Harper Collins is publishing Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, in response to the climate crisis in this age of Covid. Two years after Letters to the Earth was created from an idea, the launch of the paperback edition feels timely, because 2021 might prove to be an important year for climate action, with events leading up to Earth Day (April 22nd), D10 summit (formerly G7) in Cornwall (June 9-11), and the UN Climate Change Conference known as COP26 (in November).

Ben Okri became a literary sensation in 1991, when his novel The Famished Road won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1991, making him the youngest ever winner of the prize at the age of 21.

Reflecting on the last year, Ben Okri writes that we are at the ‘beginning of an age of catastrophes.' Photo by Mat Bray

Why do you think humans have been so irresponsible when making choices related to the future of our planet earth?

People are irresponsible about this because we do not see the immediate evidence of the destruction we are causing, or the effect of that destruction. There is a time gap and even a spatial gap between pollution and the effects of global warming. Also, we don’t think that our local actions, the fumes from an industrial plant or from our cars, can possibly affect anything. Science has enabled us to see the damage we are causing. Imagination is needed to see how our small causes have global effects.

So many Africans are unaware of the dangers related to climate change, even though many parts of Africa are suffering from desertification and massive pollution. How can one raise awareness of climate change across Africa?

One can raise more awareness in Africa through education, digital information, protests, stories, folktales, films, television, art, dances etc. We need continent-wide campaigns. We also need local ones too. The voices of the young need to be heard. We need to make it a cultural and social priority.

Africa will suffer most from the effects of climate change. Whole portions of the continent could be uninhabitable because of rising temperatures and desertification. Though Africa is only responsible for less than ten percent of global emissions, Africa still needs to play its part in dealing with the problem. Africa can’t just leave it to the Western nations. I know we have urgent problems of our own, but climate change ought to be high up in our concern.

The letters are gathered into key themes: Love, Loss, Emergence, Hope and Action.

Can you explain what you see in what you call the natural tendency of the earth towards balance and harmony?

For every cause there is an effect. Nature is a dynamic system. Energy is constant in the universe. If you heat water the water doesn’t disappear. It becomes air, then forms condensation, then returns to its condition as water. Whatever we do to nature, nature responds, absorbs, adjusts. You pour chemicals into her, and chemical reactions occur, and when these come in contact with living beings they suffer the consequences of that chemical action.

Our seas are polluted by the gases we emit, and these contaminate marine life. Then marine life suffers, and we have less fish. Nature adjusts, but we suffer the form that adjustment takes. Nature strives to maintain its equilibrium, its balance. When we spit at nature, the spit flies back in our faces, or in the faces of our children.

Nature doesn’t do it with intent. If you throw a big stone in water, water flies everywhere. It is not directed at you, but is the response of water to displacement. Nature is neutral. It follows its own laws. If we transgress those laws, we suffer. We or generations to come. And the generations to come will be shocked at our stupidity, our irresponsibility, our lack of vision. Even now we are destroying life on this planet for unborn generations, who will curse us from beyond. So we must act now to save the future.