Book review: The Myth Gap, by Alex Evans

Alex Evans says it is going to take more than mere facts and arguments to change the world's attitude to climate change. He's probably right
Mind the (myth) gap: a Polar bear walking on sea ice in the ArcticMind the (myth) gap: a Polar bear walking on sea ice in the Arctic
Mind the (myth) gap: a Polar bear walking on sea ice in the Arctic

The Myth Gap comes with the recommendation that it is “a must-read for anyone considering how to save the world”. Perhaps; those who are already convinced that the world needs saving won’t need it, while sceptics are unlikely to want to do so. More to the point is the author’s question: “What happens when evidence and arguments aren’t enough?” This is certainly pertinent. The EU referendum and the American Presidential election offer examples of the triumph of feeling over reasoning.

Alex Evans is a Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation “with nearly 20 years’ experience in climate and development policy.” So you know where he is coming from and where he stands. He believes we are in the old Last Chance Saloon, even though he is honest enough to acknowledge that in a great many respects things are getting better. There have been worldwide improvements in life expectancy, literacy, and agriculture; we have the ability to feed everybody. It’s a question of organisation.

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It’s also for Evans a question of how we think of ourselves and the world. He quotes Terry Pratchett: “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way about”. We act in accordance with the stories we tell ourselves. So “if the myths we reach for in conditions of stress and crisis are ones about overshoot and collapse, and we all start to act accordingly... Then that will determine where we’re headed.” We need, he thinks, better myths. He quotes Karen Armstrong who calls a myth “a guide to behaviour”.

Well, he may be right. Actually of course there are sceptics and deniers who believe that the case for anthropogenic climate change is itself a myth that has been very effectively promoted; so much so that it is the dominant myth of our time. Governments have acted in accordance with its message. The carbon-based economy is, if not in absolute decline, on the back foot. So, for example, we have wind-farms all over Scotland. The sceptics point out that the world experienced far more extreme changes of climate – the Ice Age, for example – long before Man was making any contribution. So when Evans tells us we have “a myth gap”, they say “pull the other one”. From their perspective the evidence of climate scientists (which they question, perhaps unreasonably) and the arguments resulting from it have been more than enough.

Nevertheless Evans is an attractive and persuasive writer. He believes we can use “our powers of collective story-telling to imagine a future in which it all goes right, creating a myth about redemption and restoration that adds up, if you like, to an Eden 2.0”. Paradise regained in other words. Obviously this requires us – the inhabitants of the developed world – to change our ways, individually and communally, to consume less and share more, and to accept that there are proper limits to economic growth. Fair enough; as societies we’ve had it good for a long time, even though as growth stalls and we move towards “a zero-carbon economy”, it’s the poorer among us who will bear the brunt of the change, while the rich will – undoubtedly – continue to flourish.

But what about the under-developed world, still hungry for development? Are they to be told “slow down”? How are they to be convinced that they mustn’t have – mustn’t even aspire to have – what Western consumers have so long enjoyed? It’s going to take a very persuasive myth to sell that idea.

Evans harks back to the Old Testament and the idea of a Covenant between God and Mankind, and finds inspiration from the Prophets of Israel. (This idea and language were once deep-rooted in Scotland; we were “a nation covenanted with the Lord”. We

will, he admits, or warns, be in for “an extremely turbulent few decades as a result of climate change that is now unavoidable”, but if we tell ourselves the right stories, “the result can be both cathartic and restorative.” He ends by quoting Isaiah: “your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of street to dwell in…”

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His book will strike many chords, being hope and comfort to believers. As for the sceptics, they will at most reply, “nice ideas, but...”

*The Myth Gap, by Alex Evans, Penguin / Eden Project Books, 152pp, £9.99

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