To most of Australia, Hobart is place to holiday, or to avoid. But to the pioneering mind of Sir Tim Smit, its so much more.
For some reason, Tasmania seems to attract its fair share of visionaries. Maybe because it is small, relatively empty and at the end of the world, the Apple Isle inspires people to think big. In 1942 there was Critchley Parker Junior, for instance, a Melbourne businessman who was so in love with a Jewish journalist called Caroline Isaksson that he was moved to find a solution to the problem of Jews who were being killed in great numbers in Europe. He made some plans and then went to talk to the Tasmanian Premier, who gave him the “go ahead” for a Jewish homeland after the war. This “New Palestine” was going to take up most of the remote southwest of Tasmania and become the “Paris of Australasia”. Unfortunately, Parker died while scoping the boundaries of his new Promised Land. During a trip he disappeared and was found in his swag under a bush six months later, having succumbed to hunger, exposure and pleurisy.
I don’t think that is going to happen to the second visionary I would like you to meet. Like Benjamin Barber last week (and Critchley Parker), he is a man whose ideas know no boundaries. Literally. Although he is Dutch and British, his plans stretch to include China, the USA and Australia. Tasmania, to be precise. There, Sir Tim Smit wants to tun Hobart into the “Asian equivalent of NASA”. In a proposal now in front of the powers-that-be, he envisions a “scientific institution that rocks”, a place that will attract the best minds involved in the study of the southern oceans and the Antarctic. It has to become, he told the Hobart Mercury, a “James Bond villains’ lair for scientists who have decided upon the life forms they would most protect in order to protect the DNA of earthlings.”
“Eden, Hobart” will be based on Smit’s other, older, brainwave: the Eden Project in Cornwall, the UK. Once a disused play pit, it is now the premier tourist attraction in the British county, bringing in a million visitors a year and adding almost £2 billion to the local economy since its inauguration in 2001. It is also one of the most important plant research centres on the planet and the biggest greenhouse in the world. Clearly, when Tim Smit has a plan, things happen. This is, he claims, because he “believes in Tinkerbell. If you can get a group of people to get excited about something, it will almost certainly happen”. He also trusts his intuition. “Lots of people say they follow their instincts, but they never do.”
But look what happens if you take the plunge. In the 1980s, Tim Smit worked in the music industry as a producer and songwriter. All was going well. He was good at what he did, so soon there were seven platinum and gold discs on the wall. Then one day, in a limousine on the way to an event that would honour him, he had a Road to Damascus moment. Now he quotes famous journalist Dorothy Parker when he wants to explain what happened: when your goal has been to become famous, you will find that “when you get there, there is no there there.” He felt empty and lonely and decided, on the spot, to get out. Although he had trained as an archeologist and anthropologist, he had never really used those skills to make a living, and he didn’t want to go there now either. He bought a house in Cornwall, then a pig, then another one, after which he decided it might be time to become a rare breed breeder.
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Looking for land to set up his new venture, he ran into a member of the Tremayne family, an old aristocratic dynasty who used to own most of Cornwall. They had been instrumental in creating enormous gardens close to their ancestral home, but all of that had stopped during WWI. Out of the 22 gardeners working there, 16 had died in the trenches of Belgium and France, and, hard-broken, the lord of the manor had left for Italy, never to come back. For a while the house was a shell-shock hospital during WWI, then it was tenanted, used by the US Army in the Second World War, then converted into flats and sold. The gardens had been left to fall apart, and when Tim Smit saw them for the first time, they were completely overgrown. Greenhouses were rotted out and held up by vines, bramble and laurel had taken over. There was a walled garden with a door slightly ajar and when Smit went through it, his life changed. Walking through the ruins he found tools everywhere, left there as though the gardeners were on a lunch break and about to come back. He decided to follow the adage of Arthur Conan Doyle and “create a place where the world’s bounty is gathered together” in case the world is lost.
Nice plan, but all of us have nice plans all the time, and very rarely do they come to fruition. What made Smit different was one simple adage: “if you love something, there will be millions who love it too. Then the only problem is marketing.” So Smit started marketing his idea, the only way the songwriter knew how: by telling the story. He got somebody at Channel 4 interested in filming the enormous quest and started writing a book as well. Both became a success and attracted money and people to the project. After what The Times called “the garden restoration of the century”, The Lost Gardens of Heligan opened in 1992, two years after Smit had opened the door and had made his plan. Now it houses the National Collection of camellias and rhododendrons and the oldest and most complete heritage vegetable collection in the world. Five million people have visited the gardens since.
That, of course, was not enough for Tim Smit. As much as he likes to “show that ordinary people can do the nearly impossible”, Smit’s overall aim is much bigger. He wants so save the world. Or at least enough DNA so that when we blow ourselves up, somebody, sometime, can start again. So he came up with what would become the Eden Project. Even if you have never been there, you will recognise the transparent biomes, “the 8th wonder of the world”. Designed by Nicholas Grimshaw, it took Smit nearly five years to finance and build. Not only does it hold an enormous collection of plants and plant material, it also educates a million visitors a year. And not in the normal way, of course. Smit says he hates “the sanctimonious, self-serving, I’m-right-and-know-what-nature-needs attitude of most environmentalists.” It makes him “want to drive a Porsche.”
What is needed, Smit thinks, is a new way of thinking about sustainability… a new industrial revolution where we take control, grab the bull by the horns and show ourselves that homo sapiens was the right description for the species.
So education at Eden is not provided “by yelling how bad people are. I have never changed my opinion about something when I have been shouted at, so why would others?” Instead, Smit has put his faith in story. It is narrative that is going to save us, he thinks. Just look at what has happened with eggs. Fifteen years ago, all eggs were the same. Then we got free range eggs, organic eggs and now you can scan the carton to see chickens frolic outside in the clover. That is change caused by narrative. Not about eggs, but about us. We have told ourselves who we wanted to become, what we strove towards. And by telling that story, we made it happen.
So that is how the Eden Project talks to its visitors. It takes them on a journey, connecting nature to arts, to literature, to enormous concerts during the Eden Sessions, that will feature Van Morrison next month, and has its own YouTube channel, so you can see it from everywhere in the world. Every year, Eden also organises The Big Lunch. In 2016, two million Brits blocked their street, put large tables outside, decorated the place with bunting, organised games for the children and sat down to eat. For fun, of course, but also because Tim Smit believes that “the only way to combat global warming is with human warming. We need people to come together, form communities and organise collaborative action. There is no ‘they’, only ‘us’ and we need to do something.”
What is needed, Smit thinks, is a new way of thinking about sustainability. That is “not about sandals and nut cutlets, but about good business practices and the citizenship values of the future.” Risk taking is they key, according to this restless eco-warrior. “We’ve got 25 years to cut 80% of our carbon use, so time is ticking,” he says. What will help are new businesses, that focus on sharing, on community, on things that will makes us completely energy-independent. Smit feels we need a new industrial revolution where we take control, grab the bull by the horns and show ourselves that homo sapiens was the right description for the species.
So that is why Hobart is in Smit’s sight. He is convinced that Tasmania can become an important piece in the puzzle to save the planet. But if the Australian authorities don’t want to play ball, he has got other fish to fry elsewhere. China has just commissioned three Eden Projects, all of them much, much bigger than the one in Cornwall. And Smit has managed to persuade a rich businessman to buy 500 acres of American bushland, complete with the two biggest trees in the world, 3,500 years old. It will become another Eden, like the others culturally specific and geared towards the local needs and possibilities. Last year he climbed one of those trees and “realised how stunningly trivial we all are.” It made him even more motivated to get his hands dirty. From dreams to reality: that is what visionaries do.