88. Living on Planet Earth with Oliver Jeffers
According to new research by a team of U.S. and U.K. scientists published in Environmental Research, Fossil fuels alone are responsible for more than 8 million premature deaths annually. That’s 1 out of 5 deaths.
Let that sink in for a moment. 1 out of 5.
This figure underscores a fact absent from much public debate and discussion about climate change. While the fight to stop greenhouse gas pollution by curtailing fossil fuel use is framed in terms of how it would improve the future, it’s also true that fossil fuels are killing millions of people right now. And right now is the time to change our thinking.
But when Climate scientists and activists are continuously imploring us to ‘look at the bigger picture’ to address climate change right now, what does this mean? How do we do it?
These are questions that our Outrage + Optimism guest, Oliver Jeffers tackles in this week’s interview with Christiana, Tom and Paul, as he delves into how he performs this perspective shift by ‘simple optics’ in his award winning picture books and visual art.
Whether brought on by an experience of art, science, religious practice, grief, love or parenthood, there is a need for us all to undergo a change in perspective and see beyond our day to day concerns and routines to grow an awareness of ourselves as a human family with a shared duty to protect our Earth, our home, from growing climate catastrophe. Art like Oliver’s, provides the perfect vehicle for this transformational and necessary journey which we hope you will all join us on.
Music this week from the incredible Presidio. Listen in!
Oliver delivered a series of free art classes for children (and adults) in partnership with Harrods in which he demonstrates how to draw some of his best loved characters from his books. His website also includes more free activities for children and their families.
An Ode to Living on the Earth is Oliver’s fantastic Ted Talk.
The Moon, The Earth and Us is Oliver Jeffers 2019 art installation.
These are the temporary tattoos that Clay wants.
Here is the Dipped Painting Project.
Our musical guest this week is Presidio!
Stream their latest EP – ‘Telepathy’ – Listen to “Unwind”
Keep up with Christiana Figueres here:
Paul Dickinson is on LinkedIn!
Follow @GlobalOptimism on social media!
Don’t forget to hit SUBSCRIBE so you don’t miss another episode of Outrage + Optimism!
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:12] Hello and welcome to Outrage + Optimism, I’m Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Christiana Figueres: [00:00:16] I’m Christiana Figueres, and I’m back.
Paul Dickinson: [00:00:19] And I’m Paul Dickinson. Welcome back, Christiana.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:21] This week, we discuss outrage at the state of global air pollution. We speak to writer and artist Oliver Jeffers, and we have music from Presidio. Thanks for being here. So, guys, we have a lot of important and consequential issues to discuss this week, but listeners, I was having a quick update with Christiana just before we got on the air, and something tells me that this is going to be a Costa Rica heavy episode. So I don’t know about you, Paul, but I think we should just get it out of the way. What do you think?
Paul Dickinson: [00:01:03] Yes, now is the time. Now is the moment for the great little country that could, to speak its name.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:11] Christiana. Welcome back.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:12] Not that could. That can. Paul, you have to conjugate the verb properly. It’s not subjective.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:20] The could, the can, and the did.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:24] Yes, exactly.
Paul Dickinson: [00:01:24] That must, that can, that will, that did.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:26] Yes all of those. Ok, guys, all kidding aside, I am sorry-.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:32] Just before you relay this tale, do bear in mind it is extremely cold in Europe and North America at the moment so go easy on us.
Paul Dickinson: [00:01:40] It’s zero degrees here and great dark clouds.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:42] That’s exactly why you need a warm relief. Because I’ve just come back from 10 days on Isla del Coco, which just happens to be the most amazing island on the face of this planet. You know what it is like? It is like diving into the ocean, like the ocean used to be 50 years ago. It is that quality of marine life because you dive in and you don’t see a school of 20 or 30 fish. You see a wall of fish, thousands of the same fish, school of fish, thousands of them.
[00:02:25] Then you swim through that and you hit the next wall of thousands of fish of a different kind of fish. And then you swim through that one. And then lo and behold, what is right in front of your nose? A hammerhead shark, or a white tip or a Galapagos shark or several of them, or a giant manta ray at the bottom of the ocean.
[00:02:46] There is no description to the gorgeousness that we have on this planet. And we are so used to thinking of the beauty of nature above ground because that’s where we live. But if we don our wetsuits, which are very difficult to get on and off several times a day, and we go down into these gorgeous tropical waters with visibility 50 meters in front of you and perfect sunlight penetration and you see what marine life and what coral reefs there still look like and what they used to look like. Then you compare that to the conversation that we had just two weeks ago with Johan Rockström, where he told us that 85 percent of coral reefs will be gone. And your heart just sinks. And the big question is, so what do we do? What do we do to save at least those few incredible samples of what a coral reef used to be, but is still in Costa Rican waters? So I tell you, I’ve taken many gorgeous trips in my life. I’ve been incredibly blessed, but never have I taken a journey to the bottom of my heart in addition to the bottom of the ocean. Never have I taken such a powerful journey to the bottom of my heart. I have never felt as connected and as deeply moved by the abundance and the beauty and the diversity and the color and the exuberance of nature.
Paul Dickinson: [00:04:31] So what do we do, Christiana? What do we do to protect that? Whatever it takes, that’s the answer.
Christiana Figueres: [00:04:37] Whatever it takes. Well, that’s why this trip was so fantastic. Right? Because that little island that is 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, a tiny little island, currently has a protected marine area of two thousand square kilometers surrounded. But Costa Rica, the little country that punches above its weight, our plan is to expand that from 2000 to 130,000. And so how do we do that? We need the technology. We need the funding. We need the people to do it.
[00:05:11] And so this whole trip was a brainstorming exercise with a whole crew, the crew was amazing, but a whole group of amazing people, scientists, photographers, policy people, funders to get a plan together to expand that national park.
