In his new book, Eden 2.0 (just 68 pages, published today, but currently only available on Kindle, which is bad news for technophobes and tree killers like me, or people who dislike Amazon), Alex Evans asks a question that has been uppermost in every Remainer’s mind in recent days ‘if evidence and rational arguments aren’t enough, then what is?’ He is talking about climate change, but his thoughts are every bit as relevant to the post-Brexit debate.
Alex is an ex DFID ‘Spad’ (Special Adviser), turned academic, but here he is saying that all the cunning plans and clever tricks of the policy wonk aren’t anywhere near enough, when it comes to a massive, species-threatening event like climate change:
‘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 ended slavery, fought for civil rights, or won 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.’
In response, he argues that we need to fill the myth gap with a particular set of stories geared to this century’s challenges:
‘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.’
Those myths need to speak both of redemption and restoration, ‘how we can atone for what we’ve done and start to make things right again.’
As the quotes hopefully show, the writing is delightful: a page turning combination of telling anecdotes, personal reflection, interviews and intellectual fireworks, drawing on non-usual suspect disciplines like cultural studies, theology and marketing, all laced with pop culture references.
Both personally, and in his analysis, he’s big on religion, historically the greatest mythmaker of all. He argues for ‘repairing the broken Covenant’ as a core myth for the climate change movement.
It’s all deliciously written, and I was duly seduced, but as I got towards the concluding ‘so whats’ section, which sets out ‘ten ideas for how individuals, citizens, activists, and communities can help to put our twenty-first century myths into practice’ doubts started to bubble up. I found some of the 10 ideas underwhelming and/or a bit familiar compared to the grand sweep of the book – mindfulness, rejecting consumerism, exercising citizenship, firing up religious groups, making the most of critical junctures and so on.
And is there really a myth gap? After all, there are remarkably effective mythmakers in Hollywood who have been churning out powerful stories about climate change and environmental struggle and redemption for decades – why haven’t they had more impact?
The whole myths/values approach has also been around for a while, whether in the discussion on ‘framing’ or Tom Crompton’s Common Cause initiative, which is a sort of secular version of Eden 2.0. The former UK government climate czar John Ashton has also ploughed a similar furrow, with similar classical and religious overtones. None of them have made much headway beyond the already converted, as far as I can tell.
Alex’s myths are also too free-floating. Yes, you need animating myths, but he needs to pay more attention to the social basis of mass movements, because just developing myths is not going to be enough. He lauds the Jubilee debt campaign as a model, but it involved no significant cost to Western societies, certainly nothing compared to rejecting consumerism. History suggests that mass movements are almost always connected to the interests of some important social group which has become sufficiently coordinated and organised to coalesce into effective coalitions. For climate change this is the biggest problem; in Ulrich Beck’s words: “…can intangible, universal afflictions be organized politically at all? Is ‘everyone’ capable of being a political subject?….Is globalized and universal victimization a reason not to take notice of problem situations or to do so only indirectly, to shift them onto others?”.
Don’t get me wrong, it is precisely because the book is so good that it got me thinking along these lines. It’s an injection of energy and originality into an often stale and dessicated debate, offering a new way of seeing both problems and solutions. Read it and tell me what you think.