If we want a big narrative to shape politics, Monbiot's "Restoration" idea might not be enough. Do we need to add a story of "Emergence"?
We ran George Monbiot’s TED talk here last week, but strangely didn’t emphasize one of the big parts of his presentation - which is the power of narrative and story to change prevailing political conditions. Here’s a transcript of that part:
Stories are the means by which we navigate the world. They allow us to interpret its complex and contradictory signals. When we want to make sense of something, the sense we seek is not scientific sense but narrative fidelity. Does what we are hearing reflect the way that we expect humans and the world to behave? Does it hang together? Does it progress as a story should progress?
Now, we are creatures of narrative, and a string of facts and figures, however important facts and figures are -- and, you know, I'm an empiricist, I believe in facts and figures -- but those facts and figures have no power to displace a persuasive story. The only thing that can replace a story is a story. You cannot take away someone's story without giving them a new one.
And it's not just stories in general that we are attuned to, but particular narrative structures. There are a number of basic plots that we use again and again, and in politics there is one basic plot which turns out to be tremendously powerful, and I call this "the restoration story." It goes as follows.
Disorder afflicts the land, caused by powerful and nefarious forces working against the interests of humanity. But the hero will revolt against this disorder, fight those powerful forces, against the odds overthrow them and restore harmony to the land.
You've heard this story before. It's the Bible story. It's the "Harry Potter" story. It's the "Lord of the Rings" story. It's the "Narnia" story. But it's also the story that has accompanied almost every political and religious transformation going back millennia. In fact, we could go as far as to say that without a powerful new restoration story, a political and religious transformation might not be able to happen. It's that important.
We noticed this week that Alex Evans - who we’ve featured here both for his Myth Gap book, and his new Collective Psychology project - had decided to challenge (in a most friendly manner) Monbiot’s belief that the “Restoration” story is the most powerfully, politically. The challenge took the form of a Twitter thread, but Alex is happy for us to make it into a prose document here. Alex’s alternative big story is… Emergence.
Below is an embed of the original tweet - and the text runs below (also, here’s the ThreadReader version)
Alex Evans: In his talk, George argues that progressives keep failing because they lack a big unifying story. They didn't have one at the time of the financial crisis. They still don't now. I totally agree.
George argues that the story we need now is a Restoration myth. Look at the Bible; Harry Potter; Narnia; Lord of the Rings, he observes; look at the narratives used by so many great political thinkers and leaders. There's great disorder in the land, and we need a hero to fix it.
I'm a huge Restoration fan too, as I wrote about in The Myth Gap. In particular, I think it's far more resonant for all things environmental than "sustainability" (ugh!). To hell with "sustaining". I want to heal the damage we've done to our planet.
I love the theological underpinnings of Restoration, too. The idea that there's a covenant that holds the cosmos together; that we can break it through ignorance/injustice; that we can repair it through the process known as atonement (at-one-ment); and that all this has very specific political applications in the idea of Jubilee, which is all about letting the Earth renew, resetting wealth allocation to prevent intergenerational injustices, and cancelling debts (lots more on that in tearfund.org/~/media/Files/…)
So I agree with George: Restoration is a wonderful myth for our times.
But so is Emergence.
For a starter on Emergence, check out @robertwrighter's wonderful book NonZero. It's a history of human cooperation, and tells the tale of how the whole story arc of human history is about how we've kept organising into larger and larger collectives: survival bands > chiefdoms > kingdoms > city states > nation states > global diasporas >
—and now here we are, right on the cusp of a genuinely global 'us'.
Or check out this wonderful talk by Daniel Schmachtenberger on how the unsustainability of our current situation implies either breakdown or breakthrough - and how deep-time history is all about breakthrough moments (the first atoms, say, or cells)
And of course, the great Teilhard de Chardin is ALL about applying that evolutionary perspective to the emergence of collective consciousness. [Chardin talks about] the role of Love as the driving force of the process, and the fact that this emerging cosmic unity is not at odds with diversity—any more than the beautiful cohesion of a rainforest is at odds with the breathtaking diversity of its constituents. (On the contrary, you can't have the unity without the diversity; but neither is it just diversity. It's more than the sum of its parts. #moreincommon)
There's also another reason I hesitate about Restoration: that this myth is often (though not always) so laden with guilt/sin. Look at the myth of the Fall, and how it blames humans (and especially women) for Everything Going Wrong. (We were so set up to fail in that myth.)
Emergence, on the other hand, allows us to recognise that we're in our adolescent years as a species. Testing the limits, rebelling, working through deep themes of initiation. We're supposed to make mistakes - and to learn from them. (Read this: michaelventura.org/wp-content/upl…)
This is where @PhilipPullman is so brilliant - in how Will and Lyra turn the myth of the Fall upside down at the end of the Dark Materials trilogy:
There's one more reason why Emergence makes sense to me. As a species, as societies, as individuals, we're experiencing a time of great trauma. The solution to that, and the them-and-us thinking all around, is healing, not victory. (That's what @Collective_Psyc is all about.)
But as psychotherapists point out, healing trauma isn't about going back to where you were before. It's about having the resilience to go somewhere new - wounded but wiser, scarred but still standing. That's an Emergence story if ever I saw one.
Restoration has huge value for us, above all in how we relate to our home planet. But Emergence is an indispensable - and complementary - part of the story too. About how we grow into our adulthood as a species: recognising our responsibilities, realising our potential, and above all, becoming co-creators.
Emergence is about bringing imagination into the picture, so that we write our own story (rather than, as in Restoration, following a script written for us). And having the Wisdom to do it in a way that reflects our highest vision of who we are.
Of course, with both myths, the *real* question is how we bring them alive. As Karen Armstrong puts it:
So I wonder: what would a religion (or a collective experience of spiritual practice/belonging/story, if you prefer) look like if it were built around Emergence rather than Restoration, and if it cast us in the role of maturing co-creators rather than sinners to be redeemed?
Good last question. Answers below!