To Heal the Planet, We Must Heal Ourselves: Ben Okri Proposes New Visions For Our Collective Future
“The climate crisis is not really about the climate. It’s about us.”
Ben Okri is a featured participant in the PEN World Voices Festival events “Fireside Chat: Marlon James and Ben Okri: A Fire in My Head” and “Legacies of Dislocation, War, and Revolution. “A Sacred Place” will appear in Okri’s forthcoming Tiger Work: Poems, Stories and Essays About Climate Change (Other Press, June 20, 2023). For more information about the 2023 PEN World Voices Festival, please visit worldvoices.pen.org.
We say that there is a climate emergency. But it is truer to say that there is a humanity emergency. The climate crisis is caused by us human beings, because we have forgotten the intimate relationship we have with nature. We treat nature like a resource, a thing to use without end, for profit and for our ascendancy. In this way we treat nature like an enemy.
But when we contemplate the roots of the climate crisis we are led to the fact that the earliest cases of the abuse of nature coincided with imperialism, with the conquistadors, with the quest for other places to plunder. In short, the abuse of nature began with our abuse of our fellow human beings. Then the plunder of nature was exacerbated by colonial and capitalist expansion and the needs of what we call civilization.
The climate crisis is not really about the climate. It’s about us.
The only possible solution is to re-sacralize our fellow human beings, and to re-sacralize nature. Since we stripped the divine from our fellow human beings we made it easier to dehumanize them. And when we tore the divine from nature we made it easier to treat her so outrageously.
The climate crisis cannot be solved in isolation. It is a problem for the whole of the human race. It seems that the future for us requires re-engaging all of humanity, and understanding that we are all on the same ship, and that we can only solve this crisis together.
We need a new vision of the human. Not one based on division and perceived exceptionalism but one based on the truth that we are inescapably part of one another.
The only way to heal the climate crisis is to heal ourselves.
We are the crisis, the emergency, and the catastrophe. And there will be no permanent solution to environmental disasters till we heal the disaster that is our divisive and selfish thinking.
In Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the story is told of a land cursed with pestilence and famine. People send to the oracle to find the cause. The king intends to punish whoever is responsible. In the end, it turns out that the king himself is the guilty one. That’s how it is with us. We want to find the causes of environmental catastrophe. We point fingers and allocate blame. But, in the end, it turns out that we are the guilty ones. Our whole way of life is the greatest threat to our survival. We are daily, indirectly, committing the suicide of the human race.
But it is not just in our emissions, our poisoning of the air, our polluting of the seas. It is really in why we do it. We do it for industry, for electricity, for commerce. These are the reasons why the big nations are finally unable to implement the scale of change needed to pull us back from the brink of the apocalypse.
No country wants to lose its advantages. None wants to lose its position. The politicians know that most of their citizens will vote them out if living standards fall below an acceptable level. That is why leaders say one thing and do another.
We are in a different kind of cold war now. We are in a resources war. We are in an economic war. No one in the West wants to scale down their lifestyle. It is this same greed that led to conquests and colonies, the same need that fueled the Industrial Revolution and the economic transformation of Europe and America, Russia and China.
The quest for power and resources means we pollute, we devastate, we rape the earth. Energy drives our economies, the very same energy that is polluting our world.
A thread runs from that early restless quest for power and resources to our contemporary environmental crisis.
A huge healing is called for. A new vision of the human future is needed. It ought to be one that respects nature and other human beings, one that finds a manageable way to be a civilization.
Excerpted from “A Sacred Place”, from Okri‘s forthcoming Tiger Work: Poems, Stories and Essays About Climate Change. Used with permission of the publisher, Other Press, to be published June 20, 2023. Copyright 2023 by Ben Okri.
The PEN World Voices Festival, founded in 2004 by Salman Rushdie, Michael Roberts, and Esther Allen, is PEN America’s celebration of international literature and writers. Honoring the organization’s hundred-year history of uniting writers and readers to celebrate creative expression and the freedom to write for all, the Festival was founded in the wake of 9/11 to counter U.S. isolationism and broaden the channels of dialogue between the United States and the world.
Featuring more than 100 writers from 27 countries, the 2023 festival, held May 10-13 in New York and Los Angeles, will celebrate great writing and the power of storytelling against the current headwinds of attacks by those who seek to censor and silence. This gathering of writers from every part of the globe is a potent reminder—in fact, an antidote in an era of censorship—that books drive culture and identity, while empowering and transforming our lives.