[00:05:31] So what a fantastic investment of 10 days. And here is the kanule, as you say, in German. Here’s the counterweight. It takes two days to get there. And as we came back into port, miles away from the port, we were out on deck and we started to smell the pollution of the port. And having been out on the high seas with an absolutely pristine environment, both water and air and land, and then coming back to port and just being hit by the air pollution and the smell pollution of land and of port was quite shocking. Which leads us to the amazing report that was released this week.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:26] Absolutely. And what an amazing experience to come back from that pristine location and particularly going there, as you say, after having listened to Johan Rockström have that stark warning from him and then come back to as you describe it, hitting that kind of wall of pollution. While you were away in fact, just today we’re recording this podcast on Tuesday, this amazing report came out that just sends such a shockwave signal to us and should also around the world. Now, this is a report that came out from Harvard University. There was a mixture of different partners that worked on it. But the headline statistic is that air pollution just from burning fossil fuels like coal and diesel and others are responsible for one in five deaths worldwide. That latest study builds on a huge body of evidence. There’s been previous assessments of similar types, but it’s been quite difficult to draw out what is the impact from fires and from other different sources. This is specifically from burning fossil fuels. Now, that is 8.7 million people every year. The statistic is from 2018, which is shocking. I mean, it is shocking by any manner, but particularly when you compare it to the fact that there have now been 2.3 million deaths from COVID, which, of course, is a heartbreaking statistic.
[00:07:45] And it’s not to minimize the suffering of those individuals. One is one too many and 2.3 is staggering, but 8.7, on an annual basis. And look at what we did to shut the world down because of this terrible disease of COVID. We know what the vaccinations are for air pollution– they are solar panels and they are wind turbines and are electric cars and they can be deployed at scale. So we really need to take this as a massive wake up call. This is not only about the future, it’s about what’s happening to our lungs, about what’s happening to our kids right now around the world and it is a moral outrage. And as listeners will remember, last week we had on the deputy mayor of London, Shirley Rodriguez, and she told the story that just last year, the first person ever to have air pollution as a cause of death on their death certificate was the young child, Ella Kissi-Debrah in London, who died of an asthma attack a few years ago. And the coroner’s report that just concluded actually pointed to the fact this was air pollution. Sadly, what this report shows us is she is very far from being alone.
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:47] Ok, well, look, this is shocking, really serious stuff, and there’s goodies and baddies, I’m sorry to say. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those pantomimes for children, when they say, that’s the bad person. They go, ‘behind you’! The pantomime bad person.
[00:09:06] Well, I’m sorry to say, this week, German energy group RWE last week said it was suing the Dutch government for 1.4 billion in damages over the Netherlands decision to phase out coal by 2030. What that is pantomime villainy. And I tell you something else. I’ve just seen all the biggest and most famous environmental campaigners in the world unite to put pressure on Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, over opening a coal mine. We’re opening a new coal mine in the UK. What is going on when we’ve got these extraordinary tragedies going on? And yet at the same time, all logic appears to be up in the air. It’s like it’s not yet a time of consequences. I have a sense that we’re kind of giddy and we can’t quite get a clear view. But when you hear about this massive issue of air pollution, surely we’ve just got to stop coal now.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:10:03] Yeah, and it’s not just coal. And we should point out the fact that that coal mine, the first deep coal mine in the UK, is now under question just today. That review has been picked up by the local council to assess it. But Christiana I’m curious to know what you think. This has been an issue, I’ve known you for a long time, and I know that you are very motivated by issues around the natural world, as you just described, your deep connection to the natural world, but I would say I’ve always thought of you principally as someone who’s motivated by human beings and by human suffering. And I think that’s been part of your power in this space. So how does this report hit you?
Christiana Figueres: [00:10:35] Well, Tom, as you said, one death is one too many. But this statistic is just completely staggering. And without minimizing that with which I completely agree, my reaction to this report is, it’s about time. It is about time that this kind of information comes out.
[00:10:56] And those of us who have been in climate for many decades, since last century, have come to the conclusion that because climate is so large and basically overwhelming for all of us, there’s no way that we are going to make the decisions, take the decisions that we need to take sheerly on the basis of climate science, despite the fact that we have such clarity on climate science, for example, the death of 85 percent of coral reefs. But somehow, those kind of statistics are paralyzing and they don’t lead us to action. I really harbor the hope that this kind of information about our personal human lives, our children, our parents, our sick people that we know, ourselves, that we are directly right now- this is not in the future, this is not some country way down across the planet, halfway around the planet- this is a direct threat to our health.
[00:12:07] And now we know to our life. And I hope that the directness and the immediacy of this threat is something that is going to wake us up. There are many people that are really trying to weave those two threads together, climate and human health. And it is about time that we do so because as long as we keep those separate, it’s very, very difficult for most people to get to the decisions that we have to take.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:12:37] Part of the question here, of course, is that the political potency of something like COVID that has just grabbed the world’s attention and pivoted whole economies on a dime has basically been driven by the political necessity not to be seen to be allowing hospitals to be overcrowded and all these other things and pictures of people dying in corridors. That’s kind of what’s motivating massive lockdowns. And the trouble with the air pollution is it just sort of happens slowly. It’s a kind of silent killer that happens in the background that then affects kids lungs and other things. But it builds up slowly so it meets medical demand and so it doesn’t look like that and it’s a classic example of how risk that we become used to appears invisible.
Paul Dickinson: [00:13:23] Hold on, Tom, because last time I looked, every single human I met spent half the day every day becoming an amateur epidemiologist. And you meet people in the shop and they all go, well, the R rate’s, up to 1.2. Suddenly, when the whole world’s been on this massive education about virology because of COVID-19, this is the moment when we’re saying, OK we got to meet a graph for the first time. People have asked me before, why did you get in climate change? I’m like, I can read a graph. So this is a moment when the world is reading graphs. This is the moment maybe for this extraordinary study, for people to say, OK, let’s actually talk about COVID and air pollution and talk about deaths from human activity. We infect each other with COVID and we give each other respiratory problems with our fossil fuels. And we need to start integrating these discussions. Not like there was COVID and then there’s the rest of life. No, they’re together, they’re not separate.
