Today I had a chat with Sir Tim Smit, serial entrepreneur and co-founder of the Eden Project, ahead of his forthcoming presentation for the Planet Talks at WOMADelaide 2017.
In the prologue to his book, Eden, two sentences stand out, and they sum up the spirit of our chat: “Neither do I make any apology for being optimistic about the future. I am.”
If ever there was a project that demanded relentless optimism, the Eden Project was it. “Tell him he’s dreamin'” must have seemed the realistic response to the notion of converting an exhausted clay pit into a beacon of hope that would attract millions of visitors to an ailing region of Cornwall. But the endless planning meetings and financing consultations, “persuading the boys in suits to take courage in the face of doubt”, paid off. The Eden Project – with its magnificent domed biome structures, clad with air-filled cushions – opened to the public in 2001. The Eden Project regenerated an abandoned mine into an iconic educational and community resource in six short years.
It wasn’t an easy ride. The site is 15 metres below the watertable and it rained every day during the first months of construction. Then there have been the legal battles over rights to intellectual property that have dragged on for more than a decade, culminating in the release of the book The Other Side of Eden in 2014. Inevitably there have been financial worries too, given the historic debt on a project costing in excess of £140million. In 2013 income from visitors to the site was about 85% of what was needed for sustainability. But more recent reports have recorded a turnaround and the Board has set a target of being substantially debt-free in the 2020 financial year.
Through all this Sir Tim – “call me Tim please” – remains undaunted. Within the first minute of my chat his sights were trained well above the Cornish horizon to a global overview. “How is it that in a time of unprecedented progress in science, we are surrounded by such gloom?” He argues that the last decade and a half of scientific breakthroughs are making the industrial revolution look like a small blip in history. He wonders if the domination of pessimism in the fourth and fifth estates is simply a reflection of the human fascination with our inevitable individual demise.
His challenge to the media is to bring people together, to highlight our shared goals and to provide the motivation for people to want to work together for a positive future for local communities.
Eden aspires to infuse the belief that if everyone were to transform where they live into a place of beauty and hope, the world would be full of promise and the path to a sustainable future would be a little clearer. – Edward Benthall, Chair of Trustees, the Eden Project
“Did you ever find that you were successful in changing someone’s opinion by yelling at them?” asks Tim. Perhaps in the past that’s been the dominant mode of the environmental movement and progressive media. If instead we focus on shared values, he argues, we’re more likely to have success in moving people along with us. If we surveyed Australians we’d find very few who would be happy if the Great Barrier Reef were to be destroyed. So in that shared cherishing of a healthy reef we find the kernel of regeneration for both optimism and activism.
So what does Tim Smit make of the more confrontational mode of one of my favourite approaches to environmental activism, the movement to make ecocide a crime, led by the indefatigable Polly Higgins? “I’m ambivalent”, he says. “It’s remarkable what progress has been made over the past few years, taking it from what seemed like a dreamer’s notion to something that might be achievable.”
But again he has a broader vision. When the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989, he says we had a responsibility to offer something better. But we’ve been lazy, acting as if the corporate structures we’re working with were handed down on tablets of stone by Moses. What is needed is a fundamental change, such that each citizen is given one share in each corporation. Companies would then have to report not just on their financial results, but on how their annual activities have benefited the citizenry.
The Eden Sessions – the project’s one-day music festivals – have been an essential component of the success of the Eden Project. “It’s so important for us to come together in a beautiful environment to celebrate our common humanity and culture.” So it’s entirely fitting that Tim Smit’s main speaking engagement in Australia will be at WOMADelaide.
Knowing that in earlier years Tim Smit had worked as an archaeologist and then as a successful composer and music producer, I asked whether he had ever thought about throwing it all in and joining George Monbiot on the road playing music. “I have the highest regard for George Monbiot’s intellect, and his ability to think deeply about issues that the rest of us might skate over. But the important role for the likes of you and me is to take what he’s examined for us, and translate it into motivation for practical action.”
There was so much more I wanted to discuss with Tim Smit – the Eden Project learning centre that offers university degrees, but also has a strong focus on trade apprenticeships; the proposed deep geothermal power plant; the plans for Eden Projects in Quingdao, Hobart and Christchurch; but that will all have to wait for another time.
Sir Tim Smit is visiting Australia in March 2017 and will be appearing at WOMADelaide – The Planet Talks – 2pm Saturday 11th March – in conversation with Richard Fidler.