impossible, and so developing renewable energy appears futile.

Only in America meme

Figure 2. Only in America meme.

In the “Only in America…” meme, Americans (portrayed as “we,” including the author of the meme and the audience in one unified group) are characterized as trusting a rodent on Groundhog Day to predict the weather while refusing to trust scientific proof of climate change. While this meme is funny and the audience is led to think, “oh, that is so true…” it also acts to compare climate scientists to rodents. In addition, by characterizing Americans as superstitious believers in a common tradition, which is much more acceptable and comforting to think about than the dire consequences of climate change, the conversation about possible actions to mitigate the problem is completely avoided. We are instead reminded of the movie Groundhog Day, and how the main character perpetually relives the same day, never making any progress or finding resolution (until he is finally selfless enough to earn the love of his intended).

During the circulation and replication of memes, the words and attendant meaning are often changed over successive iterations. Subsequent versions of memes still carry pieces of the original meaning, especially when viewed as a sequence through time on social media, but these meanings can also be inverted and used for purposes not originally intended by the originating author. In a way, memes develop a life of their own. Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in Chapter 11 of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, where he warns that “What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.”

Global warming isn't real meme

Figure 3. Global warming isn’t real meme.

According to Dawkins, memes require longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity to survive (much like genes). Samir Nazareth suggests in “Climate Change as Meme” that the primary way memes acquire these qualities is by providing economic value. Money is power, and so the most successful memes (no surprise here) both parody and support the control society and its economic stability, as discussed by Deleuze and applied to memes by E. S. Jenkins in “The Modes of Visual Rhetoric.” Jenkins relates that “Control society is marked by an unbounded, continual self-disciplining exercised through communication networks extending throughout all space-times, including leisure activities” (460). Most people would consider checking Facebook or Twitter leisure activities, but these actions are nevertheless wrapped up in the corporate-bureaucratic system that regulates our lives.

Through this discussion of memes and the social expression of climate change, I have attempted to explain at least partially how commonly held conceptions about the issue circulate on social media and influence public ideology. I would note in closing that in three out of the four memes chosen for this blog, famous middle-aged white men take center stage in ways that support the status quo: Gene Wilder, the semi-crazy Willy Wonka from the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; bumbling comedic actor Bill Murray with a groundhog riding shotgun on his lap, and stand-up comic Stephen Colbert do not represent reliable sources about the reality of climate change. The unstated conclusions that global warming exists, and climate change scientists are right, are subverted by the messenger himself.

Willy Wonka meme.

Figure 4. Willy Wonka meme.

The ability of students to critically understand and respond to both textual and visual information as represented on screens is an important step toward bridging the divide between theory and practice in political ecology. Discerning with skepticism that not all accommodations of scientific information are accurate and unbiased demands skills that are not usually explicitly taught in composition classrooms. I would suggest a pedagogy that focuses specifically on students’ taking up their place in the contemporary political ecology, including:

  • An emphasis on textual+visual analysis strategies
  • Situational prototyping exercises that address future-oriented rhetoric
  • Greater use of parody as a genre in classroom assignments
  • Encouragement of multimodal expression and content in assignments

I think that memes are tools that have immense capabilities for the rapid circulation of complex information, but that their full intertextual and visual meanings and effects are not always completely understood and controlled, even by their creators. This makes studying memes problematic because the context and purpose of their creation is not usually known. It is ironic and somewhat dangerous that such a powerful medium is both anonymous because of its mimetic qualities and variable down to its very message. In an age when the majority of U.S. citizens turn to social media to read the news, it is important to recognize and study this phenomenon.

Works Cited

Ball, Cheryl E. “Show, Not Tell: The Value of New Media Scholarship.” Computers and Composition, v. 21 (2004): 403-425.

Dawkins, Richard. “Memes: The New Replicators,” in The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1976).

Huntington, Heidi E. “Pepper Spray Cop and the American Dream: Using Synecdoche and Metaphor to Unlock Internet Memes’ Visual Political Rhetoric.” Communication Studies, v. 67, no. 1 (2016): 77-93.

Jenkins, Eric S. “The Modes of Visual Rhetoric: Circulating Memes as Expressions.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, v. 100, no. 4 (2014): 442-466.

Milner, Ryan M. “Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” International Journal of Communication, v. 7 (2013): 2357-2390.

Nazareth, Samir. “Climate Change as Meme.” Economic and Political Weekly, v. 46, no. 2 (2011): 17-19, 21.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. “Made Not Only in Words: Composition in a New Key.” College Composition and Communication, v. 56, no. 2 (2004): 297-328.







About Author

Mary Le Rouge

Mary Le Rouge is a second-year doctoral student in Rhetoric and Composition at Kent State University. Her research interests include digital rhetoric and discourse studies, especially in relation to climate change, technical communication, and literacy.

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