Myths for an age of political polarisation

Want to change the world? Then what you need most isn’t facts; it’s a really great story. So I argued in a book called The Myth Gap (summary here), which came out last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election.

Donald Trump and Nigel Farage had hardly triumphed thanks to their evidence base, after all. Instead, it was thanks to their power as storytellers and the resonance of the tales they told: of taking back control, of building bigger walls, of threats from a shadowy ‘other’.

Part of populist leaders’ attraction, I suggested, is their ability to speak to the contemporary absence of – and deep hunger for – grand narratives that explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who we are.

To win against these kinds of adversary, I argued, progressives need to reimagine themselves as mythmakers and storytellers. And while there’s clearly no single myth that will work for everyone, I argued that the kind of narratives we need today share three defining features.  

First, prompting us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us rather than a ‘them and us’. Second, to situate ourselves in a longer now, in which we get back to thinking in generational timespans. And third, to help us imagine a better good life in which growth is less a story of increasing material consumption and more about finally growing up as a species.

A year on from the book’s publication, I still think we need these kinds of myth. But I’ve also become preoccupied with how to build bridges across the chasm that defines our politics in an age of savage political polarisation.

My concern partly stems from a year spent running the Brexit campaign at Avaaz. Having started out a convinced Remainer, I ended up thinking the biggest problem wasn’t so much leaving the EU as the prospect that any outcome would leave UK politics poisoned for a generation, with both sides feeling stabbed in the back.

Spending six months on sabbatical in Jerusalem has only deepened my unease. I was last here in 2004, and it’s horrifying to see how extreme the polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians has become. Each side now blames the other for everything, and is simply unable to see how it has also helped to create the current impasse, or what it might have to sacrifice for peace.

The abyss in UK politics isn’t as devastating as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, of course. But the political similarities — the anxiety, irritability, tuning out and ‘othering’ those who disagree — are still striking. And they’re getting worse.

The divide we face is bigger than just Leave and Remain, too, as David Goodhart observes with his idea that British politics is now split between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’.

Somewheres, he argues, are rooted in specific places, usually where they grew up. They value security and familiarity, and are conservative on cultural and social issues. They tend not to have gone to university, do less well economically, and often experience change as loss.

Anywheres, meanwhile, like openness and mobility. They’re mainly graduates, who’ve left where they grew up to live in London, the south east, or abroad. They’re comfortable with social change, and internationalist in outlook. They are much more individualistic, and tend to curate their identities rather than having them ascribed to them.

I find Goodhart’s two tribes fascinating — especially from the perspective of story and myth.

I feel as though Somewheres start with an advantage in storytelling because the best stories are so often specific to places. The tale of a 7 billion ‘us’, on the other hand, is still just an outline draft. And by extension, I also have a hunch that Somewheres have something important to teach Anywheres about belonging.

The individualism that Anywheres are so fond of has a long shadow, after all. George Monbiot points out that individualism is ground zero for consumerism, neoliberalism, and today’s epidemic of loneliness. Adam Curtis observes that the sense of group identity that political movements depend on struggles to survive when self-expression has become the highest good. The sense of belonging that’s at the heart of what it means to be a Somewhere is powerfully relevant here.

Of course, Somewheres’ focus on belonging can be very dark too: just look at the far right. But a point that Anywheres are prone to miss is that it doesn’t have to be. Take the SNP. It’s internationalist, progressive, cosmopolitan; yet also firmly rooted in place and national identity. English politics might look a lot healthier if a similar synthesis were available south of the border.

And I think that it’s just that — a synthesis of the best of Somewhere and Anywhere — that we need to be looking for. Fuzzy compromises on the most charged issues, that do nothing to resolve the underlying clash of values, won’t satisfy anyone. Instead, we need to find a way to talk about, and work through, the divergences between two very different worldviews.

Somewheres and Anywheres clearly value different things, after all. The real question is whether those values are necessarily at odds, or whether they could in fact be reimagined as complementary.

And that’s the basic question now facing each of us.

If you take the former view, from either side of the political divide, then your only real option is to fight like hell. It’s an honourable point of view, but the problem is that it just leads to more of what we have now: acrimony, attrition, and all political bandwidth taken up with patching over the cracks instead of actually tackling the defining issues of the 21st century.

If you take the latter view, on the other hand — that politics isn’t necessarily zero sum, and that the possibility is there of a conversation that enriches all participants and proves that we do indeed have more in common than what which divides us — then you are, unavoidably, in the business of collective storytelling.

In one sense, it’s a radically new and cutting edge skill-set at the heart of what 21st century citizenship is all about. In another sense, it’s the oldest and most quintessentially human skill in the book. It’s time to dust it off and relearn how to do it.

This post was originally published on the Young Foundation’s blog, ahead of a talk I’m doing there on 18 September on the Myth Gap a year on from its publication – tickets available here

“I think we’re fucked” and other reasons not to publish a book

Last night saw the launch at the Science Museum of a new book called Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott. I’m not sure I can recall another book that’s annoyed me this much.

