Tim Smit
Dream Big or Else

Tim Smit is best known as the man behind the astonishing environmental attractions The Eden Project and The Lost Gardens of Heligan. His unique vision and boundless ambition have transformed neglected spaces into some of the most successful tourist sites in the UK.

But the last thing Smit would like to be called is an entrepreneur. Having first found hollow success in the music industry as a songwriter and producer, he only discovered his true calling in his late thirties. Even now, despite earning himself worldwide acclaim, as well as a knighthood, Smit remains a maverick and a stubborn outsider.

As both a stanch capitalist and an environmentalist, Smit is something of an anomaly. Perhaps this is why he views traditional systems of business and governance with scepticism and distain, preferring to get things done in his own unconventional way. He is by his own omission an optimistic gambler, relying always on his intuition and his remarkable ability to persuade others to take risks with his ideas.

Ultimately Smit is someone who cares deeply about the world and believes in the redemptive power of his work to educate, astound, and inspire the human race to rise heroically to the challenges we face as a species.

Eden Project, Cornwall

So let’s start by talking about how you made the leap from being one of the biggest music stars in France back in the 80s, to being one of Britain’s most famous environmentalists.  You’ve talked before about walking away from the success you were experiencing and feeling at your lowest point ever. What was going on for you at that time?

That’s a very interesting question because I’m never sure with questions like that whether one can answer honestly. Humans, especially men, seem to have an ability to write their histories backwards and shape it into something that makes sense.

I formed a band with my fiend Charlie at university and the thing that struck me most after we went to London to become jobbing song writers was that there was something happening that I didn’t like. I couldn’t tell you what it was. It was only later that I realised what it was and that’s why I was saying about honesty being a problem.

But basically, as soon as the synthesizer became a programmable instrument, which it had become by around 1981, people were using them to create a mathematical purity to a track whereas in previous recordings you used the real drummer and the bass player. There would have been a lot of live music and the effect of it would be that there was a sense of biological purity to the music. So when the Stones record, they record live and the reason they record live is because they understand something important about music, which is that as a band feels the chorus coming they imperceptibly speed up in anticipation of it and that means the track has a natural biological excitement. I was incredibly aware that we were producing music that had all this artifice in it. It was getting worse and worse. I developed a loathing of it.

I’ve heard you tell the story many times of how you quit music, but this is the first time I’ve heard why. 

I tell that story almost as a morality tale because I feel that it’s good to be honest about having a crisis of some kind despite commercial success [at the time Tim had the best performing single in French history].  I notice that when I tell that story a lot of people nod their heads, knowing how lonely a place that is, when your dreams are like ashes in your fingers.

That’s why I tell the same story. It’s like having a good song that the audience like. It is true and at the same time it becomes a truism and almost a cliché. That’s why you rather unnerved me with the question because I didn’t anticipate having to ever examine that area and what it was. I’ve developed quite a lot of anger as well about it because it was like there was a whole bunch of people stealing the music business.

"People who say you can’t do wind or solar because it’s more expensive than fossil fuels, it’s a bit like saying, drink cyanide it’s cheaper than spring water."

Tim Smit on rationalising environmentalism

You’ve had a very unorthodox journey. I can’t say I know many other musicians who have become environmentalists.

I know quite a lot of musicians who would lay claim to be environmentalists, or would like to be thought of as being activists in some way, but the truth is we live in a culture of deep laziness towards what surrounds us. I get really cross. A lot of artists address climate change. . . but if I see one more fucking polar bear on an iceberg I’ll go mad. The almost willful desire for ignorance that a lot of artists have instead of getting under the surface of stuff is actually really annoying and I don’t think it does any of us any good because we’re living in a world where the views on the environment have become so polarised, and they don’t need to be. It’s as if the left have hijacked the environment like it was their territory, and this isn’t very helpful.

I completely agree with you. We spoke to Hans Blix and one of the things he said really echoes that sentiment. Both he and James Lovelock have said that nuclear energy is the safest and most economical energy option right now but the left have hijacked the conversion on this issue and so everyone sees nuclear a terrible thing.

Yeah and if you argue with the left and debunk one part of their argument they’ll say – and another thing, and another thing. What’s interesting though, at Eden we put on a conversation of James Lovelock in conversation with Richard Mabey and it sold out faster than The Beach Boys.

