Volume 16 Number 4
Bringing Eden to Earth
01 August 2003

Sandy and Caz Hore-Ruthven visit a tourist trap with a message.

The Eden Project in Cornwall, England, was named after the ancient biblical paradise, lost through original sin. Today, many would say we are in danger of losing our present Eden, the natural world.

The philosophy of the Eden Project evolved over four years. Its first aim was simply to showcase plants from around the world, but this evolved into a deeper strategy to show how plants form a common thread, which links all human life. The challenge was how to present the message in an attractive way.
Tim Smit, the leading light behind Eden, says: ‘There are many ways of telling people that without plants there is no life on earth. Finding a way that is beguiling and amusing and memorable enough to make people reflect on the message is more tricky.’

As you approach the Eden Project, the Cornish landscape suddenly changes from beautiful rolling hills and pastures into towering angular pyramids of dusty brown. In between these giant termite mounds, the land is gashed by deep valleys, where machines dig up the very earth they stand on. These are Cornwall’s china clay pits, an age-old industry that provides the raw material for everything from fine china to the glossy pages of magazines.

The pits provided employment, but altered the landscape irrevocably and could not halt the region’s overall economic decline. By 2000, Cornwall had become seriously deprived; local communities were suffering from poor wages and unemployment.

The Eden Project is trying to rebalance the landscape. Now, when you turn a corner into one particular pit, you see a green landscape of trees and flowers and space-age bubble domes. Two giant greenhouses contain rainforest and Mediterranean plants where visitors can marvel and learn about sustainability through plants.

The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 identified three areas that need to be in balance, if life is to be sustained indefinitely into the future: the economy, the community and the environment. This sums up what is meant by ‘sustainable development’—the key words of the 21st century.

For instance, when the china clay industry bolstered the economy, it did so at the expense of the environment. Some businesses have created wealth but destroyed communities. Community projects can support people, but without jobs how can they survive?

The Eden Project is trying to develop all three areas of life in harmony with each other, a balancing act which takes some doing. Economically, it benefits Cornwall by providing a world class tourist attraction, which gives local communities a greater sense of pride. Environmentally, the old quarry helps to plant ‘seeds of change’ in the hearts of those who visit, with its clear message to recycle, conserve, protect and cherish the natural resources we squander at our peril.

But this is still the real world, and even Eden falls short of utopia. Most visitors arrive by car, adding to pollution. You can still drink Coca Cola at Eden (although the vending machines have been ‘greenwashed’ with scenes of nature, rather than the usual brash red and white logo).

Having said that, there is no doubt the message is a sincere one, and a fervent passion for the man who helped created Eden on Earth. ‘We are part of nature and nurturing it is our responsibility as the predominant species,’ says Smit. ‘Failure to do so will ultimately lead to our own extinction. If that happens, good riddance; we wouldn’t deserve any tears.’

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