Can changing our culture change us?

TED always provides a great forum to discuss the future of our planet and how we, as humans, need to change the world. Two weeks ago the TEDx Maastricht event continued the tradition of spreading great ideas to help us find solutions to issues that we humans face. In this Blog post I would like to look at a couple of the speakers from September 4th‘s event in Maastricht and examine how our culture and society effects how we interact with the world. Many of the speakers argued that we need simple changes in our society to start to heal the world and this Blog will focus on these arguments.

The first speaking to fall into the category of pushing societal change came in the morning. Bart Knols talked about the growing social isolation that is plaguing western society.  Bart’s observations came from experiencing the differences on a train ride he experienced in Tanzania versus one in the Netherlands. The train in Tanzania was a social event where he met people, discussed the world and even sang and danced with total strangers but in the Netherlands he saw how people go into a bubble where they are isolated even though they are surrounded by people. This is the isolation that Bart wants to change, even though we are surrounded by people we don’t interact with them. However, there are solutions to the growing isolation that had been coming into our society and Bart Knols believes the solutions are very simple. On some trains in the Netherlands there have been experiments where you designate a train to be a social zone. This is all Bart believes it takes to make a change and it has been shown effective. By simply designating this environment as one to talk and socialize people did and it shows that humans are a product of our surroundings and by changing our surrounding you change human behavior.

On a completely different topic, Shyama Ramani gave a talk on bringing toilettes to the coastal towns of India. After the 2004 tsunami, many of the forests where women would relieve themselves were destroyed and a real need for toilettes arose when women lost the privacy that the forest provided.  When Shyama institute put toilettes in these towns the women used them but the men would still walk down to the beach and just go into the ocean. The issue that Shyama faced was how to change the patterns of the men that had been built into there culture since their ancestors settled on the shores of India. There were several ideas but one that showed success was a toilettes beauty contest where different villages battled to have the nicest water closet with cleanest and most beautiful hut that surrounds the toilet. The one condition for the contest was that the men had to use it for 6 months. This seems to be a form of social training and conditioning. Shyama Ramani was working hard to make toilet use a societal norm and to do this she must make permanent changes to the male Indians behavior to keep the men using toilettes. This would not only provide privacy for the women but it has been shown to raise hygiene levels throughout the towns.  Like Bart, Shyama is trying to make simple changes in people by changing their environment and it seems effective. It’s a pretty simple concept. Change the environment and it changes the people.

As the TED talks progressed throughout the day there were two talks that focused on the food we eat and changing the way we see food. Marian Peters tried to convince us that we should eat insects as a way to help create a more sustainable food industry and Mark Post talked about the hamburger he grew in a lab here at the University of Maastricht. A problem that both faced is how to make this food culturally accepted. Marian Peters has a more difficult job because bugs are not on the menu of our western culture. However, she makes the point that many societies around the world have no issues with eating bugs and are very integrated in many cuisines-such as in Laos. Marian Peters was at the TED talk to not only discuss why we should eat bugs but she was there to start to change our societies view on bugs. She made sure that there were enough chicken/bug nuggets (80% chicken 20% bugs) for everybody to try at lunch and the majority of the TED attendees actually tried the food that was 20% ground up insects. I did not try the bugs and I don’t want to… Marian Peters has a lot of work to change my dislike of bugs that has been ingrained in me my whole life. But that’s her goal. Marian Peters is trying to make insects a social accepted food source. I think she has a long way to go but it’s possible. If the children of western culture were to eat products with bugs in them since birth their generation would probably have no issues eating food with insect in them. Other cultures don’t have any issues eating bugs so what’s to say that we can’t change western culture to make insects a social accepted food source. Marian Peters has not convinced me yet but she made some very good points one day we might see insects on the list of ingredients in our favorite foods.

Mark Post has similar issues but not nearly as drastic as Marian Peters because eating beef that was grown in a lab often seems unnatural to real beef but doesn’t have a social stigma to work against. This makes it easier for Mark and he believes one day there will be meat incubators sitting in everybody’s kitchen next to the oven. One of the points Mark Post made about the beef is that he often has to tread lightly when talking about culture beef because some people have a hard time accepting it as an alternative. However, many people are willing to try the beef and so the hurdles are a lot smaller for Mark. But it still goes to show that even with cultured beef, there is a need to change our cultures attitude towards how we feed ourselves. These two talks and ideas are based in science and biology but both need a cultural change before they become accepted into our society.

While there were a lot of speakers that I could have discussed in the blog I chose these speakers because they specifically talked about changing societies and cultures to have positive effects on the world. They showed the power that social change can have on changing human behavior and this is an important message that many TED talks have been spreading.

We are social animals and our environment, culture and society have a huge influence on how we perceive the world and act in it. These speakers raise the point that if we change our environment we change humans. I think this is correct, but to what extent. Being a social species our surroundings have a very large influence and many of our issues can be solved by a change in culture. I wanted to write this blog post on social constructionism because I do believe humans are products of the surroundings. But, I think we are still heavily influenced by our monkey ancestry and I think our human biology still plays a huge part of human actions and interactions. The thirst for money, power, fame, and acceptance is part of human nature and while it may be a crucial in our make up I believe it can be overcome through societal changes. I thought one of the most inspiring talks of the day was by a 17 year old student, Rebecca Vos, who talked about changing the education system and one of the issues she talked about was reducing the hierarchy and power structure of education. She is making the push to not separate ourselves from each other and have everybody work together as one collective unit to better the world. This is a great idea because if we change the way our society interacts with each other it might prove powerful enough to overcome our human nature. Rebecca Vos’ talk made me very optimistic about the future because she is still in high school and if she can convince all her class mates to think like this then their generation with have built a culture of working together as one to overcome our human instincts and push our species forward towards a better and harmonious future.


Whether I am right or wrong with my views of human behavior, the future is coming and it was nice to spend a day listening to some bright minds present solutions to issues that face our species. Our planet is resilient and will survive until it is swallowed up by the sun in 5 billion years, but as humans we will not necessarily survive. Because of this we need TED and we need these brilliant people to present their solutions so we can ensure a world that is habitable for the future generations.



About the author

I am Adam Daddino and I am a graduate student from University of San Francisco. This summer I was an intern at the Center for European Studies at Maastricht University which is what led me to TEDx. I studied history and religions and have done so with a sociological focus on human interactions with one another. Specifically how we balance the influence of our our biological nature with our social environment.

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