Alex Evans new book, The Myth Gap, argues that, to address the challenges of sustainability, we need to go beyond technicalities to the very stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s brilliant, urgent, timely. We definitely do need global constellation of myths of a larger us, a longer now and a different ‘good life’ which together shift our collective values base.
But missing for me was the waft and weave of the practice of acting on the ‘myth gap’. How can we learn from experiences of people who’ve already been trying? How else might we generate the stories we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing, especially without requiring a globally agreed assembly of myths or using stories which rely on deadening destinations?
“People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around” Terry Pratchett, quoted approvingly in The Myth Gap.
For the last decade or so, anyone who wants a progressive but clear-sighted view on development and international relations could do worse than read Global Dashboard. One of its founders, Alex Evans, has been an active practitioner in development as a New Labour special advisor to DfID, in international policy setting with as a secondee into UN Secretary General’s office and an academic too. He also co-wrote the super, short think piece ‘Towards a Just and Sustainable Economy’ – one of the best summaries I’ve read.
So I was excited to learn he’d written a book. This review starts by outlining Evans’ arguments, the why, what and how of the myth gap – most of which I basically agree with. But I found that there were more areas to explore, which I cover in the final section.
“On one hand, we’re poised right on the cusp of a genuinely global us – with a global social media network, a global library of knowledge, a global economy, global governance institutions, a global sense of who we are. On the other hand, we’re also on the verge of an unprecedented disaster in which we allow climate change – or other areas… – where our technological know-how risks surpassing our ability to use technology wisely….And, while I’m basically optimistic, an extremely bleak outcome is obviously possible…The single factor that will do most to decide how we fare, as we face this test, may ultimately be which stories – myths – we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing.”
1. Why stories are important
Appropriately enough, Evans starts with his own story. He was attending an crucial meeting of the UN High Level Panel on Global Sustainability, where he hoped world leaders would rise above endless bickering and “recognise that we all live on one planet and need to act accordingly”, as a G1 (not a G8, or G20, or G77 or whatever). Dear reader, can you guess what happened?
“What I actually saw that day was instead an illustration of the ‘G Zero’: a world in which no leaders are prepared to think beyond their national interests or show vision on tough global issues.”
Evans had an epiphany which will be familiar to anyone who followed politics in 2016: “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.” His conclusion is that we need to build a mass movement, and “To animate a movement on this scale, we need powerfully resonant stories, and they need to be stories that unite rather than divide us.” But there are two big forces working in the opposite direction.
First, our modern social context. Evans quotes Jonah Sachs, Winning the Story Wars: “in our rational, scientific age, most of us are more interested in facts than stories, leading to the emergence of what he calls a ‘myth gap’” – a gap which is currently being filled by the marketeer. That means we are living in unprecedented and hazardous times because “the man who thinks he can live without myth or outside it is an exception. He is like one uprooted, having no true link with either the past, or the ancestral life within him, or yet with contemporary society.”
Second, the sustainability movement has been using a very powerful, but dangerous story: collapsitarianism. He brings in Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth, which “explores how history teaches us that the fear of resource scarcity – the belief that there isn’t enough food or land to meet everyone’s needs, and hence that there’s no choice but to grab it and if necessary fight for it – provides the perfect soil in which fascism can germinate.” Unfortunately, the environmental movement’s talk of collapse might well have fed “the ability of leaders like Donald Trump in the US or Nigel Farage in the UK to play on fears of being overrun by immigrants.”
The myth of collapse is dangerous because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“If the myths we reach for in conditions of stress and crisis are ones about overshoot and collapse, and we all start to act accordingly – competing for resources rather than cooperating, fragmenting rather than coming together – then that will itself determine where we’re headed”
2. The myths we need
Here’s the most important paragraph in the entire book, laying out what is needed in the myths we tell ourselves:
“We need [the new myths] to change how we see our place in the world, by prompting us to think in terms of a larger us than ever before, one that is capable of achieving non-zero-sum outcomes at the global scale. We need myths that help to 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. We need these myths to challenge us to aspire to a different good life, one based less on material consumption and more on having a profound sense of belonging and, above all, purpose. We need them to speak of redemption, helping us to recognize and face both our grief and our guilt, but also to move past both, above all by showing us how to atone for what we have done and start to make things right again. And we need them to give us hope, by telling us of a future in which the process of atonement has been successfully carried out, leading to an outcome in which the communities and ecosystems that we have damaged are restored.”
On stage recently I used the crux of this: “we need a large us, a longer now, a different good life”. I could feel the frission go through the audience. These are brilliant elements. Let’s unpack them a little more.