Christiana Figueres: [00:14:31] I totally agree with that. And I was going to say, Tom, when you were speaking. Yes, the problem is that COVID is acute and air pollution killing us is chronic. But the fact is that COVID is now moving from acute to chronic. And if you don’t believe me, ask every UK citizen who can’t leave the country now. And so that wall between what’s chronic and what’s acute is really disappearing. And we’re beginning to understand that human health and the protection of human health is actually top priority and does take the first level of attention of policy above everything else above, you know, everybody’s desire to travel or to meet their parents or to go and hug the kids or whatever. Human health is taking the top priority. And that’s a good thing. That is a very, very good thing. And all we need to do is just extend that paradigm shift that we’ve had in the past year to understand that as in COVID so it is in climate. So it is in air pollution. Human health has to take the first priority of our attention and certainly of our commitment and action.
Paul Dickinson: [00:15:55] One of the things I found most frustrating in the couple of decades I’ve worked on climate change is people suggest really quite small things, and then someone particularly a kind of economist on a business program will say, oh, but you’re really not being realistic. You’re not being realistic that there would be this fairly small change- It’s really not realistic. And yet the entire basically world economy and certainly Europe, the EU has just been shut completely down and people locked up in their homes for a year, trillions of Euro on furlough. What’s actually realistic and what’s possible. We just got a whole new- we switch the machine off and back on again. Now is the time.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:16:40] Now, that’s a lot of outrage. And so, I hope you’re still with us on that. It’s quite an intense topic, but it’s one well worth delving into. And I’d really encourage you to read that report, there’s a lot of detail in it. It’s kind of shocking, but it really is galvanizing. It’s amazing ammunition to really drive us towards further action. Now, we’ve got a great conversation with you this week, a really fun one with a good friend of mine, as you’re going to hear, called Oliver Jeffers. But just before we do, one of the other things that happened this week is I discovered and I’m very late to the party, that if you use a particular app online, you can see all the reviews that we’re getting for this podcast from every country around the world. I didn’t even realize that there were actually separate systems for each country, which our producer has been laughing at me about. And some of them are really amazing. It’s really wonderful to go through here. I have to say, we are so grateful to you listeners for going through, providing feedback, letting us know what you’re finding. I mean, one here from the U.S., Jay Macedonia on Apple Podcasts said ‘This podcast has kept me going through a tough year, both by acknowledging the need for outrage and driving towards an optimistic future. Thank you for your charisma,’ that must be to you, Paul ‘and humour, inspiring speakers and healthy balance of outrage and optimism.’ It’s just great. Thank you so much. It feels so good to receive these.
Christiana Figueres: [00:17:54] So nice.
Paul Dickinson: [00:17:55] Here’s one from Pete from Great Britain who says ‘particularly enjoyed the comment from Christiana. Now, at last, we have a White House with all the lights on’. Thank you, very true, good point.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:18:08] Any more reviews would be so great.
Christiana Figueres: [00:18:10] Tom. Are you about to pivot to our interview? Because if you are about to pivot, sorry you can’t pivot yet. So I have a footnote comment. If you all thought that my 1.5 minute summary of the most amazing trip of my life was going to be all that I share, you are so dead wrong. Because on board, I’m not a particularly good photographer, but we had the two top photographers and cinematographers of Costa Rica on board and their brothers and one of them took 2000 photographs per day over 10 days. And the other one took, I think, five hours of video per day over 10 days. So we have a lot of material. And I thought that I would cut that material to maybe a maximum total of 12 hours of visual material and share that. And I have been informed that we can actually do that because we’re going to start-
Paul Dickinson: [00:19:26] Eleven and a half Christiana, don’t overdo it.
Christiana Figueres: [00:19:29] Eleven and a half.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:19:31] On a live zoom?
Christiana Figueres: [00:19:32] So, who can explain to me how we’re going to use this amazing material? None of you are paying any attention.
Paul Dickinson: [00:19:45] No look, there’s a great deal of attention, but there’s a lack of competence. So Tom and I are like, yeah, this is a really great idea..
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:19:53] You really got us out of that one, Paul.
Paul Dickinson: [00:19:54] Luckily, Sharon and Clay may know what to do.
Clay Carnill: [00:19:59] Sharon definitely knows.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:20:01] OK, Sharon, please insert here a description of what’s going to happen next.
Sharon Johnson: [00:20:05] What is going to happen next is our listeners will be treated to an array of video material. Starting with Christina’s fabulous self shot footage and excellent camera work in a series of documentary videos that we will start releasing on our YouTube channel. So listen to the podcast watch on social media and we’ll let you know when this series begins. And you’ll get to see a lot more of Paul’s COVID hair and Tom’s headphones and Christiana’s fantastic backdrops.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:20:44] Sharon Johnson, ladies and gentlemen, producer of the podcast. Paul, can I please suggest, Sharon, that in amongst the amazing footage of the Isla del Coco, we occasionally drop in a small shot of Paul pretending to be a manta ray in his kitchen and it can just go in amongst all the manta ray footage.
Paul Dickinson: [00:21:04] It’s all about the movement, they’re very graceful. We’re on Zoom, listeners. You won’t be able to see myself evoking the sort of magic carpet of infinite beauty.
Christiana Figueres: [00:21:20] Ok, I’m very glad that Sharon saved you guys because that was my little quiz. Are you listening to what our team is telling us? Well, clearly, the two of you failed, but Sharon saved the day. And I am very excited because truly one photograph is worth more than a million words. And so I’m very excited that I’ll be able to share some of the visuals of this amazing place.
Paul Dickinson: [00:21:50] And for people all around the world, notice how excited a proud Costa Rican is at making a huge natural refuge. Honestly, if there’s one amazing thing about Costa Rica, it’s how everybody wants to turn the entire country into a giant nature reserve. More countries should be like that, in my opinion.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:22:07] And one other way to use this is you can listen to this podcast, you can play a drinking game. You can do a shot every time Christiana mentions Costa Rica. It’s a fantastic idea.
