Okay, if you’re a Ben Okri fan, then this is likely going to be your jam. I hadn’t read any of his award-winning work before this collection, so I absolutely jumped at the chance to read the latest publication of the first Black, and at the time youngest, winner of the Booker Prize. And it’s about climate change, too? Sign me up!
The first indication that maybe I wasn’t going to love this book as much as I wanted to came fairly early on, when the author states bluntly that he isn’t going to provide any solutions for readers. Then what, I wondered, was the point of this book? Or perhaps more cogently: who is the intended audience? For people like myself, committed to climate justice and looking for meaningful ways to contribute to the movement, this collection serves, perhaps, as reassurance that we are not alone. Through poems, parables and non-fiction, Mr Okri emphasizes the importance of ending our reliance on fossil fuels and pursuing renewable energy, even as he laments the high rates at which humanity currently consumes the resources of the planet. But that’s all preaching to the choir, and just another piece in the sea of climate change literature that environmentalists already consider daily.
Perhaps, I thought, this book is for people who’ve never really thought about the environment, or people with a reactionary disdain for us tree-huggers. After all, if science and facts and the evidence of their eyes and a sense of civic responsibility can’t persuade these people, then perhaps heavy-handed art from a famous person can. I doubt it will make any in-roads with hard-core denialists, but the attempt to reach out and affect the hearts and minds of those who can be brought to reason is both valiant and worthwhile.
My personal favorite parts of the book were the letter and the fictions that dealt most closely with the modern day. While I had mixed feelings about And Peace Shall Return as a whole, the segment titled Those Deep Mines was stirring. And I really enjoyed The House Below, which serves as parable both for developing countries in the Global South and for the entire planet’s approach to environmentalism.
But there were bits that just really, really bugged me. I think of myself as a practical, rational person who believes in climate change and who understands that while industry is the biggest global polluter, individuals can all do their part to save the planet. After getting over my initial disappointment that no concrete suggestions were going to be put forward in this book, I was mollified by the reminder that renewable energy sources exist… until I got to the bit about telepathic energy. Even assuming that Mr Okri was joking about that, I found myself sighing in exasperation over the equation of drowned Atlanteans (a fiction!) with the actual historical figures who died in ancient Pompeii. These are weirdly unserious takes in a book that is presumably trying to convince the reader of the seriousness of climate change.
I was also irritated by the tone shift in From A Sacred Place, which begins as a thoughtful manifesto on humanity coming together and accepting that the climate emergency is actually a human emergency, and how we all need to set aside our differences and work together to respect everyone’s rights to a healthy planet. But then he caps the essay by stating that “no one in the West wants to scale down their lifestyle.” Well that’s a really convenient way to scapegoat exactly the wrong people!
I’m not saying that the West is populated by blameless angels. What I am saying is that wealth-hoarding people throughout the world, and even homegrown ones in the Global South, have plenty of interest in exploiting the planet’s resources for their own gain. Even way back in the 1990s when I was a girl living in Malaysia, the usual pushback to (generally Western-led) efforts to be more environmentally-friendly went something along the lines of “oh, that’s easy for them to say! They’re rich already, and they only want to keep us down!” (which was an actual conversation I had with a well-regarded photojournalist I met on a train one day.) And lots of people, rich or poor, want to stay ignorant, or just assume that “God will provide.” For example, the vast majority of the girls I went to a rural, underprivileged boarding school with didn’t understand the value of conserving water even during a drought. Another friend had to make up some nonsense hydraulics issue to get them to shut the taps so water wouldn’t just gush out and run wastefully down the drains again once water service was restored.
Would Tiger Work reach people like this, and perhaps make them understand the importance of working towards conservation and climate justice? I certainly hope so! Everyone has to start somewhere, and if this is the book that finally gets people to start taking climate change seriously, then more power to it.
Tiger Work: Poems, Stories And Essays About Climate Change by Ben Okri was published today June 27 2023 by Other Press and is available from all good booksellers, including