Speaking of the Beach Boys, you have these incredible artists play at the Eden Project. Is that more of a marketing ploy to get a younger crowd there? Or is it simply because you can get them there and it’s fucking cool?

Well both. But there’s a third thing and I say this completely without hyperbole, we have the best outdoor arena in the world. The acoustics are sensational. A lot of the gigs that take place at Eden get filmed and broadcast because the artists are so pleased with how they sound. It’s beautiful.

The Lost Gardens of Heligan

Because it’s a natural amphitheatre?

Yeah, most arenas where musicians play have an angularity to them, so the sound waves eventually bounce back to the stage and start to overlap with what’s coming from the stage. That’s why the higher frequencies are then really boosted so it can cut through it. It’s why your ears ring after concerts. But because of the shape of the area at Eden the mid-range sounds slowly emigrate out and not back towards the stage.

There’s this real romanticism involved with environmentalism, but even James lovelock would say that we have to accept that climate change is a runaway train.  How do you reconcile the fact that you’ve made these amazing spaces, the Eden Project which opened in 2001, and restoring the Lost Gardens Of Heligan, with the fact that you’re contributing to a broken system? There’s a big gap between these two worlds.

I think there are two separate issues. One is, how do you stay cheerful if someone of the authority of James Lovelock thinks that you’re on a runaway train which is going to end with just a few million of you surviving? I’ll answer that question by saying that I simply don’t agree with it. I actually think that humans are creatures of story, and if you can get the story right then humans are capable of extraordinary acts of redemption. Then people would say to you, but have you not read Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, which shows the collapse of civilisation after civilisation? Again, it is easy to read that book and assume that the take home message is that we are all doomed inevitably because of the hubris we have. You can say that the reason the ancient Greeks and the Romans and the Sumerians ended up perishing was because they trashed their environments. That is to a degree true but what happens is you then start to read into all of these things the inevitability of something and I don’t think it is inevitable.

I think the issue is, are we smart enough to realise that we’re currently living in a new age of enlightenment? Most people around the world do not realise, because the media in general has the mantra “if it bleeds it leads”, that there have been more scientific inventions over the last 20 years than in the whole of history up until now. We’re living thought the most extraordinary time of knowledge growth and learning how the mechanics of the world operate together. That’s what makes me very hopeful.

I recently had an epiphany about the role of the Eden Project. I used to think that we should be teachers, but I’m now coming to the conclusion that it’s not about us becoming teachers but becoming a platform that enables others to demonstrate what they are learning. We don’t need to own stuff, we just need to curate it.

So going back to your question, is there an anomaly between a project that is about the environment but has cost a lot to build and is generating wealth? I don’t think there is. For me it was a deliberate act because I wanted to demonstrate that you didn’t have to be a hippy to care about the environment and also more importantly demonstrate that the people who are capable of drawing together big capital might care about the environment. What is fascinating in the world today is that the views of most people I meet in big business are a lot closer to mine than would have been the case ten years ago.

I think that the best things that have happened over the last twenty years have happened because of the worst thing, which is the corruption of the banks and the loss of their moral compass. It was so great, so enormous and so shocking that the establishment that considered themselves to all be one group of people have fractured. It’s no longer everybody in the city on the same side. I think that’s fascinating because I meet a lot of so called captains of industry who are actually ashamed of the capitalism that has been promoted by the banks and the argument that corporate structures need to change is getting a lot more air time than was ever previously the case.

"If you can get the story right then humans are capable of extraordinary acts of redemption."

Tim Smit on saving the future

If you gave the same speech in front of 10,000 people right now, there would be some in the audience who might say, “Oh Tim’s just an eccentric idealistic entrepreneur, he doesn’t live in the real world. He’s building these dream projects based on instilling belief in other people.” What would you say to that?

I’d say thanks very much. I am doing it like that and so it should prove to you that if you believe in something strongly enough, you can bring it into being. If you have a city and you believe that you can make it safe, and you believe that the buildings can be beautiful, if everybody believes it, then they will make it so. I go to schools and I say, “in front of you is somebody who people call a visionary.” Then I ask, “How many people here aged twelve did not dream of building a castle?” That’s what 12 year-olds do.