Christiana Figueres: [00:22:17] Oh, my gosh. Everybody will be drunk very quickly.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:22:20] There you go. We have the brilliant Oliver Jeffers with us this week. And you’re going to love this, it’s a fantastic interview. He’s an amazing artist. Now, Oliver is a visual artist and an author working in painting, bookmaking, illustration, collage, performance and sculpture. He’s from Belfast in Northern Ireland, moved to New York City in 2010, recently moved home, partly as a result of the pandemic. And his critically acclaimed picture books have been translated into over forty five languages and sold over 12 million copies. I’m willing to bet if you are the parent of a young child, you probably read Oliver Jeffers books to your children. They’re absolutely brilliant. I have known them for many years, as I’ve read them always to my kids and it’s been great fun getting to know him. As you’re going to hear in this interview, his recent work has been focused on telling stories that help people to see the singularity of our Earth, shifting perspectives from I to we to realise humanity’s shared destiny. And he believes the most significant problems of humanity need global unified responses. This is our conversation that we had a couple of weeks ago with Oliver Jeffers. I hope you enjoy it. Will be back to discuss it afterwards.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:23:42] Oliver Jeffers, what a pleasure to have you on the podcast, we have wanted to talk to you for such a long time, and I’d like to start before asking you a question by just telling –
Christiana Figueres: [00:23:53] Wait, I have to interrupt you. What did you say? We’ve been really looking forward to it. Could you just repeat what you said? I just want to fact check here.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: We’ve been really looking forward to talking to you. Is that what you’re fact checking?
Christiana Figueres: Actually I’m going to fact check that. The truth is Oliver, that Paul and I have been incredibly jealous of you and Tom behind our backs, getting together for evening wine parties.
Paul Dickinson: Tom is always talking about them and saying what fun he’s having.
Christiana Figueres: It’s very unfair that you’ve been doing this behind our backs. So fact check.
Oliver Jeffers: For that I apologize.
Christiana Figueres: [00:24:38] Well, Tom has not apologized.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:24:47] But, Christiana, you’re going to have to start drinking at lunchtime as you’re based in Costa Rica. So if you’re prepared to do that. Now, actually, though the story of those wine evenings, I’m going to tell that because I don’t know if Oliver knows this, but you Oliver are a small but significant part of my reason for optimism in the world in 2021. So let me just explain that.
Oliver Jeffers: I did not know this.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: So some months ago I did a TED talk and like everything else in 2020, it was pre-recorded. So I recorded it in the woods and then sat down with my wife Natasha to watch the evening. And it was amazing. There was a whole series of TED talks that came out and I was a bit nervous because we were looking at all these amazing people that were doing TED talks and mine was kind of coming up in like half an hour or 40 minutes or whatever it was. And then this talk comes on from Oliver Jeffers, and it is just beautiful. It’s been well shot, it’s been well lit, has these amazing graphics. And Natasha, my wife, put her hand on mine and gives me this look and she goes, it’s okay he’s a real professional. Nobody expects you to do anything like that.
Paul Dickinson: [00:25:44] You know it’s bad when you get that kind of support.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:25:49] But then my talk came on a bit later and right after it finished, my phone pinged and it was the Ted Messenger app. And it was a message from Oliver Jeffers. And he said, just watch your talk, loved it. Would love to get together and have a chat. So I replied, and my memory is that actually that evening we got together on Zoom with a glass of wine and we sort of sat up late when our kids were in bed and we talked philosophy.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:26:13] This is true. And I suppose our reasoning was if this was in Vancouver, as it was supposed to be, we would have met at the bar afterwards anyway.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: Exactly. But despite that fact, people don’t really do that. And then since then, we’ve continued to do it like every month or six weeks. We’ll sort of find an evening and we’ll sit down, we’ll drink wine and we’ll have a chat. And here’s my reason that that is a source of optimism in 2021. First, you have educated me on the transformative power of art to create change in the world. That’s something that I’ve thought about for a long time but I’ve never really understood the full potential of it, and that has been a real eye opening and remarkable experience for me for which I’m very grateful. Second, that’s the first time I’ve ever made a friend on Zoom. I’ve never met Oliver.
Christiana Figueres: [00:27:10] I’m not sure that that’s a good thing!
Oliver Jeffers: Well, it’s a necessary thing.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: It’s a necessary thing for our world in the future. You can talk to people in any other part of the world. You can make a connection. You can find shared interest in things you discuss to improve the world. And you can do it from wherever you are. And that has to improve the world.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:27:27] Well, I have a confession for you as well. You also were a source of optimism for me because we’ve been having a pretty weird year and that was like the last of the watching the TED talk and closing my laptop afterwards. It was sort of the last in a series of events that had wielded so much promise and had not been delivered because of COVID. And I did just sort of get a little bit of a funk of, there is another thing that didn’t happen. I felt this pressure to work. We had been travelling up to that point and we ended up being stuck in Northern Ireland where I’m from, and partly because my dad got a cancer diagnosis the same week as lockdown started, we wanted to be here for him. And we were in a very small apartment, not where we normally live with both our kids, couldn’t go outside, couldn’t work. And it was just really those couple of conversations with you were one of the things that sort of brought me back out of that funk. And that’s when a couple of weeks later, I was having just a real frustrating moment and I had taken my kids right at that first time that people were allowed to leave to go and get some exercise. I took the kids in the car just to give my wife some space. And it was just, sort of being like, right here’s another chore that needs to be done. And just thinking about the world in which they are living, the world in which they’re about to be handed. And looking back at both their innocent faces and sort of an ad came on the radio that says, for those of you with young kids don’t wish it away, it’ll be gone before you know it. And it really just hit me. And a combination of all those things. And then I was able to take that sort of turn of energy and Tom and I were able to point it in some interesting directions in conversation, so thank you for helping me with that, sir.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:29:11] Amazing. I love that. That’s great. And so actually, that segues really beautifully into something I wanted to ask you. And we sort of have touched on this on our wine evenings, but maybe not quite in this detail. I’ve read all of your books because I read them to my children. And, I know your work and your work as a fine artist as well. And I think if there’s one thing that characterizes all of it, it’s an amazing sense of perspective. And you just gave that example then with your kids as well. You know, step back, don’t wish it away, you know, enjoy the time and enjoy when you’re with them. And I get that from your books as well. Whether it’s here we are on Earth, let’s step back and realize what it is. And there’s some lovely lines in them. ‘The Fate of Fausto’ is one of my favorite books you wrote. And you say in there, at one point something happens to the main protagonist and you say, the sea was sad, but it went on being the sea. There’s this sort of beautiful sense of spaciousness in your writing and your perspective on things. And I just love to have you talk about that for a bit, because I think it’s really powerful and I think it’s a big part of why people react so strongly to your books as they do.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:30:25] Well, I think you’re absolutely right. And there is a lot of space in my books. Some smart people have asked me, is it because I couldn’t be bothered drawing all of the things in, the average five year old. Well, no, if I leave if I leave space, then there’s room for people to put themselves in the story.
