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.