Here’s me on BBC World’s GMT programme talking about the Myth Gap earlier today…
Last week, I gave the first of this year’s RSA lectures at the Royal Society of Arts in London. Here’s the text – video to follow as soon as they’ve uploaded it…
So here’s my argument in a nutshell. If we want to change the world, then what we most need isn’t evidence, data, or policy proposals. It’s stories.
No-one is more surprised about this than I am, believe me. I’m a policy wonk, not a communications expert. Over the last 20 years I’ve worked for Cabinet ministers, at the UN, as a think tank research fellow, and a consultant for everyone from Oxfam to the US National Intelligence Council.
And as anyone who’s worked with me over that period will confirm, I am a total nerd. I love evidence, data, and policy proposals. I get excited about killer facts and slam dunk pie charts. I spent years of my life wanting to be Josh Lyman from the West Wing.
Through it all, I thought that changing the world was about getting the right evidence to the right policymakers.
I don’t think that anymore.
So the Myth Gap is finally out! If you missed them, there were…
- Positive reviews in the Scotsman, New Scientist, and Economist;
- Articles by me on Open Democracy and BBC Science Focus; and
- An interview with Anne McElvoy on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme, which you can listen to here.
- I also gave a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts – text of that here
And here’s a photo of the launch at Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street 🙂
The Economist’s religion editor, Bruce Clark, has a review of the Myth Gap on his Erasmus column – full article on economist.com here. Here’s an excerpt:
What makes Mr Evans a bit unusual is the diagnosis he makes of why (at least in part) Copenhagen [the 2009 UN climate summit] failed and Paris [its 2015 successor] succeeded. One of the problems, before the Danish disaster, was that green activists, even the most lively-minded ones, were boring people to death with pie-charts, acronyms and statistics. By the time world leaders had gathered in France, environmentalists had begun to grasp the message that they could only touch people’s hearts by telling stories. In other words: by using the method of religious prophets of old, the marketing gurus of the 20th century and the science-fiction writers gazing into the future. It was a sign of the times that François Hollande, the president of France, encouraged a strong spiritual input in the summit. All these people understood that they could only grab and retain people’s attention with good yarns: powerful, memorable, morally compelling narratives that could prompt the listener to step inside and take a stance. That is the argument Mr Evans makes in a very short, very sharp book, “The Myth Gap”.
Paul Hoggett and Rosemary Randall, two psychologists working on climate change, have a great new piece on Open Democracy that explores the challenge of “managing hope and despair in social movements”. All political movements, they observe, are
…haunted by the belief that they might lack the collective resources to address the damage and suffering they see around them, and which motivates their action. So in addition to its external opponents, a movement always has an internal, emotional enemy—a gnawing, repetitive, low-level fear and hopelessness that accompany the struggle for deep-rooted social change
But increasingly, they argue, “sustainable activism” is developing an emotionally intelligent culture. Part of it is about acknowledging vulnerability, and the need to follow periods of intense engagement with time for reflection and self-care. Part of it’s about conscious attention to building cohesive groups with high levels of trust and that “might prefigure the kind of society they hope will emerge in the future … a world in miniature that was more caring, more responsive and more inclusive”.
Most fundamentally, they argue that while sustainable activism believes there can be no personal change without political change,
…it is equally insistent that there can be no political change without personal change. It insists optimistically that those who are not against us must be with us, and therefore carries a notion of ‘us’ which is inclusive and generous, one which offers the benefit of the doubt to the other.
I think this idea of a more inclusive ‘us’ is central to the kind of activism we need to deal with today’s defining issues like climate change – and in The Myth Gap, I argue that prompting us to think in terms of this ‘larger us’ is one of the three key ways in which 21st century myths need to change our thinking, along with helping us think in terms of a longer now and a better good life.
Look at a Trump, a Farage, or a Le Pen, by contrast, and the defining theme of their politics is thinking in terms of a smaller us, in which ‘we’ need to be ready to defend ourselves from some threatening ‘other’.
It’s a point not lost on Van Jones, who’s emerged as a key voice in US activism following Trump’s victory (check out his electrifying speech at Standing Rock if you haven’t already). In a Rolling Stone interview earlier this month, he observes that,
The problem is not the abundance of people with bad intentions; it’s the superabundance of people with good intentions who don’t know what to do yet. The Dream Corps is where I work, and we’re going to launch a campaign, #LoveArmy. We have got to bet on the good in people, including people who voted for Trump, and build up a big Love Army.
In the UK, too, similar themes have started to sprout in the wake of the Brexit referendum: look for instance at More United, which stands for unity and inclusion and against hatred and division (its name quotes from the maiden speech in Parliament by the late Jo Cox MP).
