Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts

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.

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Launch week

So the Myth Gap is finally out! If you missed them, there were…

And here’s a photo of the launch at Daunt’s bookshop on Marylebone High Street 🙂

Economist review

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”.

Ready to go!

Nearly launch day so just as well the books are finally back from the printers…

The launch lecture at the RSA is booked out, but you can listen live here from 1pm on 12 January. It will also be filmed and I’ll stick the video up here as soon as I have it.

The emotionally intelligent political movement

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.