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Benjamin Zephaniah: Most great revolutions start from the bottom and come up

The poet, writer, lyricist and musician on living a life that aspires to "do the least harm and most good".

Most people in the world are deeply involved in a struggle to live. You may talk about people in the developing world struggling to get water, struggling to get food, but if you go into the average supermarket and ask, “Why are you buying that? It’s got palm oil in,” they’ll say, “I’ve got three kids, I’m on a budget, I’ve got an auntie who’s in hospital….” And they look at you like you’re slightly mad for asking the question. And I understand why they feel that way.

A friend of mine, Adrian Mitchell, wrote a poem: Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. You can change the word poetry for lots of different words. For instance, most people ignore most politics because most politics ignores most people. What we’re mostly doing – the likes of you and me – is having conversations with ourselves. I call it intellectual masturbation; we're all just sitting around stroking each other’s egos. We’ve got good intentions, but it doesn't change much.

Most revolutions, some have gone wrong, but most great, great revolutions start from the bottom and come up. So, we have to convince people who think they've got no time to worry about the environment that they have, that they have agency, are implicated, and it's important. Everyone needs to know that we'll live longer if we improve our environment. Our children will have better lives. But most people still can’t see this or seem not to care, probably because they’re not directly affected. But the environment impacts us all and is a justice issue at the heart of all of it.

I know this from first-hand experience. I have a friend in East London whose child kept getting ill. She went to the doctors repeatedly, and the doctors kept finding things but no cause. I pointed out to her – roughly around the same time as the case of Ella Kissi-Debrah – that she needed to change the route that she walked her child to school. It was a longer route, but it avoided roads, going through a field and a park. Later she told me she couldn’t believe it, but her child was better, and she told all her friends to do the same. A tiny stone that I put in the water that’s now making ripples of change.

I was in Ireland once and did a gig in a famous pub called the Parnell Mooney. After my performance, I gave a speech about the importance of education, and arts in education, why children must read poetry and plays, write scripts and express themselves. I thought nothing of it. Many years later, Nelson Mandela was free, and I was doing some performances in South Africa. A guy came up to me and said, “I saw you in Dublin many years ago, and I'll never forget what you said about the importance of arts in education. I took that with me, and I think about that when I'm doing my work now.” I said, “So what do you do? He replied, “I'm the Minister of Education in South Africa.” The point I'm making is that through arts and poetry, and the arts generally, we might not cause revolutions single-handedly, but we can inspire some individuals that will go on and inspire others, some of whom may be in positions of power to effect real change. And that's how I see my role.

I'm convinced that most people would change their habits if they felt they wouldn't lose anything.

I think that there's something about how the world has developed, especially the western world, that makes it all seem superficially very positive, particularly the technology we have, the reliability and convenience of it. I can remember a time when the BBC, late at night, would say good night and turn off. But now we have 24-hour television, so many different stations, all this stuff. And I can understand people thinking we've made so much – good – progress. Once upon a time, there wasn’t even a word for a car. It was called a horseless carriage. And later on, people had to get petrol from a chemist; there were no petrol stations. My point is that some people fear change, but change is just progress – we evolve, and things will get better, hopefully in a way that benefits us all.

The Earth has existed for 4.5 billion years, and humans have been on it for the tiniest fraction. And we've done more damage in that little slither of time than at any other time in the history of our world. But we've also done some great things. As a vegan, I have this mantra: I must try to do the least harm and the most good. Not just for me but for the planet and my friends and other relationships.

I can't understand why companies, and the like, can't feel like that too. But sadly, I know the simple excuse: profit. Why can't they say, “How can we make a profit and still do the least harm and the most good?” We know it’s possible.

I’m lucky enough to have a relatively big garden, and from midsummer onwards, I'm eating my own food right through the year. I've got the last of it now: the onions and corn. I’ve also got an air source heat pump – the big oil tank outside is gone, and there’s constant lovely warm air. It drags in the air, puts it into this box, heats it and blows it into the house. And I’ve saved money. You can get grants from the government to do it! If I get solar panels, I’ll be completely off grid. Apart from water, I won’t have to pay money to a utility company.

I'm convinced that most people would change their habits if they felt that they weren't going to lose anything that instead they would gain, and they could see the benefits to their health and their children's health. It's just that people are stuck in this rut, and our lives are relatively short, so everybody thinks that this is just the way it is.

That’s why how we communicate is so important. It’s about finding subjects that stick, that resonate. For instance, I used to recite this poem to children, and because they heard references, they understood it and loved it. The poem helped them imagine a world useless beyond repair because of what humans had done to it. It can be recited to children as young as four, and they get it. I’ve met adults I once recited the poem to as children, and they remember it to this day.

Roll up! Roll up!

Come on down.

It’s the sale of the century

Look around.

There are sights to see

And places to be

With way out cosmic activity.

This is a deal that you can’t refuse

It’s the kind of bet that you cannot lose,

So come on down

The price is right,

I’ve got to sell this thing tonight.

Roll up, roll up, planet for sale,

Roll up, planet for sale.

Free of living things that roam,

Free of people and ozone,

I invite you to test my ware,

Free of any atmosphere.

Enjoy yourself as you get poorly

With no sign of a creepy crawly,

I promise you you’ll find no trees

And no flowers to make you sneeze.

Little Bo Peep has gone with her sheep,

And Little Jack Horner dissolved in a corner,

That Donald Duck has run out of luck,

And Paddington Bear is no longer here.

The owl and the pussy cat went to sea

And then got lost in infinity,

Alive, alive, no,

Alive, alive, no,

Cockles and mussels are not,

And no snow!

Roll up, roll up, planet for sale,

Roll up, planet for sale.

Looking for a bargain?

Check this planet,

Not a thing is moving on it.

And just for you I’ll do a deal.

I’ll swap it for a decent meal.

I've just written another little poem for a children's museum that recognises that many of the refugees coming to our shores are also climate refugees. They've asked me to do a poem about Arctic Char that are at serious risk of extinction as a result of climate change. Their waters are warming up, so they have to move on. They’re basically fish refugees. They want children to be aware of the refugee crisis and understand it, not just in terms of humans but also how animals, too, are having to move. It’s interesting because when the Char are travelling, there are fish that try to stop them, but there are also these other fish that help them along the way. Just like real refugees.

We have to realise that just because your government is responding one way to climate change doesn’t mean it’s the only way. We have to aspire to do more. Michelle Obama made a great statement once when she was talking in the context of somebody, possibly Trump. She said, “When they go low, we go high.” If we have realistic dreams of a better world, we can attain them. But we may have to move quicker than our governments.

This conversation took place on 19th January 2023. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Main Image: Adrian Pope


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