Forget those hoary myths about China building a coal-fired power station every week, says Sir Tim Smit, the man behind the Eden Project in Cornwall. In fact, he predicts, the country will soon lead the global environmental movement. “China is the most extraordinary example of development in the history of humankind. Their achievements are shockingly underplayed in the West. In my view, the repair of the environment is seen as one of the cornerstones of China’s self-confidence and its emergence into its next phase – being the dominant civilisation in the world.”
For the past two decades, Smit has been best known for the Eden Project. Born in the Netherlands, he studied at Durham University intending to become an archaeologist, but instead made his fortune as a composer/producer for the likes of Barry Manilow and The Nolan Sisters. After ‘retiring’ to Cornwall he set his sights on creating a “great green cathedral” to plants in an old china clay pit near St Austell.
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Smit was convinced that “a lost world in a crater would appeal to anyone who’s ever been 12”. More remarkably, he convinced everyone else it would too and managed to raise the £86 million it would cost to get the Eden Project built. He appears to have been right: since it opened in 2001 the Eden Project has welcomed more than 19 million visitors.
Smit is currently talking more about China than Cornwall, though. He has long pondered creating ‘Edens’ around the world, but in 2018, he took the plunge and began to develop projects in China, Costa Rica, California, Dubai, New Zealand, Tasmania and the Seychelles.
Seeking solutions overseas
Sceptics may wonder how Edens in places such as Dubai and China can rescue the planet. But Smit is willing to explain.
Museums, exhibitions, zoos – all the great scientific institutions – are failing to save the world, he argues, and, by his own admission that includes the solitary Eden Project in Cornwall. If these organisations were “even half as good as we all claim to be, the world would be a different place because the educational messages that we think we’re so successful at transmitting would’ve changed people’s behaviours.” But the uncomfortable truths about the sixth great mass extinction, climate change, pollution and soil erosion are not getting through.
Smit’s solution: a network of Edens on every continent is less of an ambition to educate and more of an attempt to study, “to get the benefit of a whole range of cultural responses to the environment so we can learn from each other about what is working where,” he says.
Smit’s Chinese work began after he read an interview with a Chinese businessman who said that the Eden Project was the most exciting thing he’d ever seen. After hosting delegations from all around China, Smit was invited over and is now launching three and a half projects in the country.
The first, which is expected to break ground next June, is intended to highlight the marine environment. Its waterside position in the city of Qingdao is equivalent, claims Smit, to the site of the Sydney Opera House. But, crucially, like Eden in Cornwall, it’s on ‘poisoned ground’ that Smit hopes this project can restore.
The second project, in Yan’an city on the Yellow River, will showcase the importance of soil. Locals realised that if they felled trees, their clay soils turned into mud, washed into the river and raised its bed, causing devastating floods. Yan’an is also famed for being Mao Zedong’s revolutionary HQ and the end-point for his Long March. As Smit remarks wryly: “We want to become the second most famous tourist destination in Yan’an.” Smit’s third Chinese venture is most recognisably ‘Eden’: a new centre bringing together food and farming in two giant quarries in Tianjin, near Beijing. And his final ‘half’ project is an Eden China HQ in a vineyard growing on a 35-acre landfill site.
Unsurprisingly, Smit’s meetings with the Chinese politicians and private companies funding these Eden schemes have given him a more nuanced understanding of the country and its ambitions than the popular perception of them in the West allows. As well as China’s massive solar industry, Smit says the country has planted more trees in the past three years than the rest of the world put together.
It’s aiming to plant new forests the size of Ireland in 2018 alone. Smit doesn’t presume to precisely describe the mindset of China’s leaders but perceives “a blind faith that its people are clever enough to sort this [global environmental crisis]. And now is the time.” China, he thinks, “will be good for the world”.