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Oliver Jeffers: An Ode To Living On Earth

May 22, 2020
Originally published on June 4, 2020 9:26 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Climate Mindset

If you had to explain to a newborn what it means to live on Earth, at this time of crisis — what would you say? Writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers gives his answer in a letter to his son.

About Oliver Jeffers

Oliver Jeffers is a writer, illustrator, and artist. His nineteenth book, The Fate of Fausto, was released in 2019, while his eighteenth book, Here We Are, is being adapted into an animated film to be released in 2020. His second picture book, Lost and Found, was adapted into an animated film with Studio AKA and received more than 70 awards, including a BAFTA. Jeffers also illustrated The Day The Crayons Quit, which received the E.B. White Read-Aloud Award and was voted a 2014 Book of the Year by Children's Choice Book Awards.

As a fine artist, Jeffers has exhibited several solo shows over the last decade in both London and New York City. He has collaborated with U2 on music videos and as an art director on their "Innocence and Experience" tour.

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On the show today - making the psychological shift we need to fight climate change because it's going to take a kind of collective fortitude. And maybe we need more reminders that we all have at least one thing in common - the celestial orb we live on.


OLIVER JEFFERS: Hello. I'm sure by the time I get to the end of this sentence, you'll all have figured out that I'm from a place called planet Earth.

ZOMORODI: This is author and illustrator Oliver Jeffers. A few weeks ago on Earth Day, Oliver shared his poem "An Ode To Living On Earth." And we wanted to end our episode by sharing it with you.


JEFFERS: Earth is pretty great. It's home to us and germs. Those [expletive] take a back seat for the time being because, believe it or not, they're not the only thing going on. This planet is also home to cars...


JEFFERS: ...Brussel sprouts, those weird fish things that have their own headlights, art, fire, fire extinguishers, laws, pigeons, bottles of beer, lemons and lightbulbs, pinot noir and paracetamol, ghosts, mosquitoes, flamingos, flowers, the ukulele, elevators and cats, cat videos, the Internet, iron beams, buildings and batteries, all ingenuity and bright ideas, all known life and a whole bunch of other stuff - pretty much everything we know and ever heard of. It's my favorite place, actually, this small orb floating in a cold and lonely part of the cosmos.

You may think you know this planet Earth, but chances are you probably haven't thought about the basics in a while. I thought I knew it until, that is, I had to explain the entire place and how it's supposed to work to someone who'd never been here before. It was actually my newborn son I was trying to explain things to. We'd never been parents before, my wife and I, and so treated him like most guests when he arrived home for the first time by giving him the tour. This is where you live, son. This room is where we make food at. This is the room we keep our collection of chairs and so on. It's refreshing explaining how our planet works to a 0-year-old. But after the laughs and once the magnitude that you humans know absolutely nothing settles on you and how little you know either, explaining the whole planet becomes quite intimidating. But I tried anyway.


JEFFERS: As I walked around those first few weeks narrating the world as I saw it, I began to take notes of the ridiculous things I was saying. Some things are really obvious, like the planet is made of two parts, land and sea; some less obvious until you think about them, like time. Things can sometimes move slowly here on Earth, but more often, they move quickly. So use your time well. It'll be gone before you know it. Or people - people come in all different shapes, sizes and colors. We may all look different, act different and sound different, but don't be fooled. We are all people. I didn't want to tell my son the same story of countries that we were told where I was growing up in Northern Ireland, that we were from just a small parish which ignores life outside its immediate concerns. I wanted to try to feel what it was like to see our planet as one system, as a single object hanging in space. To do this, I would need to switch from flat drawings for books to 3D sculpture for the street and I'd need almost 200 feet, a New York City block, to build a large-scale model of the moon, the Earth and us. This project managed take place on New York City's High Line Park last winter on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11's mission around the moon. After its installation, I was able to put on a space helmet with my son and launch like Apollo 11 did and a half century ago, towards the moon.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one, zero, all engine running. Liftoff, we have a liftoff. Thirty-two minutes past the hour, liftoff on Apollo 11.

JEFFERS: We circled around and looked back at us.


NEIL ARMSTRONG: Beautiful. Beautiful. Isn't that something? Magnificent sight out here.

JEFFERS: What I felt was how lonely it was there in the dark.


BUZZ ALDRIN: Magnificent desolation.

JEFFERS: And I was just pretending. The moon is the only object even remotely close to us. And at the scale of this project where our planet was 10 feet in diameter, Mars, the next planet, will be the size of a yoga ball and a couple of miles away. Consider briefly the story of human civilization on Earth. It tells of the ingenuity, elegance, generous and nurturing nature of a species that is also self-focused, vulnerable and defiantly protective. We the people shield the flame of our existence from the raw, vast elements outside our control, the great beyond. Yet it is always to the flame we look. For all we know, when said as a statement means the sum total of knowledge. But when said another way, for all we know, it means that we do not know at all. This is the beautiful, fragile drama of civilization. We are the actors and spectators of a cosmic play that means the world to us here but means nothing anywhere else. There is actually only one point in the entire cosmos that is present in all constellations of stars, and that presence is here, planet Earth. Those pictures we have made up for the clusters of stars only make sense from this point of view down here. Their stories only make sense here on Earth and only something to us. We are creatures of stories. We are the stories we tell. We're the stories we're told.

On this planet, there are people. Looking up and by drawing lines between the lights in the sky we've attempted to make sense out of chaos. Looking down we've drawn lines across the land to know where we belong and where we don't. We do mostly forget that these lines that connect the stars and those lines that divide the land live only in our heads. They, too, are stories. We carry out our everyday routines and rituals according to the stories we most believe in, and these days, the story is changing as we write it. There is a lot of fear in this current story, and until recently, the stories that seem to have the most power are those of bitterness, of how it had all gone wrong for us individually and collectively. It has been inspiring to watch how the best comes from the worst. How people are waking up in this time of global reckoning to the realization that our connections with each other are some of the most important things we have. But stepping back, for all we've had to lament, we spend very little time relishing the single biggest thing that has ever gone right for us, that we are here in the first place, that we are alive at all, that we are still alive. A million and a half years after finding a...


JEFFERS: ...Box of matches, we haven't totally burned the house down yet.


JEFFERS: The chances of being here are infinitesimal. Yet here we are, perils and all. There have never been more people...


JEFFERS: ...Living on Earth, using more stuff. And it's become obvious that many of the old systems we invented for ourselves are obsolete, and we have to build new ones. If it wasn't germs, our collective fire may suffocate us before long. As we watch the wheels of industry grind to a halt, the machinery of progress becomes silent. We have the wildest of opportunities to hit the reset button, to take a different path. Here we are on Earth. And life on Earth is a wonderful thing. It looks big, this Earth, but there are lots of us on here, 7 1/2 billion at last count with more showing up every day. Even so, there is still enough for everyone if we all share a little. So please be kind. When you think of it another way, if Earth is the only place where people live, it's actually the least lonely place in the universe. There are plenty of people to be loved by and plenty of people to love. We need each other. We know that now more than ever. Good night.

ZOMORODI: That's Oliver Jeffers. He's created over a dozen children's books, including the illustrations for one of my kid's favorite books, "The Day the Crayons Quit." His latest is "The Fate Of Fausto," and you can see the beautiful video that goes with his talk at ted.com. Thanks so much for listening to our show about the mindset we need to fight climate change. To learn more about the people who were on the episode go to ted.npr.org, and to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Khala and Matthew Cloutier, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.