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The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?

The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough?

Natan Mladin reviews ‘The Myth Gap’ by Alex Evans, which explores the importance of myths and narratives in affecting long term change. 15/10/2018

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The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out. Drawing on over 6,000 studies, it’s both a sobering snapshot of climate change today and a call to drastic action to limit (alas, not undo) the damage of rising global temperatures.

In this climate of concern (should we say concerning climate?), Alex Evans’ book The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough is acutely relevant. The Myth Gap begins with the story of Evans’ involvement in climate change politics. It’s a story of disillusionment with the still–popular strategy for changing people’s minds about the big issues: wheel out experts, dish out evidence, rely on data–heavy arguments and coloured charts. This is not a criticism of the kind of rigorous analysis and recommendations in the new IPCC report. Rather it’s a criticism of expecting too much from factual evidence. Bluntly, it doesn’t work in changing minds and catalysing action. The failures of the climate movement itself, up to and including President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the historic 2016 Paris Agreement, illustrate this well.

According to Evans, in 2009 the climate movement learned some key lessons and rebooted itself. Unwittingly copying the growth model of Christianity, climate activists learned that building a mass movement takes time and patience; that you have to start small; that people don’t change their minds through cold rational calculation, but in relationships of trust and affective resonance. The most important lesson that climate activists learnt, which Evans drives home in The Myth Gap, is the importance of powerful stories or myths in producing far–reaching change.

The reason cold numbers and raw data rarely persuade is they often come with a flawed model of the human person: humans as ‘brains on a stick’, as one author puts it. Evans rightly argues we are, rather, ‘narrative animals’, framing and making sense of our lives through stories, both at individual and communal levels. We resonate emotionally before we process rationally. Our imaginations are ‘captured’ before our intellects are engaged. We change in the company of those we trust rather than in the blinding light of facts and figures.

Climate activists, argues Evans, came to understand this. They weren’t the only ones, though. The resurgence of populism and nationalism across the world, now a commonplace in political punditry, can also be explained as the triumph of one myth over another. Here, Evans’ notions of ‘enemy narratives’ and ‘collapsitarianism’ are hugely helpful analytical tools. ‘Enemy narratives’ are thin, Manichean stories about, on the one hand, the big bad guys (e.g. China, Islam, oil and gas companies, ‘the coastal elites’ etc.), who are on the side of darkness and evil – to be hissed, dissed and dismissed – and, on the other hand, the righteous rest, the paragons of goodness and virtue. The problem with ‘enemy narratives,’ argues Evans, is that they lump together very different types of people, with different fears and ambitions, leaving the majority off the hook. ‘Collapsitarian’ stories speak of an impending catastrophe. They are fuelled by fear and breed fascism rather than positive, remedial action.

What we need, according to Evans, are new, capacious myths to help us think of ourselves in terms of a ‘larger us‘ and in a ‘longer now;’ myths that affirm agency, encourage big picture thinking, and help us envision a ‘better good life’ (against consumerism as the default myth–gap filler). These myths must not only tell us who we are and what kind of world we live in, but also capture our sense of guilt, even grief, for our eco–sinful complicity in environmental degradation. They must give us hope for the future, showing the possibility of redemption, even restoration. I’m with Evans on this last point. Sticking to the strikingly religious language that pervades the entire book, I say: ‘yes and amen.’ Yet I find myself asking if he has overestimated how guilty Westerners actually feel about environmental degradation.

That said, the main thesis of the book is perfectly sound. Facts alone don’t change our minds. We need powerful myths – not one, Evans argues, but many, for we are not all of one persuasion. We are far too diverse to resonate with and mobilise under one particular myth. We must therefore, “find the myths… that resonate for us personally – and then for all of us to find areas of agreement between them, and sew together a quilt of comparable myths.”

While clearly working with a pragmatic logic, Evans steers clear of the ‘flatland of relativism.’ Some myths are better than others, he argues. But to think that one myth is superior, or alas, universally true, is to go a step too far. Therein lie the fatal peaks of totalising narratives: “Our history is littered with lessons about the disastrous consequences that follow when any group of people becomes certain that they alone have discovered a universally applicable truth,” he writes. To his credit, Evans sees secular worldviews every bit as susceptible to abuse as religious ones. Something just isn’t right with the reasoning though. Surely one can believe in a myth as containing ‘universally applicable truth’ without necessarily seeking to squash all others? It’s not the universality of the myth that’s the problem or the belief in its truth, it’s how you bring it to the attention of others and encourage them to take it seriously.

With Evans, I’m in favour of recognising the power of myths, finding common ground between the ones we’ve embraced and working together to care for ‘our common home,’ as Pope Francis puts it in Laudato Si. However, let’s not stop asking and discussing which myths are better: more capacious, more honest, more hopeful, and why not, which myth is actually true.

The Myth Gap by Alex Evans (2017) is published by Eden Project Books, Penguin. 

 Image available from the Penguin website. 

Nathan Mladin

Nathan Mladin

Natan joined Theos in 2016. He has just completed a PhD in Systematic Theology at Queen’s University of Belfast with a thesis on divine action in dialogue with theatre studies. He is the author of the chapter on Václav Havel in The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders do God (Biteback, 2017) and co–author of That They All May Be One, a report looking at inter–Church relations in England. Current research interests include theology and economics, with a focus on debt, ethics of AI/robotics, theology and contemporary art.

Posted 15 October 2018

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