A larger us.
“The story arc of human history is, above all, the grand narrative of how humans have kept becoming part of a larger us, over and over again” and therefore more and more able to create situations where everyone benefits at least a bit (as opposed to zero-sum games).
In this Evans is in agreement with Beck and Cown’s Spiral Dynamics, Harari’s Sapiens, Rifkin’s Empathic Civilisation, Torbert’s developmental levels, Wilber’s ‘All Quadrants, All Levels’, Singer’s expanding circles of concern and – of course – Martin Luther King. Personally, I love this Grand Narrative and desperately want it to be true, which isn’t quite the same as saying it is the best way to understand history, or the best basis for diagnosis and strategic action.
A longer now.
Human society is now so powerful that ‘We are as gods, and might as well act like it’ in the sense of with the power of our technology “comes the need for profound humility and wisdom”. Hence the need to “slow down and take a far longer view than we’ve been accustomed to doing in recent decades”.
A different good life.
We need to “find myths that help us to reimagine what we consider to be the good life, moving towards a society that doesn’t measure our standard of living by how much we consume.” We also need “rituals as transition from childhood to adulthood in past cultures.” One could cast our current situation as a “trial that requires us, ultimately, to grow up as a species and begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood.”
“Against this backdrop [of the sustainability crisis], grief is a wholly appropriate – and necessary – response. Yet it’s also one that we hardly ever allow ourselves to feel: we’re scared, perhaps, of the vulnerability and pain that would come with it.”
The way to give grief its proper place is work through what theologian Walter Brueggemann sees as the three crucial roles the prophets of Israel played in desparate times:
- Describe reality as it was: to force people to face up to what was actually happening, and why.
- Help people to face and deal with the despair that comes with looking reality full in the face.
- Give hope for the future amid the carnage of the present.
We can see that the collapsitarian story does 1 and 2, but cannot do 3 – and so fails. There are sustainability practitioners who only give the bright spots (Katervana, Zinc, Sustainia), saying we need the hope these provide. That’s true, but not enough without working in concert with the initial 1-2 punch.
Redemption is needed because “particularly for those of us living high-consumption lifestyles in the developed world…we are the ones creating climate change and using other people’s share of the planet’s ‘environmental space’.” But guilt is an extremely poor motivator “and it’s a big part of why we don’t want to think about the problem.” We feel great when we project our guilt and anger on the villains, but “the blunt reality is that those of us in developed countries – together with the new middle class in emerging economies – are guilty”. We need to “atone for what we’ve done: an idea that extends beyond repentance to encompass the need to make amends and repair the damage done.”
We need to “go much further than merely halting the damage we’re doing” and the arid talk of sustainability. We need to go about “healing, repairing, resurrecting environments and returning them to their natural state” through a “process of atonement”. Evans believes the most powerful and resonant stories are here. “What if we perceived our primary job for the next few centuries as being to nurse the Earth back to health?”
For Evans, “jubilees, and the closely linked idea of sabbaths, set out concrete procedures for how to correct economic, social and environmental imbalances – in effect, they were an instruction manual for how to build and maintain social and economic structures that protected rather than undermined the covenant.” The mechanism? About every 50 years was a jubilee year, where each family would have the chance to start afresh, without accumulated debt and a minimum asset base.
I have to confess that I find the jubilee proposal the weakest element. Jubilee 2000 was tremendously successful but it wasn’t a ‘full’ jubilee. People didn’t need to accept that creation belongs to God, as was pivotal in the past. We exist in a form of capitalism; creation belongs to those who have rights to it enforced by the rule of law (and they believe they have learnt the assets they have, and those in debt have a moral failing). Also, they didn’t have to give away a large chunk of what they felt they had earned, for themselves or for their children. Nations like accumulating resources so they can ensure they have a strong defence and a dynamic economy overall. So, surely a global jubilee would need to be implemented by everyone at the same time, otherwise you’d have free riders.
3. How to go forward
“Each of us [need] to find the myths of regeneration and restoration that resonate with us personally – and then for all of us to find areas of agreement between them, and sew them together in a quilt of compatible myths.” Quite a task!
- At the individual level, each of us must make a “conscious decision about which myths we adopt, rather than unconsciously allowing them to be chosen for us”. That requires mindfulness, slowing things down adn developing the capacity to watch our thoughts critically.
