“No time for sorry, we’re building tomorrow,” writes author, climate policy strategist, and former Buddist monk Tom Rivett-Carnac in his new and free digital book, What happened when we all stopped. The book emerged during the lockdown as a collaboration between Tom and his sister Bee Rivett-Carnac, who illustrated his poem.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the entire world was forced to stay home, it became an opportunity for Mother Nature to heal, for the smog to melt, the birds to sing, and the rivers to run clear. As the world began to phase out lockdown measures, Tom’s message to his readers, young and old, was this: Let’s choose well.

The cover of What Happened When We All Stopped by Tom Rivett-Carnac and Bee Rivett-Carnac

Talking about the inspiration, he says:

The creative process is just a mystery to me. But I was thinking a lot and feeling inspired by the idea of a trillion trees — this idea that we can replant a trillion trees and reforest the earth. There were no planes in the sky; people were noticing the birds and remembering a better way of living. It was a strangely optimistic time, and the book was written out of a hope that we need to do things differently.

One evening, he sat and wrote the poem in a stream of consciousness. A few edits later, he invited Bee to illustrate it. “We were at Mum’s house in Devon, having breakfast, when Tom asked me if I’d fancy illustrating his poem. I was initially unsure what to do with it, but when I started working on the storyboard, the process felt intuitive, and the style emerged organically. It took me two months to complete it,” she informs.

Bee chose the medium of watercolor paintings to create a sense of lightness and depict the connection to nature. She did so by combining the earthy colors like greens, browns and light blues with elements of mythology and magic. Being someone who divides her time between spending time with her children, gardening and illustrating, and her shamanic practice, her personal style naturally lent itself to the inspiration and imagery for the book.

“It then spoke like thunder until we all moved / And we could, and we did, and it’s done.” Illustration by Bee Rivett-Carnac.

To make the poem more accessible to children, she introduced two primary characters — a little girl and an owl — who carry the story forward. “If you connect with nature, you’ll find that you love it, and that connection will become a joy in itself. I tried showing that with the book.”

As the book shaped up, it opened the door to further collaborations. It was developed into a beautiful, animated poem by TED-Ed, an auxiliary of the renowned conference organization geared toward teachers and students. Jane Goodall, celebrated anthropologist and United Nations Messenger of Peace, offered narration. As Goodall writes on the official website, “I hope this storybook inspires people of all ages to play their part in healing the harm we have inflicted so that together we can create a new future.” 

YouTube video

The two collaborations happened fairly organically, owing to Tom’s role as the UN’s chief political strategist and his work as one of the architects of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change.

“With the TED collaboration, we had to rework the animation style. They’ve used the fat lines and watercolor style before and went with that, keeping it similar to Bee’s original illustrations,” he says. “With Jane, she loved the book when I sent it across and was happy to read it. That worked out well, and the video has been a great gateway to the book in terms of reach.” He adds that the video has been watched 715,000 times and the book downloaded 70,000 times.

“But the feeling it brought them / At first glance was pain / As they lifted their eyes / On the land they had claimed / Since they saw at last as if raised from a dream.” Illustration by Bee Rivett-Carnac.

Tom reiterates that the book is a reminder of the urgent need for change. “The next 10 years are the most consequential in the history of humanity. We have to do something, or we’ll lose control over the climatic systems and never get it back,” he says. “We need to reclaim a sense of agency in climate change, which has been deliberately undermined by fossil fuel companies.”

“We all have a choice as to who we want to be during this time. Do we want to look back 30 years from now and say we gave up because it was difficult or say that we did everything possible to make a difference even if we don’t succeed? And why won’t we succeed? Real, genuine success is possible!” he wraps up, firm optimism in his voice.

“As the wildness grows and the deep wood grows / And the sense that the future’s come to meet you grows.” Illustration by Bee Rivett-Carnac.

Rohini Kejriwal is a writer, poet and a curator based out of Bangalore. She is always up for a good story, travel, strong coffee and the company of plants. She runs The Alipore Post, a curated newsletter...