Emmott is head of computation science at Microsoft Research. He’s smart, and clearly makes full use of his mandate at Microsoft to think about big issues. And his book, as the blurb puts it, is “about the potential consequences of the collective activities of the human population as we continue to grow towards ten billion. Its message is simple: We are in real trouble, are heading for deeper trouble, and are failing to do much about it.”

His analysis, in a nutshell, is that: a massive resource scarcity and climate change crunch is rapidly approaching; we’re kidding ourselves if we think that technology is going to let us off the hook without having to face up to any change in our lifestyles; developed world publics are in no mood to consume less; and since we’re not willing to face up to the questions about fair shares in the context of environmental limits, it’s most unlikely that emerging economies will do so any time soon either.

While he gets some of his data wrong, I agree with the broad thrust of this argument 100%. So why the fury? Because of how he finishes the book. Here’s his conclusion (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.”

Now, I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. I agree that it’s going to take something nonlinear and spectacular to make the transition successfully. And it’s fair enough if Emmott can’t imagine what that might look like; I can’t predict it either.

But the point here is that anyone spinning ‘collapse’ stories like this – and especially anyone who is, like Emmott, an opinion former of considerable influence (as I type, his book is the #1 bestseller on global warming or climate at Amazon) – is creating narrative frames that other people are going to use to make sense of what’s going on, how we get here, and what happens next.

And Emmott’s story is not helpful. It’s toxic.

Stories – myths – are deeply, deeply powerful things. They create our reality as much as they describe it. And the more opinion formers get behind collapse narratives, the more likely these narratives are to become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to a mood of despair rather than resolve when shocks open up moments of opportunity.

Thinking that we’re “fucked” is a legitimate intellectual position – but if that is what you genuinely believe, then the responsible course of action is to shut the fuck up about it – and leave the narrative bandwidth to others with something more hopeful to say than you.

What have you got to lose by doing so, if you already think it’s all over? And conversely, what are you adding to public debate if you don’t have the imagination even to admit the possibility of success? Either lead, or get out of the way, as a climate negotiator once put it to the US delegation.

All of which begs the question of what I think a more hopeful narrative would look like, given that I buy Emmott’s analysis of the severity of the situation and the lack of obvious answers. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but I’m personally pretty interested in stuff like this. It’s the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this week, and is a first attempt to put together some thoughts that have been bubbling away for over a year.

The talk was at the annual conference of the very cool Modern Church movement – they were founded in the 19th century to oppose religious fundamentalism from within the church, and these days work on areas like religious pluralism, defence of science, and gender equity. Anyway, work in progress – feedback very welcome.

The one book you must read over the summer

I just read Mark Lynas’s new book, The God Species, in one sitting. I hardly ever read books in one sitting. So yes, it’s very good. And you should pack it along with the sun cream, shades and flip-flops, even if you’re not a nerd like me (which is, let’s face it, unlikely if you’re reading foreign policy blogs on a day as sunny as this).

I didn’t think it was going to be this good. Not because I don’t rate Mark as a writer – his previous books, High Tide and Six Degrees, are both great – but because the blurb on the back made it sounds less than it was, with its its proclamation that the book is “a radical manifesto that calls for the increased use of controversial but environmentally friendly technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power”.

That sounded a bit underwhelming, given that views like these are rapidly becoming mainstream rather than radical, following the trail blazed by people like Jim Lovelock on nuclear and Gordon Conway on GM. (Even former head of Greenpeace UK Stephen Tindale is pro-nuclear these days  – I remember him being so outraged that a 2002 IPPR report of mine should have argued in favour of nuclear that he phoned up my boss to tell him that the Institute’s green credentials were being damaged.)

And besides, if Mark’s book was really just an argument that things like cities, geoengineering, nuclear power and biotech are part of the environmental solution rather than part of the environmental problem, then it wouldn’t be saying anything that hadn’t been said two years previously in futurist Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, Radical Science, and Geoengineering are Necessary.

But actually, Mark’s book has a lot more to say than this – and two new ideas stand out in particular.

One is that The God Species is the first mainstream exposition of the concept of nine planetary boundaries that Johan Rockstrom and others at the Stockholm Resilience Centre first set out in a seminal Nature article back in 2009.

The idea here is that humanity must remain within nine safe and sustainable operating spaces, which in turn are defined by nine key boundaries. These boundaries are biodiversity; climate change; the nitrogen cycle; land use; freshwater; toxics; aerosols (like soot); ocean acidification; and the ozone layer. Rockstrom and co reckon we’re already beyond safe limits on the first three, and not far off most of the others.

Mark knows Rockstrom and his colleagues, and as a participant at some of the earliest conversations on planetary boundaries was ‘present at the creation’ of a defining agenda for the century ahead. More than that, he wrote this book with Rockstrom’s explicit blessing – as he puts it, “to do what the scientists could not: get this scientific knowledge out into the mainstream and demand that people – campaigners, governments, everyone – act on it”.

The book achieves that goal with aplomb, and that’s the first reason why you should read it. If, as seems increasingly likely, next year’s Rio summit focuses in part on the idea of Sustainable Development Goals as a potential replacement for the Millennium Development Goals beyond 2015, then expect the nine planetary boundaries to assume centre stage in discussions.

