Ben Okri: Burning Bright

We have the facts staring us in the face, and still we do nothing – or not enough. How on earth to wake up humanity and save the planet in the time we have left? It's a burning question that author and poet Ben Okri is determined to answer. After two hours listening to his enlightening insights on the subject, we distill eight pearls of Okri wisdom to stir the spirit and galvanise action...

By: Helen Gilchrist,   7 minutes

Ben Okri is late, the stage at Falmouth Book Festival still empty. It’s not his fault; his train was cancelled because huge waves whipped up by Storm Ciarán flooded the railway line, so he had to make a last-minute dash by road instead. Call it irony, or maybe just case in point – in his new book, Tiger Work, Okri writes how people won’t do enough about climate change until the water is literally lapping at their feet.

Needless to say, he’s worth the wait. Okri speaks with a captivating mix of persuasion, lyricism, simplicity, humour and soul that brings a compelling perspective to this issue we’ve been going around in circles about for years.

Ben Okri

Tiger Work is a collection of poems, short stories, essays, letters and short interviews – playing with the power of each form to draw people in and find ways “to persuade, suggest and hint”. This, he hopes, will have the most impact and appeal for as many people as possible – our attention spans today are so short, and different people relate to different things, so he hopes each person will find something in the collection that speaks to them personally. Besides, he says, there isn’t time to write a novel.

We heartily recommend getting a copy of the book, but for anyone with even less time/ attention, here are eight pearls of wisdom distilled from Okri’s conversation with Amy Greenhough at the festival.

 1. Before our very eyes

“The climate emergency is the biggest challenge facing the human race for the last 10,000 years. And I’m being modest. But the weird thing about it is that I can’t think of another civilization or another era in human history where we had a catastrophe this big coming at us and we were aware of it.

In the past you went about your life and then boom, it just happened. Everything changed. We are the first global civilization that’s actually aware of our existential threat. We have the facts, we have the data, we know what’s coming. This is for me a great paradox, the knowing… the consciousness of it and the fact of it, is really bizarre.”


2. Ordinary terror

“The novel requires that you have an experience, live, and then you digest it. Then you make a narrative out of what you’ve digested. So it requires some time between the experience and the writing about it, first of all. And then it also requires, sometimes, that what you’re writing about is firmly in the past, so you have perspective. But [climate change] is a subject about which, if it goes wrong, we’re not going to have the chance to have a perspective.

Where we are right now, there’s a very strange gap between the fact that we live our lives as if it were normal – when in fact something absolutely extraordinary and abnormal is happening over us and underneath us. It’s the weirdest thing. It’s not dramatic enough for a novel in some ways, because it’s ordinary. But there’s nothing worse than ordinary terror.”

“Can’t you hear the future weeping? Our love must save the world.”

3. All the feels

“I began by saying, ‘Look, you know what I’m gonna do? I’m going to write about ordinary terror.’ But then people might get to the end of it, and be like, ‘What are you trying to tell us?’ We have to find a way to make this point… this truth… felt. It’s the one thing that the writer, the artist, can contribute, to make people feel it and see it and feel it.

As Henry James and Conrad kept saying, when they talked about the power of fiction; they help you to feel and to see, to embody – to plant it in our flesh, plant it in our dreams. Hemingway used to say, ‘Because I showed it to you, you can be there too.’ And I will always love that. You can be there too.

The scientists do great work, but they give us data. The media does this work, but they give us horror stories that freak the living daylights out of us. There’s got to be somewhere in the middle where we can talk to people as human beings, who are committed, who feel it, as mothers as fathers, as friends, as daughters, as children, as lovers of this planet.”

“Facts don't alter our dreams or change our minds.”

4. An orchestra of solutions

“Our solutions, how we’ll deal with it, will be different. We’ll all contribute to dealing with it, in accordance with our skills, in accordance with who we are, in accordance with whatever power we have in our communities. I always talk of an orchestra, of human solutions.

Some of us bang a drum, some can play violin, and some can tinkle away on a triangle – as long as we’re all contributing to this great music of effect, of trying to create a momentum. Because I don’t think it’s going to be solved if there isn’t a mass momentum. We all have to feel it. We all have to roll our sleeves up. We all have to own it. All of us.

