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.
My epiphany came in 2011. I was in a small room at the UN’s headquarters in New York. In it with me were two dozen prime ministers, presidents, foreign ministers, and ambassadors, from the United States, the EU, China, Brazil, and so on.
This was the final meeting of the UN’s “High Level Panel on Global Sustainability” – a body created by the then Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to design the agenda for a big summit on sustainable development scheduled for the following year.
I was there as the Panel’s writer: the person charged with finding the right words to reflect the collective sentiments, visions, and aspirations of the Panel’s members in their report.
This, I should explain, was my dream job.
For years, I’d felt that a panel like this would give policymakers a chance to step back from the day to day fire-fighting – and think about the hardest dilemmas in managing an interdependent world.
Dilemmas like how to deal with the massive questions of fair shares that arise once the global economy starts hitting natural limits – since, as Gandhi put it, “there is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed”.
Above all, I’d hoped that a process like this would rise above the endless bickering of G8s, G20s, G77s, and the rest – and start to think and act instead like a “G One”. A group, in other words, that would recognise that we all live on one planet and need to act accordingly, and that would go out and champion the solutions needed.
More fool me.
Because what I actually saw that day at UN headquarters was a perfect illustration of what’s been called the “G Zero”. A world in which no leaders are prepared to think beyond their national interests, or show vision on tough global issues.
As the last vestiges of my naivety fell away, I realised that far from coming up with big answers, the Panel’s members would barely be willing to acknowledge the questions.
And, amid my disillusionment, I lost my conviction that rational arguments, backed up by hard evidence, would be enough to persuade politicians of the need for radical change to build a fairer, more sustainable world.
Which left me wondering: if evidence and arguments aren’t enough, then what is?
I thought about that question a lot in the years that followed. Especially after I moved with my family to Ethiopia in 2012 for my wife’s job in international development.
Suddenly, all the issues I’d been writing about for so long – refugees, droughts, food crises – were staring me right in the face. Not as pie charts, but as real life stories of real people facing real hardship.
And I thought about it again as I watched, from thousands of miles away, as Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination and as the Brexit campaign triumphed. In both cases, not because of facts or evidence or data, but because of the resonance of the stories they told.
Stories of making America “great again”. Stories of taking back control. Stories that played expertly on fears of a shadowy “other”, and on building walls to keep them out.
Stories, I realised, had a raw power that pie charts and pamphlets never would.
And as I watched the dramas of 2016 play out, I had a strange sense of déjà vu. Because the Trump and Brexit victories were all too similar to what I’d seen happen on climate change in 2009.
Back then, climate activists were technocrats. Insiders. Data-rich; evidence-based. And until 2009, it looked as though this approach was working. The US election had just been fought between two candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, who agreed on the urgency of tackling climate change. Better yet, the House of Representatives had just passed the US’s first climate bill. All that needed to happen now was for the bill to clear the Senate. It was going to be a walk in the park.
Except that it wasn’t. No one had noticed a new phenomenon called the Tea Party – which proceeded, as climate writer David Roberts put it, to spend the summer “invading town halls, dominating talk radio and Fox News, and generally scaring the bejesus out of Republican legislators”.
By the time the Senate got back from its summer break, prospects for US climate legislation had fallen apart. Six months after that, the UN climate summit in Copenhagen fell apart too. As the dust settled, stunned environmental NGOs commissioned Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist, to explain to them what the hell just happened.
Her answer: the Tea Party played an outsider, populist, values-led game against the NGOs’ insider, technocratic, facts-led game – and ran over them with a tank.
But here’s the good news: climate activists learned their lesson. They got smart. They realised that if they wanted to beat the Tea Party at its own game, then they needed to look far beyond policymakers and pie charts.
Instead, they needed to build the kind of mass movement that has in the past won the abolition of slavery, or established new civil rights like equal marriage, or secured the write-off of billions of dollars’ worth of third world debt.
And they did it.
Fast forward to summer 2014, and you find climate activists mobilising half a million people on to the streets of New York. Closing down production at Germany’s largest coal mine. Taking to the Pacific in a flotilla of kayaks to stop oil rigs from being towed out to sea.
And the Pope writing an entire papal encyclical about the issue. And President Obama giving one climate speech after another. And the 2015 climate summit in Paris ending with activists in a state of stunned euphoria as governments agreed a new target of zero emissions by 2050.
How did the climate activists do it? In large part, through stopping being policy wonks – and reinventing themselves as storytellers. As myth-makers.
What do we mean by myths?
Well, not so long ago, our society was rich in stories. Stories that helped us to understand the world and ourselves. Stories about where we are, how we got here, where we’re trying to go, and underneath it all who we really are. Stories that gave us meaning, identity, and purpose.
We called these stories myths.
Some were rooted in religions. Others told of heroes and quests. But all of them, in their different ways, had deep truths to teach us – about wisdom and ignorance; about good and evil; about grief, guilt, and redemption.
