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.
Yesterday saw the launch of action/2015, the new global campaign on poverty, inequality, and climate change that will rally more than a thousand campaigning organisations around four crucial summit moments on these issues that will take place over the year ahead.
It’s the right campaign at the right time, because now more than ever, power is so distributed that only mass mobilisation and values change will be able to bring about the transformation needed – something I realised vividly during the profoundly disillusioning experience that was acting as the author of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2011 (more on that sorry tale in the first couple of pages of this talk of mine from 2013).
But just what kind of values change is it that we need? I’ve written before, over at Eden 2.0, about the importance of stories for mobilising change – so what is it that those stories need to be about?
In our forthcoming report for Tearfund – working title The Unfinished Jubilee: Towards a Restorative Economy – Rich Gower and I argue that three themes are especially important. You can sum them up in just ten words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.
1. A larger us
First up, we need to think less of “people like us” and more of “people – like us”. The whole sweep of human history is a story of expanding the size of the ‘we’ with which we empathise – from itinerant bands of hunter-gatherers to chiefdoms, from city states to kingdoms, and on to modern nation states and the staggeringly diverse communities of affinity and ethnicity in today’s globalised world. This expansion of empathy was perfectly captured by Martin Luther King in his 1963 ‘letter from Birmingham City jail’:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Above all, we need to get back to thinking in terms of the common good – and to do so at planetary scale, because in a world of global interdependence and planetary boundaries, only a 7 billion ‘us’ will do.
2. A longer future
Second, we need to face up to the fact that we’ve fallen out of the habit of thinking about the long term. Instead, our political leaders rarely have the luxury of thinking beyond the next election; our business leaders, the next financial quarter; our journalists, the next 24 hour news cycle. Scientist and author Danny Hillis observed in 1994 that:
When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.
In particular, there has been a catastrophic implosion of the implicit covenant between past, current, and future generations. Today’s young generation in developed countries face a far more uncertain future than their parents, with unaffordable housing, costly higher education and student debt, and the end of ‘jobs for life’. And globally, the next generation faces a future of steadily increasing climate change and resource scarcity – unless decisive action is taken now to prevent that from happening.
3. A different good life
Third, recent years have seen a wealth of research challenging the idea that material consumption levels have much to do with happiness, at least beyond a certain point. Surveys that measure people’s subjective wellbeing routinely find that the correlation between life satisfaction and income starts to break beyond a certain level of GDP per capita. Robert Kennedy recognised this nearly 50 years ago, when he observed that,
Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.
So our stories need to focus on a broader idea of human flourishing, encompassing not only material security but also goals further up the ‘hierarchy of needs’ – such as friendship, family, a sense of connection, confidence, achievement, and the respect of others.
For more on the Tearfund project mentioned above, this presentation and this blog post, both from a couple of months ago, give an overview of some of the ideas we’re looking at.
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.
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?