This speech was given by Ben Okri at Writers Rebel’s Paint The Land launch event on Friday 25th June, 2021.
When Writers Rebel asked me to come up with a few words that could speak to a world on the verge of environmental catastrophe, I had a minor crisis of my own. The facts are horrific, the evidence overwhelming, but still we carry on as if there were no crisis looming. What can one say to people who either don’t want to hear or have heard enough? And what can you say that does not paralyse with the sheer scale of the problem? In the end I wrote a two line poem, composed of just twelve words. The words were photosynthesised on grass grown on hessian and floated on the Thames by the artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, aided by an extraordinary team of gifted people.
This earth that we love is in grave danger because of us. We have raped her, exploited her, abused her, destroyed her, wrecked her, disemboweled her. We blow her up, we blast her apart, we smash her, we detonate atomic bombs on her. We poison her. Our oceans are becoming acidic. Rising sea levels endangers 40 percent of the world’s population. Human pollution wipes out seven million people a year. In the last thirty years 80 million hectares of primary forest have disappeared. In the last 150 years we have lost half of our topsoil. They say we have less than two decades of fishes in the sea. Can you hear the future weeping?
In the past we have used fear. We have thrown at people the distressing facts, the numbers, the temperatures, the loss of species. And still we drive our fossil fuel cars, and make flights round the world, and consume vast quantities of electricity. It seems to be asking too much for people to alter how they live so that life on the planet can survive. Nobody wants to turn back the clock. No one wants to regress. Fear doesn’t work. Guilt doesn’t work.
So I thought that maybe love might work. With fear we act hastily, unsteadily. With love we act wisely, comprehensively. Maybe if we all did something modest real change can be achieved. Maybe it is not about going back. Maybe it is a going forward, living in harmony with our selves and the world. Maybe living simply is the evolutionary thing. Perhaps we have grown too complicated for our own good. We want more than we need.
I think love is the highest economy of life. It is the most efficient force for civilisation. If we woke up to our love for the earth we would stop doing most of the things we are doing. In the Tao te Ching there is an extraordinary passage where it says that the sage loves the world as they love their body. If the earth were our body would we do half the things to it that we are doing?
Nothing else can save our world but our love. For love is the last power that stands between us and extinction.
When we act with love we act with all the powers in the human spirit. No other quality comes close to bringing out the genius of the human. Toughness will fail, and will exhausts itself in the end. Only love is cosmic. Only love is endless.
What we need now in this eleventh hour is the greatness of the human. This is the time we need to show that we are greater than our history, greater than our education, greater than all the brainwashing that’s been done to us that makes us think that we can’t be the agents of change. The greatness we need to reach for is love. There is no true greatness without love. When we love we know the right thing to do. I am not here to prescribe this or that action. Do you love this world? Do you love this earth? Then all you have to do is listen to your love. Don’t do to the earth what you won’t do to your body.
But the love I talk about is not passive. It is active. It is a love that stops something terrible happening to the one you love. It is protective.
Let’s turn the fierce force of our love to saving our life on this planet. Let’s do it one step at a time. Let’s start now, in whatever way we can.
The most powerful thing about love is its capacity to inspire change. Love changes us. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke said famously at the end of his poem, The Archaic Torso of Apollo: ” Du musst dein Leben andern .” We must change our lives. We must change our atmosphere. We must breathe good clean air again and eat food that tastes as if all the earth’s nourishment has gone into it.
We are in the last days of our history as we know it. We can’t go back and we can’t go forward anymore as we are. We have to become a new species. We have to achieve that rare thing, a quantum development in our possibilities. We need to leap now to the next stage of the human. Without this leap there is no future. In that sense, we are at a terminal point. It is either death, or transformation. It is either extinction, or we become a newer, more efficient species. Nothing ordinary can achieve this. Only love can do it.
(Copyrights: Ben Okri. June 2021. All Rights Reserved.)
In the lead up to COP-26, Writers Rebel is collaborating with leading artists and writers to create landscape graffitos that urge world leaders to ACT NOW in the face of climate catastrophe.
Call to action: We are encouraging groups across the world to do the same. For information on how to paint the land read this.
Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, anthologist, aphorist, and playwright. He has also written film scripts. His works have won numerous national and international prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction for his novel The Famished Road. https://benokri.co.uk/