Tim Smit doesn't do well with the word "no". He successfully persuaded 300 people – bankers and financiers who tend to like the word a lot – to pour £141m into what was basically little more than a disused clay pit. Some 15 years later, what he referred to then as the most derelict place on Earth is what we know as the Eden Project.
His single-minded vision inevitably prompted some to mock him at the time as slightly crazy, or an eccentric at least. As Eden celebrates its 10th anniversary, Smit is the one having the last laugh: he has made a success out of building the world's biggest conservatory, though that's not entirely fair to the attraction's huge, world-famous biomes.
They are estimated to have generated more than £1.1bn for the West Country in extra tourist spending and were a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. So, obviously, he now wants to do it all again.
To be strictly accurate, he doesn't plan a replica of Eden, but a sister project, on an equally ambitious scale and in a similarly impossible location. "We're looking at a couple of sites in northern China, Inner Mongolia," he says. "And we may do one in the Gulf, which will be very different from this."
While Chinese Mongolia may not sound like a natural destination for the "new Eden" – it won't get too much passing traffic – that is part of its appeal for Smit. "I don't want things to be too easy. I don't want to be part of someone else's fast-food diet," he explains. "People always think you need to do great things in cities, but if we'd built Eden in London I don't think it would have been successful. The idea is that people have to relax as they come down here."
He says the Eden Project is about an attitude, and there are many other big projects he would like to do. "The issue in 'big' isn't that it has to cost a fortune, but that humans like things with an ambitious scale," he says. "And it's much easier to get a gang of people to support something and get involved with it if they think: 'Oh, I've always wanted to have an adventure.'"
Having adventures with a gang and being lucky with his friends is something Smit, 57, credits for his career successes so far, from the platinum discs he received for co-producing Louise Tucker's 1982 album Midnight Blue (you'd be forgiven for not knowing the title: it did better in France than over here) to his success at the Lost Gardens of Heligan near St Austell, voted the most popular botanical gardens in the country, where he worked after he first moved to Cornwall with his wife and three children in 1987.
And it's something that dominates future plans, both abroad and closer to home. The one he seems most fired up about is starting a new political party. Dutch-born, but English-educated, Smit is considering taking British citizenship so he can get involved in politics. He is frustrated by our "appalling crop" of politicians, who he says make the mistake of treating the electorate as consumers, rather than stakeholders.
"I know an awful lot of really cool people who might be persuaded to start another political party," he says. "The people most out of touch with us ordinary folk are politicians, who don't realise a lot of us have moved on from viewing the world as left or right wing. In fact, many people are very frustrated because they have socialist dreams, but realise some of what they would perceive to be 'right-wing' solutions would be necessary to deliver those socialist dreams."
And while he is an environmentalist, he could not bring himself to join the Green Party. "I'm real. I meet people who don't give a toss about recycling, all they're worried about is putting some food on the table, or staying warm," he explains. He has no time for environmental piety. "That's what Eden is good about: we reckon if you make it effortless to recycle, people will. And if you make it effortless to cut bills by being insulated, they will do that too."
He thinks there's a lack of bravery among politicians. No one is willing to stand up and talk like an adult about pensions, and say that when the pension was invented we were expected to live for three or four years after we retired, rather than 20 or 30.
With the health service, he says no one dares to ask "the only question worth asking [which is]: 'How long do you want to live?'" The answer to which should shape the health service. He dismisses the agenda for nurses and doctors as irrelevant. "They are hired by patients, us, the taxpayer. Don't confuse their desires with our needs," he says.
As for the unemployment rate, he thinks it reflects horribly on our inability to organise ourselves. "It's like putting a car back together after servicing and having all those nuts and screws loose, and knowing they're meant to be in there," he says.
If he has one dream for the UK, it's for it to once again become a great manufacturing nation. "A whole bunch of people came to power who didn't come from a manufacturing background. Either they came from patrician Torydom, or Fabian Society socialism, both of which have a very poor experience of getting dirt under their fingernails," he says. "On the left, they distrusted leadership and corporatism; and on the right, they distrusted ordinary business, because that's for dirty little people."
His fear is that within the next 15 years, we will lose the memory of being a great manufacturing nation entirely. And he believes that with three million people unemployed, and about four and a half million active retired people, we have some under-used capital. "If every one of them was able to cut one block of stone a day, we could build the Pyramid of Cheops every six days." His vision may seem far from today's reality, but the logic is hard to dismiss. "I'd not allow politicians who have never had day jobs to say we have to become a service economy. Because I'd say, 'Servicing fucking what?'."
I've come down to Eden to have lunch with Smit in his bakery, which opened this year and will, he hopes, help to educate people about food. But his mind is so sharp that he flits across different subjects: he talks about lung cancer rates being lower in dairy farmers who smoke than in non-smokers, because of their exposure to dirt and germs (he himself smokes Hamlet cigars); his desire to set up an organisation that wouldtake on the Co-Operative group of businesses – "fat and smug, past their sell-by date"; and his distaste for piety, whether in environmentalists or NGOs. "I hate half of these NGOs, they're full of people who want to go to heaven on someone else's dollar. If you've got guilt issues yourself, go and sort them out, don't go and foist them on someone else," he says.
But in his enthusiasm he keeps returning to the bakery: "Anyone who thinks the breaking of bread is about eating doesn't understand humans," he says. Visitors are intrigued to see bakers at work, and he hopes that soon everyone who visits Eden will have the opportunity to learn to bake bread: he remains baffled that cooking is not compulsory on the national curriculum. "We're sold a myth that cooking is really difficult. On the one hand, you have the 'can't cook' mentality, and on the other you have foodie-dom, which is supposed to be middle-class and urban. I think it would be great if everyone could cook, if everyone understood that even if you're not well off you can eat like a lord if you know what to do." It fits with his overall future plan for Eden, which he hopes will continue to play a part in helping people to stop feeling so disempowered.
As for his role as an environmentalist, the archaeology and anthropology graduate is currently working on a geothermal plant on the site that involves drilling 5km into the earth and will – if successful – use the heat to provide 10 per cent of the UK's energy needs. He thinks it is disgraceful that the Government has put £1bn towards carbon-capture projects, compared with £1m towards geothermal energy.
"Who persuaded the Government to do carbon sequestration? Shucks, call me a cynic. Our politicians have learnt all the language from public school of how to look like a grown-up, and they behave like children."
He is hoping the funds for drilling will be secured imminently, and that the plant will be functioning by the beginning of 2013.
Obviously, once again there will be people who, as with Eden, think he is crazy. But even the most cynical will have to admit, that while most of us rail impotently about the state of politics, or just daydream, Smit is rolling up his sleeves and putting his money where his mouth is. Even in the current economic climate, if he asked me to bet on him, it would be hard to say "no".
25 September 1954 Born in the Netherlands, Smit is sent to school in East Sussex and Kent.
1970s Studies archaeology and anthropology at Durham, before becoming a musician, more by accident than design.
1982 Plays keyboards and co-produces the album Midnight Blue (A Project with Louise Tucker). It scores top 10 hits in 13 countries and sells more than seven million copies worldwide.
1987 Moves to Cornwall with his wife and three children, and with John Nelson "discovers" and restores the Lost Gardens of Heligan, subsequently voted Britain's best botanical gardens.
1995 The Eden Project dream begins. Over the next three years Smit secures funding.
1998 Building starts on Eden project.
2001 Official opening on 17 March.
2002 Smit is made an honorary CBE.
2007 Voted Great Briton of the Year.
2011 Given an honorary knighthood in the new year honours list. Considers becoming a British citizen, so that he can enter the political fray.Reuse content