Beautiful and Abundant

Publisher Bryan Welch on philosophy, farming and building the world we want.

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The Power of Contagious Ideas

2/10/2011 1:48:15 PM

Tags: environmentalism, visionaries, conservation, inspiration, Bryan Welch

 Orca off Tofino British Columbia 


Anyone can initiate small positive changes by creating beautiful things and enterprises that foster abundance, and by focusing on fairness in their daily affairs.  

To create major change, however, we need ideas that are contagious. 

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that, “Ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do.”[i] Gladwell compares HIV and a recent fashion craze for Hush Puppies shoes. When a virus–or a shoe–catches on it can spread across the globe almost instantaneously.   

Footwear might seem like a frivolous example but fashion provides us with an excellent model for the creation of contagious ideas. Fashion is an ideal technical example of how one develops a collective human vision. From year to year, human beings around the world collectively alter their vision of beauty. Millions of individuals suddenly subscribe to a new idea and implement it in their own lives, sometimes at great expense. The mavens of haute couture are global experts in the art of forming–and reforming–collective vision. 

Our ideas, if they are to be effective, should be epidemically contagious like a new style of blue jeans or a new way of wearing classic products like Hush Puppies or Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars.  

If our concepts are beautiful and fair, if they create abundance, then they have an excellent chance of achieving contagiousness, especially if we work at making them contagious. 

I used to go backpacking with a friend who drilled holes in his toothbrush handle to decrease its weight. With his goose-down sleeping bag, dehydrated food and plastic utensils, he could tell you within an ounce exactly what his pack weighed. His obsession was entertaining, at first. The conversation was interesting for an hour or two. Then it became tedious. Another friend loved campfire-grilled steaks and would hit the trail with 10 or 15 pounds of beef in his backpack. Sometimes he brought fresh potatoes, too, and some whiskey. We relished the smell of cooking meat in the mountain air. He strapped an old guitar to the top of his pack.  

For a camping companion, I preferred the steak-and-whiskey friend. He helped me appreciate nature; both the natural world and my human nature. 

We environmentalists have drilled a lot of metaphorical toothbrushes over the years. Conservation invites a fundamentalist approach to sustainability. Too many environmental commandments begin “Thou shalt not…” Our negativity has prevented our ideas from catching on. Conservation, as an ethic, is not particularly contagious. So even when we’ve been right, we have not inspired action.  

If we want to involve people in the process of forming a collective vision, we need a different approach. 

We will not engage the great engines of human creativity with a vision of pure frugality. 

Bryan Welch is the Publisher and Editorial Director of Ogden Publications, the parent company of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Connect with him on .

For further optimistic discussion about our future, read Beautiful and Abundant by Bryan Welch and connect with Beautiful and Abundant on Facebook. 

Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Little, Brown and Company, March 2000. First Back Bay paperback edition, January 2002, Page 7.

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3/15/2011 1:42:18 AM
In my opinion you are correct in your statement that “Thou shalt not…” as the opening salvo of environmental correctness just doesn't cut it. As for myself I never liked it and have ignored positive information that was in fact beneficial but I didn't like it because it condemned me from the onset. If the information was presented in a more positive light such as here is a money saving idea, or try this new twist on an old idea, I might have tried it. Simple ideas put into a more positive light with direct benefit such as use those coffee grounds for healthier house plants work much better than compost your coffee grounds for a better environment. If there is a direct financial or otherwise direct worthwhile benefit as viewed by the consumer the idea will fly on its own. Improve your health with a backyard garden stimulates interest and that is the way to change.

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