Paul Dickinson: [00:30:42] Yeah, you could have yourself.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:30:44] Yes. And the location can be geographically anywhere, really. And that allows people the ability to make the story more about themselves. And one of everybody’s favorite characters in my books is The Penguin. And it’s always struck me as odd because he doesn’t really do anything or say anything. But then it made sense because it’s projection and everybody is playing the starring role in the film of their lives. The show is always about you, whoever you are and everything else, bends to how that affects you. We are inherently selfish people, I think. And whenever by accident or by design, these stories were sort of left vague enough that they could be left to be applied to anybody else. I thought that that was an interesting thing. And somebody pointed out that it’s interesting that so many of my books are about loneliness and empty space when I grew up in a house with three brothers.
And perhaps it was just wishful thinking that I had this amount of space to myself. But I think the perspective thing really comes into it. You can probably tell from the way that I talk, the first line of my TED talk is that I’m from Belfast. And whenever somebody else pointed out to me that duality was a major theme in my work and piecing that backwards over some time, I think I figured out that because I grew up in a very politically divided city and not really wanting to take part in the aggressive spiral downwards of the violent and revengeful politics here, it afforded me an ability to be able to see two perspectives at one time, and then particularly whenever I left Belfast, 15 years ago to live in New York, looking back at our political problems from the distance of an ocean and put it really put perspective itself into perspective. Especially when I was researching for the book ‘Here We Are’ and reading about what all these astronauts have said about the overview effect. I recognise the language was similar to the way in which I talked about Northern Ireland from several thousand miles away.
Paul Dickinson: [00:33:00] I’ve only been to Belfast once, many years ago I went to see the famous wall. And for those who are not familiar with it, what’s funny is it’s a wall that divides these two communities but you can walk around either side of it. So it’s a totally crazy wall. But you used it as a joke in one of your wonderful films. And I just thought about this collective human experience, your beautiful work expressing the world in terms of ‘People Live Here’ listed on every country. We want everyone to come to that kind of realization and feeling. What do you think’s the road to it? How do you find that in yourself?
Oliver Jeffers: [00:33:44] Well, I do think that a big part of it is what I just touched on earlier on, that we are all sort of inherently selfish. And I think that’s been a product that’s come from this great peace that has happened since World War Two, where life as humans have known it has really never been better for most people on the planet. It’s been a lavish lifestyle of excess and people haven’t really been given the opportunity or encouraged even to think about what the knock on effect or the consequences of that are. And I think the engine behind a capitalistic growth model is whenever people want a better life for themselves individually. But I think a major side effect from that that we’re noticing is that people feel disconnected from everybody else. And that the story is just about you, not actually about everybody else. And I think one of the most important things that we can do and Tom and I have discussed this is somehow changing the story about me, the individual to we, the collective, and reminding people that they are actually part of a community, whether that’s either a local community or a global community. And a big way in which I do this is you just through the very simple optics of pointing out the fragility of existence on this planet and just how alone we are in the universe, really. So I think it’s about that, it’s a mindset shift.
Paul Dickinson: [00:35:11] The little me to the big me. I’ve heard people in some Asian cultures have this notion of a big me. It’s very popular in many cultures. And you’re absolutely right. We kind of lost it with this quest for personal acquisition. And a kind of overindulgent society, which is boring maybe.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:35:28] I think so. And I was reading a funny tweet yesterday and somebody just said, so what’s the point? Do I just drink coffee and do yoga until I die? I’m bored. And I’m like, you’re right., because that’s just about you. And I’ve always thought that a joke is always funnier when you tell it to somebody else rather than just to yourself. Dinner is always better with friends or with a partner. It’s always more fun to watch a film with friends. And I don’t know about you, but most people that I know sort of experience more joy when they give somebody a gift that obviously makes a difference than receiving something that they have coveted. And it’s that sense of connectivity that you matter to other people and that other people matter to you.
Christiana Figueres: [00:36:20] So, Oliver, you have just given me the segue to come back to your statement that you assume that people are inherently selfish, but you’ve just contradicted yourself, my friend, because you have just given us very clear examples of how we’re actually inherently generous, because we’re much happier when we gift. We’re much happier when we’re with other people, we’re much happier when we share. So what if we turn that original statement of yours completely around and say, actually, which is my stand personally, people are inherently generous and yes, we have selfish –
Oliver Jeffers: [00:37:03] You know what I agree with you. And I misspoke. I think people are encouraged to be selfish.
Christiana Figueres: [00:37:10] Aha. OK, I think our training in the world moves us away from our innate generosity.
Paul Dickinson: [00:37:15] $550 billion a year spent globally on advertising, most of it telling you to be selfish.
