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Sir Tim Smit: People could be paid to be champions of the natural world

“You know why everyone thinks we’re so great? Because everything else is so mediocre in aspiration,” says the Eden Project’s founder and CEO, Sir Tim Smit. Contrary to its public face, the Eden Project isn’t just a tourist attraction. Although over a million people a year flock to its famous biomes, the project stands more for an ethos, a visualisation of hope and a reminder to all who see it that we are part of, and utterly dependent on, nature.

To have got the project off the ground in the first place, transforming a derelict clay pit into a manufactured wonder of the world, was a product of enduring hope. It was also a rejection of convention and proof that “alternative” can triumph.

The same philosophy, Smit told The Skylark, must be applied to the environmental movement that has been relegated to a damaging “other” status for too long. For Smit, it should all boil down to a simple – non-political – question: “how do we stop damaging our home?”

We need opportunities to be reminded of our connection with nature because the background noise of life has created a barrier. Like when you live near a railway line, you don’t hear the trains after a while.

I was asked recently, what is the one thing you would do to change the world? I said I would make natural history a core subject, right at the heart of every curriculum, from 3-23 years old. Because I do not believe that we would allow things to be done that we do now if we truly understood the cycles of the natural world, our interconnection, and the consequences of our actions. I would be very rich if I were given £1 for every person who told me about kids who didn’t recognise that milk comes from cows.

I don’t think people understand the impact of our individual actions on nature. For instance, most of us don't understand that if we use a specific type of sun cream, and it leaches into the water of the river, and that water then goes out into the ocean, there are elements of that sun cream that will then stick to a plastic particle. And that chemical that attaches to that particle becomes a thousand times more potent, causing all sorts of damage.

How do we stop damaging our home?

I think one of the ways that [the environmental movement] has been disempowered or neutered is that it’s allowed itself to become political, to be marginalised by one group or another. What is required is a collaboration of people with different political persuasions coming together around the stewardship of the planet. It should not be about a political dialogue that centres on the left or right-wing; it should be about answering the question, “how do we stop damaging our home?”

We also need to get to a point where the words “alternative” and “holistic” are no longer seen as being hippy but are seen as muscular and hopeful. Edward Said used to famously say that the way you render someone powerless is to describe them as “other”. And the word environmentalist carries within it a nicheness which seems to see us separate. We need to espouse a sort of muscular humanism in which us rooted in the environment is the central image.

Because of this outsider status, the organic farmer was once seen as a hippy and dope smoker. All of that rubbish that was spewed out by big agriculture that organic growing can’t feed the world – that it was “alternative”; nice for hippy middle-class people to talk about – is wrong. It is a fact, 30 years after the Soil Association began being big in public, that regenerative farming techniques, which include the encouragement of biodiversity, biomass growth and carbon sequestration, are precisely what the world needs.

But the second least favourite word in the English language is change, and still, most environmentalists keep talking about changing the world. You’ve already lost 90% of the audience; they don’t want a “changed” world. The coming discourse should be about how people can be better global citizens. We need to create a citizen-based thought leadership. Instead of “change”, the conversation needs to be about how we empower people to act in the public’s defence so they can influence everyone – governments, corporations, institutions – to do good, rather than less bad.

At Eden, we are very successful: we have 1.1 million visitors a year, and everyone says, “you’re so great. It’s education by visionaries!” And you know why everyone thinks we’re so great? Because everywhere else is so crap, everything else is mediocre in aspiration. People are trying to do a little bit better, but they should be saying, how can we do good?

Middle-aged men are the most dangerous thing on this planet

Most of us can be articulate about the world we’d like to see, but we have a pretty poor track record of living our lives according to that or working out how we’d get closer to that. And I think many of us are actually quite tired of being hypocritical and want the political establishment to make it easy for us to live that way because we can’t do it alone.

There’s a wonderful piece of graffiti in Wales as you go across the Severn Bridge, on a derelict building. It says, “some open minds should be closed for repair”. And I truly believe that. I think we’re all as guilty as each other of having a whole set of things we’re so certain about, and I think that it’s time to ask ourselves: “how did I come to believe this?” or, “is it that I have become a fan of people who think like this?"

That’s why middle-aged men are the most dangerous thing on this planet. They, by and large, have a set of certainties around the way the future is. They believe all sorts of rubbish about continuous growth and are mostly cowards. Wherever I go, I see people, talk to them, and realise they’re not thinking beings. They’re part of a tribe. We need people to step up to the plate, slap themselves around the face and give themselves a really good talking-to.

Within two years, the world's most significant clean meat companies will be Chinese

The question now is how do we deal with climate change and the coming threat. I think we’re going to deal with it in the weirdest of all possible ways: the rush towards a less overtly consuming meat-eating agronomy.

Anybody who looks at the stock market in the US will see that three of the fastest-growing companies on the planet are indulging in producing clean meat. And artificial fish as well. Within ten years, we could see the collapse of the global livestock market. This means that so much land will be, in fact, a stranded asset unless we devise a new way of looking at it or pricing it in a new way. And that is the really exciting thing. Because if we can price it, we can make this soil healthy and organic-rich, and someone will be paid for the sequestration of carbon. People could be paid to be champions of the natural world. I think that’s going to happen.

We’ve got three Eden projects in China, and over the last four years, the noise around environmental improvement has become deafening. It has become a mantra, and President Xi Jinping has often gone on record saying “heal the soil, heal the soul”.

China is moving unbelievably fast, and you watch; if I was a betting man, I reckon within two years, the world's most significant clean meat companies will be Chinese. And why? Because so much of their land has been sterilised by livestock, they want their land back. The impact will be that 80% of the soya export from Brazil will disappear because China won’t want it to feed animals that it will no longer have, which means something will have to happen. Brazil could be paid to replant the rainforests.

If we fry, we deserve it

I’m more excited now at 65 years old than I was in 1998 when we were just beginning Eden. I suddenly feel that technology is at our fingertips. The emotional charge of the present day caused by Covid, among other things, means that many people are angry that their citizenship is not very potent. I think there will be a series of outstanding citizenship ventures to which politics must respond. We’re pretty amazing little creatures when we realise that there’s a problem. The way I look at it is this: if we fry, we deserve it, so it’s a good outcome.

I feel really hopeful about the future. I feel that there are circumstances in which protecting the environment will help people form a new spiritual strength. And in an age where religion isn’t at the centre of our civic being, I think there is a real chance that we will start to see our relationship with nature as the defining litmus test of whether we’re worthy of that name homo sapiens sapiens. So wise, we named ourselves twice.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 17th July 2020


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