How do we respond to the climate crisis? And, in particular, how do creatives—writers, artists, composers, sculptors, filmmakers—respond with their creativity? Writing in The Graun, Ben Okri spoke of writing “as if these are the last days.”
As a writer, it means everything I write should be directed to the immediate end of drawing attention to the dire position we are in as a species. It means that the writing must have no frills. It should speak only truth. In it, the truth must be also beauty. It calls for the highest economy. It means that everything I do must have a singular purpose.
I remember the impact Okri’s essay had when I read it. I shared it on my social media and discussed it with a good friend and respected colleague. We agreed that given how humanity (for want of a better word) has taken us close to putting the Earth’s future in peril, our creativity must focus on advocating for animal rights, saving the environment, and educating people on how to live ethically and environmentally. Some of us need to escape reality by reading the latest Salman Rushdie or keeping up with episodes from our favourite soaps. But nothing else really matters any more. As Paul McCartney may have sung, “No More Silly Love Songs.”
Okri’s 2021 essay, “Artists must confront the climate crisis – we must write as if these are the last days,” is included in his new book, Tiger Work, but with a new title, “Existential Creativity.” When I discovered Okri’s new book, Tiger Work, and its subtitle, “Stories, essays and poems about climate change,” I knew it was something I had to read. I’m really glad I did. I had not read him before but was aware he’d won the Booker Prize for fiction a few years back.
As the subtitle indicates, this is an anthology of different writing styles centred around the climate crisis. There’s a short story, “The Secret Source,” about the centrality of water in our lives. There are short polemical pieces (“Letter to the Earth”) and there’s poetry. The latter is a way to write that troubles me. Often, I just don’t get it. But this isn’t the case with Okri. The poetry is clear, concise, and moving. In total, there are 17 pieces collected together in a beautifully produced book.
Ben Okri’s Tiger Work shows creativity is as important and as inspiring as it must be to have clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink. This is spiritual sustenance for weary social justice campaigners. It’s a great work of art.