84. Let me through, I’m a story-teller

Review of The Myth Gap by Alex Evans


Imagine a catastrophe. Any catastrophe you like, so long as it’s big enough. People stand, silhouetted by the flames, wailing and shaking their heads. And then you shoulder your way into the crowd, saying “Let me through, I’m a story-teller.”

That’s the invitation of Alex Evans in his book The Myth Gap. This is a very important book, not least because there’s really only one significant idea in it – collective stories are fundamental to our wellbeing, and they are forged in dialogue. This short book isn’t a detailed analysis, but an invitation to see human dialogue in a new way.

Once, he says, we were rich in stories that helped us understand the world and think about ourselves. We called these stories myths. But somehow the word myth became synonymous with untruth. Evans, who was a political adviser to the British government and then the United Nations on climate change, argues that we need new myths to bring us together to confront shared challenges.  Stories that can speak to us of renewal and restoration.

Evans draws on recent experiences such as the Paris Climate agreement of 2015, and the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK and Donald Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election.  He argues that people are animated, not by figures and pie charts, but by stories. The stories that animated 2016 were nationalist myths of “taking back control” and “making America great again”.  In a situation where myths have shrunk, we can be easily captured by impoverished negative myths.

We need stories that embody a larger us, all seven billion of us, and a longer now at the intersection of a deep past and a deep future. We need this if we are to think across generational timespans, rather than gorging ourselves now and leaving future generations to pick up the bill. Connected to this is the idea of a better good life, one which rejects the idea that we are what we buy.

A profound insight (though without evidence to support it) is that our ability to respond effectively to climate change is weighed down by a freight of guilt and grief. If true, that would suggest a need for the atonement and redemption that myth provides.

I’m a story-teller, so this idea excites me. But I’m also originally a scientist. And the idea that evidence and facts aren’t enough is troubling to me.  I worry that it’s a capitulation to “post-truth” politics without examining what makes that politics appealing.

I don’t buy his argument, for example, that the Remain campaign in Britain’s EU referendum relied on rational argument and facts. It seemed to me they relied on patriarchal authority, fear and a narrative of doom. Though I was a Remain voter, it also seems to me that he ignores the entirely rational experience of people on the Leave side. People in declining industries and declining towns forced into competition with immigrants for jobs, services, and pride. The “take back control” narrative worked because it spoke to a lived reality of being ignored.

As an unbeliever, I also find his fascination with Judeo-Christian myths limiting. Though, in fairness, I do have to accept that God has some of the best stories. I did also find his exegesis of the alternative story of the Fall story contained in the Book of Enoch fascinating, though not necessarily relevant to his theme.  For my money, James Martin’s Canyon metaphor in his book The Meaning of the Twenty First Century, contains the outlines of a more relevant story to today’s world.

I do think stories are profoundly important. They are among the oldest human devices for encoding and sharing knowledge. They have the huge advantage over collections of facts that they tell us what goes with what, what is important and what is unimportant, who to praise and who to blame.

In the end, the importance of Evans’ book may lie less in his solutions than in his pointing to fundamental truth that we need to be animated by better stories to confront the challenges of our time. Shared stories provide devices and safe spaces through which we can negotiate purpose, transformation and hold each other to account in the process.  And, I would add, those stories need to embody the best values of rationality, equality, and shared purpose. One of the triumphs of science has been to help us see our place in the universe. We are utterly improbable inhabitants of a small, fragile blue planet on the outer rim of one of the spiral arms of one galaxy. There is a power in that truth and a reminder that we all sink or swim together

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