2016 has been an unbelievably shitty year. But the rapid emergence of values-led coalitions like these – ones that wear their heart on their sleeve, rather than trying to win against opponents like Farage and Trump with graphs and Powerpoint presentations (the way progressives all too often still do – look at climate activists pre-2009) – is a big deal. This is going to be the front line of activism from here on out.
I’ve got an article on The Myth Gap in the current edition of Resurgence – text below.
We need new mythologies to face the environmental crisis
It took me almost twenty years to figure out that evidence and rational arguments don’t drive real change on the big global issues.
Almost for as long as I can remember, I wanted to work on global environmental issues. And once I’d seen my first episode of The West Wing, I knew I wanted to do it as a political adviser inside government.
I got my wish. In 2003, I became one of two special advisers to the British Secretary of State for International Development (first Valerie Amos, and then Hilary Benn) in Tony Blair’s government. I did three years in the job, served as part of Labour’s general election ‘war room’ in 2005, and sat in on meetings with everyone from Bob Geldof to then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
My abiding impression was one that took me by surprise: how little power the government really had, at least on the big issues like climate change. For all his faults, Tony Blair was a leader who really did care about climate change – to the extent of making climate one of two centrepiece issues at the G8 summit that the UK hosted in 2005, which I worked on. Yet for all that, he barely influenced the global agenda at all.
Later, I spent a long time working in and around the United Nations, including two stints in the Secretary-General’s office. There too, I figured that if I could just persuade top level policymakers of the case for radical action on issues like climate change, then the rest would fall into place; there too, I found myself disillusioned and struck by how little power the supposedly powerful really had.
All of which made me wonder: if evidence and elite level decision makers aren’t enough to achieve a breakthrough, then what is?
Today, I feel more sure than ever that if we’re to overcome an issue as enormous as climate change, then we need to look far beyond policymakers and pie charts. Instead, I’ve come to believe that we need to build the kind of mass movement that has in the past created the political space to end slavery, or create new civil rights, or secure the write-off of billions of dollars of third world debt.
To animate movements on this scale, we need powerfully resonant stories, and they need to be stories that unite rather than divide us. “Enemy narratives” that tell us why climate change is all the fault of Exxon or Saudi Arabia won’t cut it. Instead, we need stories that help us to see the world and ourselves in a very different way.
Not so long ago, our society was rich in these kinds of stories, and we called them myths. Today, though, we have a myth gap. Religious observance is declining steadily. So is trust in leaders and institutions of all kinds. Almost unnoticed, we have slowly lost the old stories that used to bring us together and help us to make sense of the world. In their place, new “anti-myths” are flourishing – that we are what we buy, for instance, or that the world is heading rapidly towards environmental collapse and there’s not a thing we can do about it.
To navigate our way through the turbulent rapids on the river ahead of us, I argue in my new book The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?, we need a new generation of twenty-first century myths that can explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who “we” are.
Specifically, we need myths that get us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us; that situate us in a longer now, with much greater awareness of the deep past and deep future; and that help us to imagine a different good life, with less emphasis on material consumption and more on wellbeing, happiness and (most of all) a sense of larger purpose.
The other two roles that our twenty-first century myths need to play are deeper still, and have to do with helping us process the profound emotional and psychological dimensions of climate change.
First, our myths need to help us work through our grief for what is happening all around us, both to the natural world and to the human victims of climate change – and help us to face up to our collective guilt for the fact that this is a human-caused disaster, in which some of us are much more guilty than others.
We need myths, then, that speak of redemption: an idea that goes beyond repentance and forgiveness, and more fundamentally extends towards how we can atone for what we’ve done and start to make things right again.
Second, we need myths that give us hope for the future by moving beyond the arid jargon of “sustainable development” and instead tell us stories of restoration: how we can repair the damage we’ve done to the climate, help to mend the ecosystems we’ve broken, and right the wrongs done to other human beings by climate change.
In a world of 7 billion people, there’s clearly no single myth or set of myths that will work for all of us. But all of us need myths, and all of our twenty-first century myths will need in their different ways to speak to these core themes – implying the potential, and indeed the need, for a deep dialogue between different, but ultimately complementary, stories about who we are and the world we inhabit.
At the same time, every myth needs ways of being expressed in the real world if it’s to mean anything. This starts with each of us individually – in our responsibility to be mindful of the myths we choose (rather than having them chosen for us by kneejerk reactions), and in our we live out our myths in our consumptions decisions and what we choose to speak out about.
Second, it’s about expressing our myths through groups – not only religious congregations, but also through new groupings of the “spiritual but not religious”, as well as much more participatory, less controlled political movements.
Most of all, it’s about rediscovering our capacity for collective storytelling and to dream together of hopeful futures even amid conditions of crisis and breakdown. If we can rediscover that skill – one that used to come to us naturally, and is as old as our species itself – then we can translate our stories into real world changes to policy, business, finance, governance, and behaviour, and start to build a 21st century Eden 2.0.