- To influence the political level, we need ‘little platoons’. Friends, families and small groups speaking together “can produce…a synthesis in which personal myths are shared and examined, in the process building something new and larger – but without the participants losing the distinctiveness of the stories that make them individuals.” Over the last half century in the West we’ve lost many of the settings for those conversations, whether church, working men’s club or whatever. We need to re-kindle settings for deep conversations. He quotes Ter Kuile and Thurston’s research that says “Millennials are flocking to a host of new organizations that deepen community in ways that are powerful, surprising, and perhaps even religious.” There’s an alignment to Zeldin’s Oxford Muse here.
“As we relearn how to tell myths about where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to go, and who we really are, we will discover extraordinary new capacities for creating the kind of future that we yearn for.
MORE TO EXPLORE
I massively enjoyed reading the book. it pulled various threads together for me in brilliant ways. I’d recommend it to anyone.
And yet. Something was missing for me. I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read Paul Kingsnorth’s brilliant piece 2016: The year of the Serpent. Here was writing that moved from talking about using myths, to using myths. It had dirt under its fingernails in the tone and style. It was a wooden table with knots, grain and stains, while The Myth Gap was wipe-clean and straight-edged.
On one level the book is a technocrat telling other technocrats to be less technocratic – an absolutely necessary and in some ways brave action. If one thing that comes from this is global technocrats (of whom I am one) try to weave different stories into what we do, and try to listen to the stories people already tell each other and decide to start with those, then that is a big step forward (see Dominic Cummings on how he exploited this failing in the Vote Leave campaign).
But what the book didn’t manage to do for me was to turn the insight of ‘there is a myth gap’ into realistic stuff to do. Evans is advocating for a massive global social process where individual conversations become a world-wide quilt. As Adam Tooze asks in a different context ‘What is current configuration of social forces that leads you to believe doing X will lead to Y?’ If the modern social context has created a myth gap, how can we fill it starting from where we are with the tools and resources we have available to us now? All of which implies further areas to explore.
How can we learn from the experiences of others who have been trying to fill the myth gap already?
Well, fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. Perhaps because Evans was tuning for a technocrat audience (and so focusing on the why), he doesn’t bring in existing practice. So, what can we learn from The New Story Summit, ran in Findhorn in 2014? Or from Alex Steffen’s Heroic Future? Or from the Berkana Institute’s theory of change, where wave riders ‘assist us in transitioning between old and new stories – part hospice worker, part midwife, and all storyteller, they assist us in seeing what endures from the past that still matters while embracing what has meaning in what’s new and emerging’? I know Ella Saltmarshe is currently writing a piece on the practice of story-telling for systemic change.
How else might we generate the stories we reach for to explain the transition we’re facing?
Consider the political and logistical practicalities of getting to a global quilt of compatible myths, that share the critical elements of larger us, longer now, better good life, redemption and restoration. Blimey.
More fundamentally, consider the implications of the ‘Eden 2.0’ metaphor. An earthly paradise – how lovely! And yet. Eden 1.0 didn’t end well, as I recall. I am increasingly convinced describing destinations – however Utopian – just creates dead-ends. If global societies are always in a process of becoming, then the last thing we want is to frame our stories in terms of a destination. What do we do when we get there? Just stop? Yes, I know that SDGs are a useful milestone, and the people who came up with them know that stuff will happen afterwards. But telling the story as ‘reaching Eden 2.0’ is, I fear, initially compelling but ultimately deadening. I want the SDGs to be delivered but framing it as an Eden just implies an end of history, which cannot be true.
At the same time I was also reading Three Horizons: The Patterning of Hope. This describes a social process by which one can have deep conversations as groups, shifting the story they have about their present and future. Its a brilliant book (blog to follow). it avoids the deadens destination but focussing on the qualities we can bring to what we do today (a theme of my recent thinking). For instance, whatever you are doing, and especially in a Three Horizons process, you can act with ‘future consciousness’ – an awareness of future possibilities in the hear and now.
I raise it because it gives us the opportunity to keep on re-inventing the stories we are telling ourselves “to explain the transition we are facing” – the critical function of the myths that Evans wants us to have – without the need for a global agreement of the quilt. Everyone of us can start where we are with what we have. There is still a need to somehow scale that intention and capability, so not all problems are solved. But having a sufficient global distribution of people acting with future consciousness moment-to-moment seems more realistic to me than sewing together that quilt.
Evans’ book does us all a useful service of identifying the myth gap, and brilliantly identifies the elements we need in the stories to carry us through the transition: larger us, bigger now, better good life, redemption, and restoration. How to put those insights into practice still remains a question, but one well worth pursuing.
You can pre-order it here.