The importance of myth

Howard Jacobson defends “Creation”

When I began blogging on religion and unbelief for the New Statesman, I introduced the strand on our website with an article in which I lamented that debate in this area had ceased to be a conversation and had become dominated instead by aggressive assertion. After watching Howard Jacobson's excellent programme on Creation in Channel 4's new series The Bible: a History, I feel that I have found an ally.

"Let's confront the absolutists: those who absolutely believe, and those who don't," said Jacobson. "Blind faith is fatuous. So is blind doubt." It was touching to hear the novelist and columnist, who is not a believer, admit that he still feels strongly drawn to the poetry and mystery of religion, both in its texts and in its practice. "There is something there that is not negligible," he said. "I want to honour that."

His strongest message, however, was that science is too reluctant to allow for any mystery about our existence and purpose. I noted down this exchange with the moral philosopher Mary Midgley, still feisty at 90:

MM: Science's purpose is the search for certainty.
HJ: Like religion?
MM: Oh yes, but not so nutritious.

I thought that a delightful -- and mischievous -- way of putting it. Jacobson argued that one thing which infuriated him was the suggestion that mankind had been mired in stupidity for thousands of years until science came along to enlighten us all. I agree with him: that's surely wrong, as well as astoundingly arrogant. As Jacobson said towards the end of the programme: "A myth does not shrivel at the first dry touch of science."

We can debate their truth and we can even debate if they're provable (though that's really to miss their point), but those myths have provided us human beings with meat and drink for the soul throughout our history. Such nutrition should not lightly be cast aside.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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