Livia on meeting Tim...
Two weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I call Tim Smit from my tiny studio in New York City. It is pouring where Tim lives, in Cornwall. He is thrilled. Wind is rattling the rafters, rain is coming down sideways. In New York, it’s a crisp six degrees and sunny, but the mood is bleak. The new president is a man who has described the Earth’s warming as a “Chinese hoax.”
A few weeks later, spring will come early because of climate change. I question Tim with the despondency of a millennial struggling to come to terms with all of this. Is his relentless optimism realistic?
Two decades ago, Tim abandoned a fruitful music career (he received seven platinum and gold discs) and moved to Cornwall, where he restored the Lost Gardens of Heligan. In 1995, he took on a grander project: transforming an abandoned mining pit into two colossal greenhouses—one of them is the largest indoor rainforest in the world. Thousands of plant species thrive inside the plastic domes, which mimic natural ecosystems. It was a feat of design thinking that earned Tim a place in the Guinness Book of Records, and in 2011 an honorary knighthood. Oasis, Amy Winehouse and Muse have graced the Eden Project’s stage.
Time is inimitably witty. It’s a trait that gets him invited to speak at countless events. Once, in Cornwall, he alienated a whole crown of tweed and corduroy-wearing men by saying: “If you can’t dream in it, if you don’t like getting drunk in it and you’re not inspired to make love in it, for fuck’s sake, tarmac it.” That’s the kind of thing Tim says. Other people call him things like “social entrepreneur” and a “cutting-edge thinker,” but to Tim, that’s dead language. I agree. We’re at a crossroad stage here. But what to do about it? Words like “environment” and “sustainability” just don’t seem to do the trick.
Once or twice during our conversation, Tim falls into polemic, before popping out the other side and earnestly apologising. His radical honesty is disarming. He is reluctant to even tell his own story, for fear that over the years he has crafted a messy reality into a clean tale of success. “People are just forever on a journey,” he says, “I think you should just be happy—because actually, it’s a very exciting time to be alive.”