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Ben Okri: climate change and oppression are born of the same “devouring instincts”

The award-winning writer on philosophy, mythology and the connections between racial injustice and ecological crisis.

By India Bourke

Such is the rhythmic cadence of Ben Okri’s carefully chosen words that it is easy to become spellbound. Yet words alone are not enough, believes the Booker Prize-winning author of The Famished Road, if a better world is to be conjured into being. 

When I spoke to the Nigerian novelist over the phone from his London home, his assessment of the state of the planet felt as gloomy as the January sky. From climate change to deforestation to the relentless destruction of Earth’s biodiverse bounty, the global ecological emergency has slowly come to dominate his attention. “I came to the conclusion that one can’t hide from this thing anymore,” he said. “It’s very uncomfortable to talk about – people feel they’re being preached at; it’s too terrifying. But at the same time, there isn’t anywhere else to go. We’ve gone into terminal territory.”

In response to the sense of unfolding crisis, Okri proposes the pursuit of an “existential creativity”. The concept echoes the existentialist philosophy popularised by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the aftermath of the Second World War, and pushes for a comprehensive contemplation of “what it takes” to protect existence today. “Once there’s increased awareness and respect – for life and for nature – I cannot believe the necessary changes won’t just happen,” he said. “People are intelligent; I cannot believe they are stupid.”

Instead of repeating existentialism’s original emphasis on angst and stoicism, however, Okri advocates engaged action. It seems increasingly imperative, he explained, for everyone to do what they can – whether that’s politicians practicing a form of “existential politics” or individuals composting and cutting down on travel. For writers and artists it means finding multifaceted ways to single-mindedly spread awareness.

“Intellectuals in this country [the UK] tend to be a little nervous of pressing ourselves forward in new ways; we believe that writing ought to be enough. But with something as vast as this, either the writing has to change or we have to find supplementary activities to amplify what we’re trying to say,” said Okri. “There are movement-pockets that are responding. But we need it to ‘catch fire’, if you’ll forgive the phrasing. We need it to combust.”

In the 1940s, Camus expressed his values through contributing to the French resistance as well as through his writing, Okri noted admiringly. He has deep respect for artists and musicians today that are involved in initiatives aimed at mobilising awareness and decarbonisation, such as the Gallery Climate Coalition and Music Declares Emergency. Richard Powers, author of the award-winning The Overstory, is also doing “wonderful” work in giving expression to the contemporary crisis, Okri said, as is Liz Jensen and her work with Writers Rebel, an offshoot of the activist movement Extinction Rebellion. He also namechecks Amitav Ghosh, who has looked at the Indian dimensions of the climate emergency. But “not so many” other writers are doing likewise, the author feared. 

In his own work, the 62-year-old constantly attempts to find new ways to connect with audiences. Ahead of November’s Cop26 climate summit, where he and his family performed in Brian Eno’s EarthPercent intervention, Okri released a video version of his submission to the Letters to the Earth campaign. Last June, his words were grown into a grassy pelt inside the Tate Modern: “Can’t you hear the future weeping? Our love must save the world”.

His latest book, meanwhile, is a short, illustrated story designed to speak to readers’ “eternal child”. Set in the forests he grew up in on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria (now built over), Every Leaf a Hallelujah tells the tale of a young girl, Mangoshi, who learns “she’s not powerless” and has the courage to stand up for the trees she loves.

The story’s subject matter draws on the mythological world view that informs Okri’s work. Ancestral links with Yoruba folklore and imagination were passed down to him from his parents, he told me, and it has become his “mission” to examine what the creation of myths tells us about the world. “The Earth was a living being that would punish you if you didn’t treat it with respect,” he explained; forests demanded you enter them “with a spirit of reverence”.

Such endowment of trees with voices and agency isn’t so far away from contemporary science, I suggested, with its identification of the networks by which trees communicate – yet Okri said these aren’t ideas he knew about when writing. Instead, any resonance that exists might “be a case of mythology anticipating science”.

Perhaps most importantly, in a world “drained of mystery”, traditional world views are essential to hold on to and restore, Okri believes – be they Nigerian, Celtic or Native American. Not least because they help reveal that human and environmental struggles are an inseparable, single challenge.

“I hate the fact we’ve done this incredible psychological and spiritual damage to ourselves – in the way we racially demarcate our relation to one another. I think this climate emergency is part of the great failure to embrace all of humanity. The roots of it began, not with the damaging of nature, but of people,” he said, with reference to Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico in 1519. “When you misuse people for your own gain and enrichment, it’s a short distance to the misuse of nature for the same purpose. It’s the same devouring instinct. It begins by devouring human beings and ends up devouring the planet.”

This is not to say that discrimination must be ended before the climate crisis can be addressed; “I don’t think there’s a hierarchy here,” Okri reflected. “We have to deal with it all. If we wait to deal with racial injustice first, we might be arguing about whose chair it is when your house is burning.”

“Every Leaf a Hallelujah” by Ben Okri is published by Head of Zeus and is available now.

[See also: Nicola Davies: in an age of eco-crisis, can talking animals help us?]

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