The other thing I like about The God Species is its framing  of humans as, well, gods. This is a rich narrative seam, breathtaking in its apparent arrogance. Humans, like gods? Isn’t that sacrilege, heresy, the pride before the Fall?

Mark’s answer to that, in a nutshell, is that it doesn’t do us or the planet any favours to affect a faux-humility about our degree of power, choice and agency over the planet. The question isn’t whether we or not we have a Zeus-like capacity to hurl thunderbolts from our Mount Olympus; clearly, we do. Rather, the question is whether we’re going to start exercising that decision-making power consciously, rather than pretending we don’t have it, all the while sleepwalking closer to the edge. As he argues,

“The Book of Genesis is full of instances of Man being punished for his attempts to become like God. After the woman and the serpent combine forces to taste the forbidden fruit from one tree, in Genesis 3:22 the Lord complains: ‘See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever’ …”

He continues a moment later,

“With the primacy of science, there seems to be less and less room for the divine. God’s power is now increasingly being exercised by us. We are the creators of life, but we are also its destroyers. On a planetary scale, humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things.”

My one regret about this aspect of the book is that Mark only half develops this theme. He’s clear about how badly things will turn out if humans continue to bury their heads in the sand about their god-like powers – as he says in a quote from Stewart Brand in the introduction, “we are as gods and have to get good at it”. Amen to that, as he says.

But you’re left wondering: what would it look like if we did get good at it?

What the book sort of sets out, but never quite states explicitly, is the notion that not only are humans not guilty of Original Sin; they’re on the verge of growing up as a species, assuming their responsibilities and starting to Create consciously.

Which is quite an interesting prospect, if you think about it. Presumably if we’re operating at that sort of level, then averting planetary catastrophe is just the overture, no, the tuning up of the orchestra before the main symphony gets underway. That’s one way of reading Genesis 1:27, anyway.

One last thought: what is it with Oxford and books about creation myths? Richard Dawkins, Philip Pullman, Mark Lynas – is there something in the water?

How we talk about climate change

At a dinner on UK climate policy last night, there were – as always – several people around the table lamenting the fact that in generally messing up on how they communicate climate change to  a sceptical public, policymakers have in particular failed to make more of the ‘green collar jobs’ argument.  Climate change shouldn’t just be presented as a problem, the argument goes; doing that just makes people feel depressed.  No, we should present it as a huge opportunity: this, after all, is Britain’s chance to make money from the jobs of the future.

I must admit, I always think there’s something a bit disingenuous about these arguments. True, some countries will do very well out of particular export sectors that emerge from the need to reduce emissions: think of the Danes and offshore wind, for instance. But all countries are talking about green new deals etc., and logically, not all of them are going to win prizes (a point particularly germane in the UK, you might think, given we’re 25th out of 27 EU member states on renewable energy; only Malta and Luxembourg perform worse).

For most countries, the realistic best case scenario is that some new jobs will be created, while some old ones will be lost. True, Britain has a small fuel cells sector that might yet go places. But if you work in aviation or steel or cement or road haulage or coal mining or any of the other sectors with a less-than-rosy future in a low carbon world, you might worry about whether your kids should follow you into the same line of work. Just to focus on the jobs being created might make you feel good, but it’s hardly the whole picture. And this is before we even consider what happens to employment if – as you might reasonably suspect – the medium to long term effect of climate change is that we all have to (gasp!) consume a bit less.

So if you’re convinced that the only way to get people to take action on climate change is to persuade them that there will be vast benefits, then it’s unclear to me that green jobs is the best place to pitch your tent.  I think instead you need to show people the money: not just the few thousand of them who get green collar jobs, but all of them, through some mechanism such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, or a system of domestic tradable quotas (i.e. personal level emissions trading).

But I have to say, I’m not convinced that the ‘climate change is a huge opportunity’ argument has any clothes anyway.  The blockage we’re up against here is laziness, inertia and inconvenience on a large scale.  Reducing emissions is a big hassle. We know this, because even though study after study shows that it’s essentially cheaper than free for people to insulate their lofts, they still don’t.

But we’re not just talking insulating lofts. We’re talking about changing the entire energy system – how you heat your home, how you get to work, how your power is generated, how it’s distributed from there to you. It’s like the hassle involved with changing your bank, times a hundred and forty seven.  If someone told you that the quid pro quo for incurring that much hassle was the creation of 12,000 new engineering jobs in the north-east of England, you would look at them and say, “So?” 

The “opportunity” argument just doesn’t stack up against the tedious, time-consuming, expensive, unglamorous reality that will be the transition to a low carbon economy – and I think we’re doing ourselves no favours in sticking with it.

I think we need to look seriously at the last time Brits were persuaded to take on this much hassle – namely rationing, during and after World War Two – and ask how they were won over. It wasn’t about opportunity. The arguments that got them to put up with it were not about how much healthier they’d be on their new diets (true though this was). Instead, they were persuaded by a story about personal sacrifice that would make them part of a heroic shared undertaking in the face of an existential threat

And even then, they moaned like hell. Continue reading