We should use everything we can think of to turn this thing around. I don’t think we have the luxury of being, ‘Oh, you should do that… you shouldn’t do that… this is not quite the right thing.’ Excuse me, our house is on fire!

I think people need to act from the depth of their conscience; however they feel they can charge people up to change the situation. That’s why I say it’s an orchestra. Some people bang a drum, someone sings, someone shouts. We’re getting to a point where it doesn’t matter, so long as we do something about it.

We have to make it impossible for governments to ignore. We have to make it impossible for governments to get into power, unless they’re dealing with this. We have to make it a central issue of our times.”

5. The antidote to overwhelm?

“Existential courage. Anger. Having a sense that we have a once in a lifetime, once in an incarnation, opportunity to actually do something and make a difference to this planet.

The antidote is a sense of purpose. We have a purpose. We’ve got work to do. If you’re feeling depressed, whatever it is you’re feeling… we’ve got work to do. This is the time for us to get up and fight, to get up and change. This is it. We who are here, we who are alive now – this is a special responsibility that we’re given. We should have been doing something about it 50 years ago, but we didn’t. So now we’re all called to do something.”

6. Becoming a new species

“The climate emergency is altering the course of human history. But the most important thing is actually finding a new direction. And I think that we’re at a crossroads – we have a choice to make, between carrying on as we are or becoming a new species. Because we cannot go into a new future as we have become. A lot of things have to change.

We have to change the way we think, change the way we travel, change the way we wear clothes, change the way we eat. We cannot continue like this. For many people it’s a terrible thing to say. For me, it’s kind of liberating. I think we’re overdue a transformation. We really are. We’ve been winging it for too long. Lazily going along. I think it’s not just a wake-up call, it’s a chance to really be what human beings can be.”

“I think it's not just a wake-up call, it’s a chance to really be what human beings can be.”

7. How do you wake people up?

“The hardest thing writing this was simplicity, distilling all of those facts into emotion. Simplicity is a nightmare. Writing clearly is very difficult; writing clearly about something that’s so frightening is very difficult.

With my line; ‘Dear Earth, give us the suffering we deserve.’ That’s not how that letter began, I promise you. It began with a lot of facts, and I just cut, cut, cut, cut. Of course, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying, ‘How do you wake us up?’

If you give people hope they’re still, like, ‘Okay, we’re going to solve this. Great, can I have another pint please.’ Hope too can be dangerous, because we leave it to other people. And if you scare people too much, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, my God, this is too scary’ and not do anything. So how do you wake people up?”

8. All about energy – directed the right way

“This world, from a scientific point of view, everything is energy. It’s just we’re terribly inefficient. We have to dig up stuff that’s been dead for thousands of years to give us energy now. We’re so inefficient. We’re really rather unimaginative, in a world in which everything is energy, everything. Neutrinos are passing through our bodies… The universe is full of dark energy, the stars, and planets, we are surrounded by energy.

The possibility of the human race… We haven’t started, what it is to be human. We’re like, in the forecourt; in the experimental stages of what human possibility is.

It’s all about how we use energy. We know from nuclear fission, and from atomic bombs, we know how much power can be generated. We know. It’s just we haven’t transferred that knowledge from the destructive aspect of the human psyche to the constructive, creative aspect of the human psyche. And my question is why the hell haven’t we done that? Why are we so able to dream, these powerful, destructive things that will wipe out whole civilizations, destroy whole towns and villages… Why are we able to dream in that direction and not this direction? It’s just power and greed and money that makes us dream this way, rather than this way.

In my vision of the future, everything will be efficient and simple and clear. I just think we can be different, lighter, and more beautiful.”


Ben Okri’s Tiger Work (Bloomsbury) is out now. Buy your copy and support independent bookshops (through

Watch Ben Okri in conversation with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on the Ways to Change the World podcast:

Image credits:

Tiger photo by Blake Meyer on Unsplash
Ben Okri in conversation at Falmouth Book Festival photo by Helen Gilchrist
Book cover photo by Helen Gilchrist
Alfresco Orchestra photo by Alexander Zvir via Pexels
Canopy photo by Felix Mittermeier via Pexels
Electric Towers during Golden Hour by Pixabay
‘There Is No Planet B’ photo by Markus Spiske via Pexels
Starry Sky photo by Hristo Fidanov via Pexels




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