Book review: The Myth Gap, by Alex Evans

Alex Evans is campaign director at Avaaz, formerly a Special Advisor and climate negotiator, and – where I first came across him – a blogger at Global Dashboard. He’s someone who has spent his career trying to make a difference at the highest level, and the book was prompted by a rather bitter moment. He was serving as the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability when it wrapped up its final meeting in 2011 with nothing to show for it – like Copenhagen in 2009, a failure to put aside national interest and do the right thing.

“Amid my disappointment and disillusionment,” writes Evans, “I lost the faith that had sustained me through a decade and a half of work as a policy geek: the conviction that rational arguments, backed up by well presented evidence, would be enough to persuade politicians of the radical actions needed to build a fairer and more sustainable world.”

It’s not just politicians either. Brexit and the US elections both showed the same triumph of narrative over facts. We make sense of ourselves and our world through stories, something Donald Trump and Nigel Farage both understand. Voters embraced their story of native people pushed aside by immigrants, and ignored by a faceless elite. Their opponents, armed with evidence and expert opinion, did not connect with their audiences to the same degree.

Evans isn’t interested in lamenting a disregard for facts. He’s interested in how we tell “powerfully resonant stories” that unite rather than divide, and that call people forward with hope. This is something the climate change world work up to after 2009, when the technocratic processes of the UN failed to deliver an agreement. Activists, led by the likes of Bill McKibben, starting building a movement instead, animated by stories about fossil fuel companies and big banks. But those are enemy narratives, says Evans, and those can prove divisive. We need something better to fill this ‘myth gap’, something that appeals to our better angels of our nature.

The book offers three key elements of this new myth, and I’ve written about them before: ‘a larger us’, ‘a longer now’, and ‘a better good life’.

The first refers to a trend that is already visible in the world, “the expansion over time of the size of the ‘we’ with whom we emphasize.” From family units to tribes to nations, to today’s global awareness, we are able to understand and feel some responsibility towards people we have never met, who live on the other side of the world. That’s a new and welcome development in human history. A longer now calls us to think on a broader time frame, to see beyond electoral cycles, and beyond our own lifetimes. The third element, a better good life, asks us to move beyond consumption as a measure of progress and wellbeing. In learning to think like this, we will essentially “grow up as a species and begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood.”

There are two other themes we can draw on – redemption, the acknowledgement that we are all complicit and need to make amends; and restoration. “Tales of restoration are just about the most powerful and resonant kind there are” writes Evans. “They speak directly to a profound yearning in all of us, an instinct that while the world may be broken, it can also be made right again, and that this may at some level be what we are here to do.” I agree, and if you want to know what that might look like in policy terms, you can read the Tearfund report The Restorative Economy, which Evans co-authored.

The last section of the book investigates Margaret Barker’s temple theology as an example of progressive myth, a story of ‘everlasting covenant’ that Evans finds useful. There are references to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or Frozen for those who find that a bit obscure. For my own part, I’m all in on “creating a myth about redemption and restoration that adds up, if you like, to an Eden 2.0.” My wife and I named our daughter Eden with something similar in mind. I’m not far off finishing a book with an alternative story, all about how we move from a myth of endless striving to one of arrival and making ourselves at home. But I do still have a lot of questions.

The Myth Gap is short and to the point. I read it in an evening while babysitting for some friends. I appreciate the effort to be concise, though I actually wanted to read a bit more about how myths are created and how they spread, and why certain stories and themes re-occur. I want to know who the movers and shakers are, and more examples of good myths. But perhaps working it out for ourselves is part of the point.

It feels like someone was going to write a book like The Myth Gap sooner of later. George Marshall has come closest with Don’t Even Think About It. It’s message is an important one, and one that deserves full consideration – if we want to make a fairer and more sustainable society, we can’t bombard people with facts, even killer ones. We need a story that makes sense of where we are, and that offers a vision of where we go next. “Where there is no vision,” as the book of Proverbs puts it, “the people perish.”

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  1. Perhaps the Devil doesn’t just have all the best tunes, maybe he has the best stories too.

    Political narratives have to have a basis of truth and work best going with the grain of human nature.

    1. Maybe, but we’re rather conflicted and complicated animals. You can appeal to people’s selfishness and greed, or you can call on their altruism and compassion. They’re both there in human nature.

      1. And the great irony being that often selfishness and greed can lead to good results and compassion and altruism to bad ones. Such is life.

  2. Pingback: Stories to live by

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