Christiana Figueres: [00:37:30] The other thing that I’m very curious to hear your reaction, Oliver, is to go back to the overview effect. Because what I think is very fascinating about that effect is that, yes, we understand that it’s been entitled like that because it’s the effect that the Earth has on astronauts when they can have a view of the Earth that is very far away and hence they can see the entire Earth. But it’s the distance that actually gives them that overview effect. Well, what if we think about that differently? What if we think about the fact that the effect of the distance is actually to cut the distance. What if we understand that if we have an overview of who we are as humans and what humanity is all about, which in my book is eminently generous, what if that overview actually allows us to touch our humanity? The humanity that we all have inside of ourselves? And it is only through distancing ourselves from whatever there is going on at that moment, through taking a certain detachment and a certain distance that we can actually get back in to the true depth of who we are as humans. I would love to hear you talk about that interesting concept that what the distance is, it provides you to cut the distance and get back to the humanity in you.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:39:21] I agree with that completely. And I think it is, as you say, absolutely all about a perspective shift. And I was sort of building up to that when I was saying that, planet Earth is in a cold and lonely part of space. But if you flip the perspective, because there’s literally nothing else out there, it means that planet Earth is actually the least lonely place in space. And as Tom mentioned in his TED talk, when a story is changed to include people in a generous and powerful way that can become a huge force. Like when Tom mentioned the British war effort in World War Two, going from people denying it to, even the act of planting a potato took on significant meaning.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: Full of meaning.
Oliver Jeffers: And I think that’s absolutely right. And I think that’s what’s needed now is, as you say, because there’s a knock on effect as well from just the global capitalist growth movement in that because it’s happening so fast and people are just thinking about themselves, more and more people are feeling isolated and left behind. And Sebastian Younger said in his book ‘Tribe’ that modernization seems to breed isolation.
[00:40:35] And it can happen quite quickly, if this shift in perspective happens, that suddenly the story makes sense from another filter, that maybe people not only will we be able to turn around the green industry, but people will feel a sense of purpose and connectivity again. And here’s just how quick that mindset shift can happen. A couple of years ago, I made a piece of art and it was a map of the Earth and I painted it upside down from memory and then labeled it the right way up. And the point being that as all those astronauts who have been in space, it takes them a couple of minutes to recognize where anything is on Earth because Africa is sideways, for example, there is no up and there is no down. So it’s completely arbitrary that North is at the top of the map. So whenever you take this map and you turn it upside down and it’s labeled the right way, suddenly something that seems very, very familiar to you can become foreign in the blink of an eye. And that is how quickly we can change how we look at it when we let ourselves.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:41:43] I love that. And I love that what you just said there was, the story makes sense from another filter. We sometimes talk about a news story or needing to change the story of humanity on Earth. And I think your books and your work brings this amazing perspective. But what it is, it’s the same story of humanity and of our time on this planet. The only place we know, unique in the universe as far as we know, occupying life. It’s actually a new lens or a new filter on that existing story. And as you say, it can happen in an instant. I mean, you and I have talked about the role of art in this. I mean, you know, we three hosts of the podcast talk a lot. We talk about data and numbers and how you communicate with people. But I’ve experienced from your work and elsewhere, that something can sort of hit you like a lightning bolt and it changes your perspective because you’re shown it in a way that gets you head and heart and all the way through in art. And that feels like we need to sort of allow the transformative potential of art to really penetrate us at this moment.
Oliver Jeffers: I couldn’t agree with that more.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: And it can happen so quickly.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:42:48] It can and think about children learning to read. Human beings become visually literate before they become able to read writing. And I think the importance of art in schools is so undermined and it should be encouraged so much more because it is so important, it is how we feel. The idea that science and art are separate is nonsense to me. They overlap more than they don’t and I just do think that that’s something that as well could be shifted in the immediate future. Certainly in terms of school curriculums, is that more of an importance placed on art and just learning how to feel and learning to trust your own judgments and emotions.
Paul Dickinson: [00:43:38] It feels to me like science is the how but art is the what.
Oliver Jeffers: And the why.
Paul Dickinson: And the why. And that links to, it came out just the other week, we talked to Ben Rhodes, a brilliant U.S. Political analyst and he said that the USA needed a mission or a purpose, but it kind of applies to every country. And I’ve certainly heard my elderly relatives talk about the Second World War. And they talked about people being united in a sense of purpose and being very generous towards each other and supportive and collaborative. If you were away from the horrors of the thing, it was some of the best times of their lives, actually. And I think we actually do have a crisis now. We’re so close to being able to kind of reclaim that spirit. What’s the door, what’s the key?
Oliver Jeffers: [00:44:27] Well, I wonder if the key is getting everybody on the same page, because there’s unfortunately a lot of misinformation out there and too many people benefiting from chaos and from misinformation. So how that is done is frankly above my pay grade. But I think like Frank Sinatra always says, be so good they can’t ignore you. I think it’s up to people like us to just tell a better story.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:44:56] I love that. Oliver, we should maybe open one of our wine evenings to Outrage + Optimism listeners. We’ll let them know and then everybody can join us.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:45:04] Terrific idea.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: There you go. We are so grateful. Paul, Christiana.
Christiana Figueres: [00:45:24] Is that how you are overcoming our FOMO? Honestly, Paul and I thought that we would get some kind of privileged access before we open to all the listeners, but apparently not. Apparently, we’re just going democratically.
Paul Dickinson: Let’s be generous of spirit.
Oliver Jeffers: You two can join us five minutes before everybody else.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: Exactly. In the green room.
Christiana Figueres: Basically to get the table set?
Paul Dickinson: [00:45:41] Well, it’s actually your story about also making friends over Zoom. That will be a story that a lot of people do have in 2020. And it’s my job to remind us all that there’s a lot less emissions doing it that way than traveling to Vancouver. So although it would be lovely to be in the bar, we have to recognize that we do have these amazing technologies. I think that one of the things that the video world or 2020 has taught us is that we’re awfully good at transactional meetings by technology, but we’re very bad at non-transactional meetings by technology.
Christiana Figueres: [00:46:15] Very well put, Paul.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:46:19] I think that goes back to why I told the story in the beginning. Because Oliver and I have not had transactional meetings necessarily. We just drink wine, talk about philosophy and talk about our kids, which I think has opened to me the sense of how technology could be used, actually and that’s really powerful.
Christiana Figueres: [00:46:37] Have you actually not met physically?
Oliver Jeffers: No, we have not.
Christiana Figueres: I love that.
Oliver Jeffers: I’m not even convinced you’re real, Tom. I’m not even convinced you’re real.
Paul Dickinson: [00:46:48] But are there aliens in space in a flying saucer, perhaps looking down and saying actually talking about philosophy and talking about your kids is the best transaction?