Today, we’ve largely forgotten them. Things are either literally, scientifically true or not true at all. A myth has come to mean something that’s just wrong. Like an “urban myth”. In the thesaurus, you’ll find it in the same entry as bunk, crock, fabrication, fiction, and hogwash.
Along the way, we’ve lost the old stories that used to help us make sense of the world – but without coming up with new ones.
Instead, we have a “myth gap” – a kind of flatland of culture wars, and social media echo chambers; entertainment, distraction, and ever shorter attention spans.
What, you may ask, does all this have to do with politics, economics and how to shape the future of our societies?
Everything. Writing just before the First World War – at the end of another long period of globalisation, innovation, and connectedness – Carl Jung saw all too clearly the risks of what he called “the man who thinks he can live without myth”. Such a person, he wrote,
“…is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or the ancestral life within him, or yet with contemporary society”.
What Jung understood was that without shared myths to bind societies together, the risks of fragmentation, polarisation, and conflict increase dramatically – just as we see all around us today.
In such conditions – in the “myth gap” we now inhabit – it’s all too easy for dark ‘anti-myths’ to fill the void.
One example, expertly propagated by the new myth-makers of the marketing industry and explored by Jonah Sachs in his masterful book Winning the Story Wars, is the myth that “you are what you buy.” If the idea is almost metaphysical, the consequences – in terms of consumerism, ecosystem degradation, or climate change – are anything but.
Or consider the myth of what I call “collapsitarianism” – the story that as environmental pressures increase, we’ll find that there isn’t enough of everything to go around, and so we need to grab enough for ourselves before others do.
This myth, too, can have all too tangible real world expressions, from the Nazi idea of Lebensraum in the 1930s to today’s international land grab deals.
There’s real danger here.
If the stories we reach for in conditions of turbulence and crisis are ones about overshoot and collapse, and we all start to act accordingly – competing rather than cooperating, fragmenting rather than coming together – then they can all too easily become self-fulfilling prophecies.
And this is the most important point about myths: they create our reality as much as they describe it. As the novelist Terry Pratchett once put it, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way around.”
Yet still, far too often, political progressives try to fight these hugely resonant stories with policy memos. As if rational arguments and empirical data will somehow win out against brilliant political narratives of the little guy versus remote elites, or corrupt politicians only out to line their own pockets, or vast conspiracies to falsify climate change data.
As if victory will be secured by the side with the most detailed footnotes.
That was the mistake made by climate campaigners in 2009. It was the mistake made by the Remain campaign during the Brexit referendum in the UK. And it was the mistake that paved the way for Donald Trump to win the US Presidency.
All of which made me wonder: what if, rather than spending all their time fact-checking Donald Trump’s tweets or bemoaning the perfidy of the Brexiteers’ infamous claim that the European Union costs the UK £350 million-a-week, what if progressives became storytellers of the right kinds of myths – myths that unite rather than divide us?
I think the kind of myths that we need at this point in history share a few key themes. Most importantly, they need to help us think in terms of a larger us, a longer now, and a different good life.
First, we need myths that change how we see our place in the world, by prompting us to think of ourselves as part of a larger ‘us’ than ever before.
At its heart, the whole story arc of human history is about how we’ve kept becoming part of, and identifying with, a larger and larger us. Over and over again. From wandering Neolithic survival bands to modern nation states and global diasporas.
Now, we’re poised right at the edge of seeing ourselves as part of an ‘us’ that includes all seven billion of the world’s people.
The anti-myths of Trump, Farage, and Le Pen explicitly set out to prevent that from happening. So we need to take them on with stories about what can happen and what we can create together if and when we do take that final step to a genuinely global us.
Second, we need myths that shift how we see our place in time, situating ourselves in a longer now that stands at the intersection of a deep past and an equally deep future.
The futurist Stewart Brand has written that our technological capacities are now so immense that “we are as gods, and might as well act like it”. By this he means that our ingenuity needs to be matched by wisdom if we’re to avoid the fate of Icarus.
And that means slowing down. Taking a far longer view than we’ve been accustomed to doing in recent decades. Expanding the now that we inhabit – so that it’s measured not seconds, but in generations.
And third, we need myths that help us to aspire to a different good life. One in which growth is less about how much we consume and more about finally growing up as a species.
Because I think many of us feel, at some level, that we’ve been living through humanity’s adolescence. Reckless. Rebellious. Focused on instant gratification.
Now, we’re alive at the moment at which our species is on the very cusp of maturity – not just recognising our responsibilities, and the consequences of our actions, but finding a real sense of meaning, identity, and purpose about what it is we’re here on earth to do.
A larger us, a longer now, a different good life. None of these are new ideas. All of recur over and over in the history of our myths, for thousands of years now. But today we’ve forgotten them. And we need to rediscover them – fast.