- Green Rising
- Profile: Climate leaders with answers
Profile: Climate leaders with answers
BEN OKRI, 64, is a Nigerian-born poet, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, aphorist and playwright.
BEN OKRI, 64, is a Nigerian-born poet, novelist, essayist, short-story writer, aphorist and playwright. He also writes film scripts. What that tells you is he is a phenomenal producer of words. Okri came to Britain as a young man filled with the spirit and history and intellectual and imaginative force that is Nigeria. It’s been a wellspring that has brought forth five volumes of poetry, countless essays, well over a dozen novels and short-story collections, including “The Famished Road”, which won him the Booker Prize in 1991.
His latest book, “Tiger Work”, which has just come out in America and Britain, is made up of stories, essays and poems about climate change. There’s a lot to take in. Drawing inspiration from environmental activists, Okri imagines messages from an unlivable future, from the people who saw it coming. Opposite the dedication – “For those who love the world enough to fight for it” - the book offers some advice: “Read slowly”. With good reason.
Like many, Okri had been aware of the effects of climate change for a long time, but only in an indirect way. From his very earliest writing about Nigeria, the destruction of the forests, the devastation of the Niger Delta, the effects of petrol fumes on the health and mood of Nigerian children have all been part of the ecology of his work. But he only became consciously engaged with the climate crisis with the birth of his daughter, his only child, when he was in his late 50s. “That really changed it. And in a way that I hadn't expected at all. It made me look at our world in a completely different way. She went to school. And one day, the language of climate had entered her blood. It was her language: it was ‘plastic’, ‘toxins’. I was stunned. She worried about the air. She worried about plastic in the canal when we went for a walk. She would take a stick and fish them out. And then I thought, ‘Okay, okay. My generation has been sleeping, both here and in Africa.’"
As a father, Okri saw the fear in his child’s eyes. As a writer, he sensed a challenge so monumental, it seemed to him existential. “The climate crisis is the most terrifying thing the human race has ever had to contemplate,” he says. “We have contemplated wars, pandemics, diseases, illnesses. We have contemplated oppression and enslavement. All of these things are horrible, and they must be fought, and they must be overcome. But they're not terminal. They're not terminal to the whole of the human race. This is the first time that we've had to contemplate the possibility of a set of events which could bring about the demise of the [human] race as we know it…”
“It is the biggest, the most frightening, the most important [challenge] in the history of the human race. We're talking terminal civilization here.”
Okri began to question how effective literature was in dealing with catastrophe. He found contemporary fiction about the environmental crisis to be daunting rather than passionate and clear. He contemplated the relationship between form and persuasion, between form and idioms to get through to people. The book grew slowly. Uncertain whether one form would get through better to readers than another, he set about using all the powers of literature that he could muster. “I decided I was going to use the short story, the essay, the interview, the parable. I was going to use all of them with the hope that the collective, accumulated power of all of it would break through the shell of denial and understandable avoidance.”
His notes from the future are mesmerising in the way they cut through to the essential. As he writes in, “And Peace Shall Return”, one of first stories in the book:
“What destroyed them ultimately, was not some momentous event, the collision of asteroids, the drowning of their cities, the poisoning of the air, the detonation of nuclear bombs. The suicide of humanity was in their mesmerism. They were chained to the past.
It was also in their fatalism. They accepted, for centuries, that they were fundamentally unable to change. They were unable to create a new future.
In this they were consistent. They were killing themselves little by little every day and it didn’t seem to trouble them.
Of all the tragic stories of vanished species we encountered across the innumerable galaxies, theirs was the most unheroic.”
For all the withering prophecy by Okri, the author, Okri the man still thinks we should never give up. “I think this is a human awakening thing. I think it's profoundly generational, and the struggle has to be taken to every single human being. Every single human being should be part of this… I don't use the word struggle. It's more than a struggle. It's not a problem. It's more than a problem. I think, finally, it's a transformation that has to take place.”
“We stripped nature of the gods, and of its supernatural powers, and of its mystery and its magic,” he says. “We stripped nature of all of that, and then later it became easy to exploit her. We stripped [away] whatever was sacred and numinous about us. We just became bare human beings; we're born and then we die. There's no mystery to us. And it became easy to exploit one another. We need to resacralise one another as well. That's what I'm talking about. It's not just a scientific thing. I think it's a profoundly human transformation, that this moment is calling for from the climate crisis.”
Okri believes in the power of activism and the potency of science. “The [transformation] is already beginning,” he says. “The leap is taking place in many small places and not so small places. It's already happening. Here and there, people are already beginning to think beyond… They're already thinking about the possibility of light itself, sunlight itself, as its own source of energy. In the scientific communities across the world, there is already so much thinking going on about the new future, which is totally inevitable. Which we must enter into. That's really what I mean: to harness the full scope of the human genius.” His book is a manual for fighters and transformers.
“Tiger Work” by Ben Okri. Other Press; 224 pages; $16.85. Head of Zeus; £12.99