Oliver Jeffers: [00:46:59] I think those aliens are probably zooming by other doors locked to planet Earth right now.
Paul Dickinson: [00:47:06] Don’t go! We’re running out of fuel. I wouldn’t stop here, let’s go on to the next one.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:47:11] Oliver, how wonderful to have you with us. We are so grateful to you for joining us and joining our listeners and sharing some of these amazing perspectives. And we have to ask you a question that we ask everybody at the end of these podcasts. This podcast is called Outrage + Optimism. And it’s called that because we believe that both of those impulses are necessary to take us to the next phase of human evolution where we live well on and with this Earth. And we would invite you to comment on how you are in that balance between outrage and optimism as you look at the world next year and assess our chances of dealing with these challenges we have ahead of us.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:47:53] I have described myself for some years now as a grim optimist.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:47:57] May we invite you to evolve that to stubborn?
Oliver Jeffers: [00:48:03] Yes, I like that.
Christiana Figueres: Wait, do you know what that involves? You might not be so quick at the draw.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:48:09] I think I have an idea. I’m imagining that I want to be optimistic but I’m aware of the wits that are holding that back.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:48:20] There you go.
Christiana Figueres: Grim optimist.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: Grim optimism, it’s good. Let me let you finish.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:48:26] What outrages me more than most right now is the combination of the ignorance and apathy that seems to have blanketed humanity right now. My Dad always used to say never argue against an uninformed opinion. And it appears that there are just way too many of those currently. But the optimism, I think, goes back to what Christiana was saying at the start. That humanity is inherently kind and generous. And we all, I think, deep down want the same things, which is to be loved a little bit and to be part of a loving world. I do think I am convinced that on the general whole, everybody is a good person and there are a few noisy people that I think unfairly tip the balance to make it seem more disproportionately angry than it is. So I’m filled with hope that we can get together and come at this from a united front.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:49:29] Awesome. I love that. What a great message. Wonderful. Thank you so much. Look forward to seeing you soon.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:49:36] Yes, absolutely. I look forward to meeting you, Christiana and Paul, later on.
Christiana Figueres: [00:49:40] Ah ha.
Paul Dickinson: Aha ha ha.
Oliver Jeffers: [00:49:44] But I will see you over wine soon. You know, maybe the three of us do one and we don’t tell Tom.
Paul Dickinson: That’s working for me.
Oliver Jeffers: Yeah, OK.
Paul Dickinson: Lovely to see you, Oliver.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:50:02] Great. So how wonderful to have this chance to have this conversation with Oliver Jeffers, Christiana, why don’t you give us a detailed analysis of what you thought?
Christiana Figueres: [00:50:13] Yes, well, from the bottom of the ocean, as I was swimming with 12 Galapagos sharks, I actually did have an opinion about your conversation with him. and that would be whatever your opinion is.
Paul Dickinson: [00:50:30] What did you think, Tom?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:50:32] So, as you heard in this, I’ve had great fun getting to know Oliver. He has a very different worldview to me. And as far as life goes on, we tend to get established in our little bubbles where we only tend to relate more and more with people who do similar work and who move in similar circles, et cetera. And every now and then, you get to know somebody who approaches the same issue from a different perspective. And I’ve really learned just a huge amount from hanging out with Oliver, from understanding how he sees the world in terms of this artistic perspective, how he understands how change happens, and what it’s really helped me to understand both that interview and other conversations is that change can just happen in an instant. It’s about this direct connection with beauty, with art, with creativity. And I think it’s really helped me to see how in the climate movement we’ve really relied a lot on intellectual arguments and heady stuff, whereas actually it’s about a human experience. And I think that’s what good art tries to precipitate. I think that’s what he does and I think he’s brilliant at it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:51:38] I saw his installation on the high line of the moon and the Earth. I saw it. And you see that planet with ‘people live here’ on every single country. And it’s the most powerful message in the world. And it’s very, very beautiful. But I’m also touched. I really enjoyed talking to him. He’s just the most lovely human. But I discovered reading afterwards that his mother suffered from a similar condition to my own. He lost his mother, young, me much later. But he described the impact of that loss as a super power of sorts, enabling him to see the heart of what’s worth living for, what’s worth fighting for.
[00:52:22] And I actually think, I’m constantly inspired by the sort of genius and joy of life and the amazing people and things in the world. And it’s that joy and passion that is the superpower that can actually, I think, help you not just change things yourself, but communicate to other people. It is a super power, just as Christiana was saying at the start, you lit up the screen when you’re talking about nature, Christiana. And our celebration of our fantastic world is what I think gives us the superpower to save it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:52:57] I agree with all of that. And this is definitely an and not a but statement. And how important it is to do all of that in a way that is digestible for children. Without overwhelming complications and data dumps and all of that, all of which is necessary. But the power of the words and the imagery for children so that they basically get it straight into their DNA. It doesn’t even go through their head. It just goes straight into their DNA. And what a difference that makes.
[00:53:43] What a difference it makes when children are the ones that are calling their parents and their grandparents to account because they just have it in their DNA for them. It’s like, yeah, of course, that’s the way we should be acting. And so people like Oliver who really foster that and are able to encourage that attitude in children or that commitment more than attitude, we should be so grateful, because that’s what it’s going to take.
[00:54:18] It’s accountability. It’s accountability to ourselves. Is accountability up, but more than anything, it’s accountability down to future generations. And we just always tend to forget that.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:54:31] Totally. And in fact, in one of the conversations I had with him, he described meeting an extremely well known musician and explaining what he did, that he wrote these children’s books. And the response that I thought was very touching was he said, ‘what a responsibility.’ Because you’re right. I mean, how this stuff gets communicated to kids. I mean, I know from my own experience, I’ve always talked to my kids about climate change from when they were very small and did that very deliberately because I didn’t want to have to save up a moment of a big reveal later on. There’s this thing we’ve been keeping from you because I thought that could end up being more concerning for them. But at the same time, you want to explain these things and reveal them slowly in a manner that also shows that this is still a beautiful world and that there is the opportunity to live a great life and that not all is lost, that you have the opportunity to really do something meaningful and significant on this world. Perhaps more than ever now.