We spoke to the anthropologist Wade Davis and he had quite a slightly different opinion to you. He said, “Any person who thinks they can change the world is both wrong and dangerous.”

Oh I think he’s absolutely right. Wade is one of the great minds of our generation. It’s especially true of men. Every time a man has one good idea he feels that he’s duty bound to create a whole system that governs the entire world, which is terrible. Having said that, I do think that where humans can change the world in a non-dangerous way is where they gently effect change in such a way that it inspires others to then take up the mantel. I’m sure we could both agree that one of our heroes is Rebecca Hosking. She was so fed up of people saying that you can’t get people to stop living with plastic bags that she decided in her home town she would go to every door and every shop and say, “would you be up for seeing if we can do without plastic bags?” And so Modbury then went against plastic bags. It was the first place anywhere in the world to do so. It was fantastic, and just a really gentle thing.

"The question is, are we smart enough to realise that we’re currently living in a new age of enlightenment?"

Tim Smit on the global changed going on

What would you say is the biggest difficulty you’ve encountered with the Eden project in terms of getting it up and running?  

In constructing it the major issue was to persuade very anxious funders that if they jumped then somebody else would jump. My partner Gaynor who was the finance and managing director of Eden calls it country dancing. Part of it was about being a conductor and making sure that nobody would lose faith because everybody would jump together. That was really difficult because we were dealing with public and private money. When I go and talk to business students I say, for god’s sake when you’ve learnt all the mantras of what business is, let me tell you that understanding people and being trustworthy, and kind, and generous are the most powerful things in your armoury. Ultimately most of us deep down are very insecure and afraid that we’re going to look foolish. Therefore give voice to that fear and others will share their fear too and you can find a way through stuff. I’m intensely proud of Eden not only because of its construction but because of the bravery of so many people in institutions and companies who said, ok I’m going to do this. I love that. I love that sense of quiet satisfaction that everybody received when it did get built because it was a very real achievement by lots and lots of people.

There were obviously technical challenges but you expect those and they were met with immense good humour too because we insisted on managing Eden as an open book. We asked the constructers whether they would like to have a seat on our board so that they could see all the money. There was nothing hidden at all. There’s all of this stuff about businesses being secret, but it’s so much better that people can make a decision about their future based on absolutely transparent facts. Trust your fellow humans occasionally because so much damage is done by thinking you’re being business-like and professional by protecting yourself, but the very act of protection is sending so many signals out to others that you don’t trust them that I sometimes worry it is actually counterproductive.

My life experience of people is that when you speak to anyone for any length of time, almost everybody inside wishes they were part of an adventure. I think the reason why people who posses romance are important, especially if they are able to marry romance with a proven track record of being able to deliver the things. If you can create the stage whether there is enough spotlights or enough people, I don’t think you even scratch the service of what we’re capable of. The issue is that we are selling ourselves short.

Is it true that you hope to build an Eden on every habitable continent?

It is true that that is our ambition. We’re actually going to do several in China. We’re going to be in Canada, in China, America, and obviously we’re already in Europe. We’re hopefully going to be building in Hobart in Tasmania, and we’re working in Africa. Actually we’re trying to work out what would be an appropriate Eden Project there because each one is going to be different, we don’t want to be like the Starbucks of the environment. In North America we’re going to have very minimal buildings in Sequoia National Park. We want to build an environmental conference centre in the shadow of the oldest trees in the world. But we haven’t got one yet in South America.

Feature image of Tim Smit Photograph / Gareth Iwan Jones

An imagined meeting between Kublai khan and Marco Polo in which Kublai says to Polo, “tell me about the great cities in my kingdom.” There are 51 chapters of about 2 pages each and at the end of it Kublai Kahn basically says, “There is something wrong with your story, I don’t understand.” And Marco Polo says, “I have told you about only one great city, there is only one great city in your empire and it is Venice. I’ve just described it 51 times.”

Inspired by Calvino’s Invisible cities, it offers 50 views of Heaven. I read it in one sitting. If you want a book to put a smile on your face this is it. It’s about how you always desire to be somewhere else when where you are is wonderful. I think sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

Whenever I hear that record the hair stands up on the back of my neck. My body can’t help but respond to it.