Book review: The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren't Enough?

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 12. February 2017 - 0:25

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

by Alex Evans. London: Eden Project Books, Transworld (Penguin), 2017. 152 p.

Book review by Arthur Lyon Dahl

In a world in which science and technology built through rational processes have transformed our economy and lifestyle and created wealth unimaginable in the recent past, it is ironic that rational arguments and scientific evidence are not enough to influence political decisions or to change individual behaviour. This book by Alex Evans, former political advisor to the British government and the United Nations, explores why the rational approaches of climate scientists and others addressing the environmental challenges of a society hitting planetary boundaries have failed to produce the necessary change. It has important lessons for anyone working at the science-policy interface or in public education on environmental issues.

Evans' thesis is that stories, particularly myths with deep symbolic meaning, are necessary to go beyond an intellectual understanding to a change in heart. Using climate change as the example with which he as worked most closely, he describes the shift in strategy after the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, when the climate movement went from science to activism, building a mass movement by telling a terrific story. He draws on George Marshall's excellent book "Don't Even Think About It" (reviewed here) about the diversity of approaches used by the anti-science movement of climate skeptics. In particular, enemy narrations only lead to political polarization and people closing themselves in bubbles of confirmation bias.

For issues so fundamental, it is necessary to create a mental shift or epiphany that is as much emotional as rational. This was a role of myth, but as religions have taken myths as literal truth and engaged in political activism, people have disengaged from religion, creating a myth gap. Trust has collapsed. We see marketing as myth and shopping as ritual.

Those who have warned of scarcity, collapse of civilization and the end of the world have only seen that such warnings are counterproductive, producing competition for resources and fragmentation. Evans' hope is that "our current moment of crisis and transition proves to be the catalyst for powerful renewal and innovation in our core myths." (p. 37) He cites historical examples in China with the rise of Taoism and Confucianism, and with Judaism and Christianity. He notes that history has shown a basic direction towards non-zero-sum cooperation and higher levels of social complexity, with a drift towards interdependence and moral progress, but suggests that we could go either way. Taking a longer view, we need stories about a better life of happiness based on goodness, where personal enjoyment is replaced by service to others and a sense of purpose.

Raising a theme dear to the Baha'is, Evans states that humanity is in its teenage years, and we need trial by ordeal to grow as a species. We have repressed our vulnerability and grief. Myth needs to describe reality, deal with despair, and give hope for the future. It should address our guilt with redemption and atonement, including the restoration of our damaged environment.

In a globalized society, we need larger, global-scale myths with a longer view of a different good life and a new purpose based on ethical values of justice and care for the creation, recognizing that everything is connected. A significant part of the book is devoted to the myth of the Everlasting Covenant being broken, represented today by the systemic evil in many institutions of society, like fallen angels. He asks how do you mend a broken covenant? His answer is atonement to achieve justice through sacrifice. He cites Gandhi referring to the willing sacrifice of the innocent as the answer to insolent tyranny, as well as Christ and many other examples, with sacrifice of the ego leading to resurrection. The Judaic traditions of sabbath and jubilee not only allowed environmental resources to rest and regenerate, but also emphasized the importance of the alternative good life over materialist productivity. The jubilee every 50 years restored land rights to everyone and erased debts. Restoring the covenant brought the creation back into balance.

Myth is fundamentally a guide to behaviour. We need the right kind of myths with a larger perspective and a longer view describing a better good life, processing our grief and guilt, and leading to redemption and environmental restoration. They should encompass new values towards justice and sustainability. All the wisdom traditions, whether religious or philosophical, have had such myths. Today, the myth gap is being filled by efforts like mindfulness, becoming aware of how we interpret the world. There is a need for personal conversations on values, frameworks and stories, going beyond the superficial to share doubts, fears, hurts and vulnerabilities. Only this can lead to authenticity, learning to listen to others, and true dialogue. Unfortunately, the reliance on new technologies is reducing group participation.

Evans suggests starting with religion as the remaining domain with significant group participation. The Pope's Encyclical "Laudato Si" (reviewed here) helped to support the positive outcome at the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in 2015. He calls for a dialogue within and between religions. For the Millennials, other kinds of communities are forming, and are exploring scenarios of possible futures. With the new technologies, we may be able to create new myths of a future of redemption and restoration. The nations have already agreed on the framework for that vision in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals. Evans concludes with the hope that the disasters that seem inevitably to lie ahead will produce the spirit of solidarity and connectedness necessary to achieve that vision.

There is so much in this book that resonates with a Bahá'í perspective on the world, the trials it must go through to purge itself of a materialistic civilization, and the vision of the just and sustainable world that can emerge in the decades and centuries ahead. The Bahá'í Faith could itself be the extended myth that Evans is calling for, restoring the Eternal Covenant and enabling the epiphany in each person who is ready to set his or her steps on a path of sacrifice and service. Its embrace of the two complementary knowledge systems of science and religion corresponds to Evans' vision. He provides many useful suggestions for the stories we should be telling to touch the hearts and minds of those who are troubled by the present state of the world and need inspiring visions of the future to help them find a way forward.

Last updated 11 February 2017