Paul Dickinson: [00:55:24] To the point where your Zoe has gone on strike to such an extent that she’s home schooled.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:55:31] Well, they’re all home schooled at the moment.
Paul Dickinson: [00:55:35] Indeed. This is also a great moment for the young and old to come together around. What was it? A friend of mine said to me, the kids are going to kill me or I’m going to kill them.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:55:46] We’re waiting for you to come down and see us and save us in Devon Paul now that you can’t go to Costa Rica. Any time.
Paul Dickinson: [00:55:51] Down with the sharks and the manta ray could be a safer place.
Christiana Figueres: [00:55:57] You know, here’s a little anecdote about the power of stories. So I told you we had the best, photographers on board with all of their material that they brought home. One of them as soon as he got home. He has two small daughters. And my expectation was he was going to pull out his camera and show his daughters all of his photographs. He didn’t. He pulled out a children’s story about hammerhead sharks, and then he sent us all the photographs of him, you know, having just read that story to his two beautiful little girls.
[00:56:36] And I thought, isn’t that interesting? Because he’s not overloading them with, you know, all the data that we produce on the boat and the scientifically correct visuals that we have. He pulled out a children’s storybook. This is the best photographer in Costa Rica or one of the two. How interesting that he’s sensitive to that and that he understands that the way to children is through storytelling.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:57:06] Wonderful. Well, this has been a fun episode. People who listen, and this is a test. I understand it might just be Mike and Robin Carnill, but it should be everybody, who listen to the credits will know from Clay’s explanation last week about Oliver and I, get together and drink wine and talk philosophy. If you’re interested in joining one of those evenings, shoot me a message on Twitter and I’ll chat to Oliver about it. And if we get critical mass, maybe we’ll open it up and we’ll do something publicly and talk with all of you.
Clay Carnill: [00:57:38] So everybody’s in the club now. You’re saying?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:57:41] Everyone’s in the club.
Clay Carnill: [00:57:42] Everyone’s in the club. Even my parents.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:57:44] Especially your parents.
[00:57:51] So now we’re going to hear, as we always do, some amazing music to see us out. And as before, last week, we will hear from the band first about this piece of music and what it means to them and how this is a song with a purpose. This week we have Presidio with the amazing song ‘Clockout’, so we’ll pass to them and we will see you next week. Thanks for joining us.
Presidio: [00:58:15] The song was birthed out of the collective chaotic experience that was 2020. The song is definitely about being inundated with disastrous event after disastrous event, after societal and systemic issues and just feeling so overwhelmed that you check out and you go numb and trying to fight that feeling of numbness and finding your humanity again within it. I think what makes me outraged and what makes my blood boil is understanding that this is completely an optional situation and that there are people who are up at the top calling the shots who could make serious societal changes and change the course of history and keep us from falling off a cliff and they don’t.
[00:59:14] What makes me feel optimistic is when I see people take these conversations that we’re having right now and translate them into actions. Just in the name of the podcast itself, Outrage + Optimism, I think that pretty much encapsulates where we’re all bouncing between. We’re stuck in this numb state trying to find that optimistic tunnel through it. So when you see a group like Extinction Rebellion shutting down a city so we can have this conversation and take action, or you see a group like Sunrise Movement, you know, protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office to try and get the green deal on the floor. These are such important things that bring a societal lens on this issue and make it so we have to talk about it. We have to do something. And so action like that is what will change the course of this existential problem that we’re facing.
Clay Carnill: [01:02:39] So there you go. Another episode of Outrage + Optimism. I love having music on the podcast. You just heard ‘Clockout’ by Presidio and it’s an incredible tune. There is more Presidio waiting online for you right now. You can check the show notes, as always, to check out a link for their latest record Telepathy. I’ve started a little tradition where every week my one year old son and I will listen to the music for the week on the podcast together. And it has become part of our heavy rotation. This EP is so lush, you know, with the harmonies you just heard and that verbed guitar just kind of carries you away to another place, which is meaningful right now because we’re kind of stuck in our living room. And so it’s just been a refreshing escape for us to listen, to unwind our favorite track and just chill. And you’re probably saying, how does a one year old chill? He listens to Presidio. So go check it out. Link is in the show notes. Thank you, Presidio. I really do love having music on the podcast. OK, credits. Outrage + Optimism is a Global Optimism production. Our executive producer is Maria Mansilla Hermann and our producer is Clay Carnill. That’s me. Global Optimism is Sara Law, Katie Bradford, Lara Richardson, Sophie McDonald, Freya Newman, Sarah Thomas, Sue Reid, Sharon Johnson and Jon Ward. Thank you to our guests this week. Oliver Jeffers, go buy his books, go watch his TED talks. All of the links are in the show notes. In his shop and on his website he’s got books, art, free videos of him reading his books. And I’ve got my eye on these temporary tattoos that he’s designed. Yeah, temporary tattoos. I’m serious. Click the link.
[01:04:36] You’ll see. And one other thing you have to see is he did this painting series where he paints a full portrait of someone, frames it, you know, like you would see in a museum, then gathers like 25 people. And then in front of them, he dips the entire painting that he just spent hours and hours painting, frame and all into a vat of enamel paint. It intrigued me so much. And there’s a video where you can watch him do this and he explains a bit about why he did that and why he does it this way. The show notes just go. It’s all there. Check it out. OK, back to business. So you heard earlier on the podcast we read off some of our listener reviews live from the show. Would you mind submitting yours for us to read? Leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and your review just might make it on the air in the weeks to come. So we look forward to reading those. Thanks. OK, so you made it this far in the podcast and you know, you might be my parents. Hi mom and dad. Or you might not be. Either way, you get a treat. So next week we are going to have on legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson. He wrote a book called ‘The Ministry for the Future’, which takes place in the very distant year of 2025. But wait, why is a science fiction writer writing about a time only four years away? And how does it involve climate? And why did Obama name it one of his favorite books in 2020? Hit subscribe and join us next week. We’ll see you then.