Under the Dome: a serious proposal

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The Independent Online
So, on a oval slab of polluted mud, surrounded by the viscous, colourless smear of post-industrial East London, a Dome shall arise. We are not talking Xanadu here; the grey and turbid Thames runs by it, not the sacred Alph. But, though Tony Blair is no Kubla Khan, there is vision here, and boldness.

The Dome is surrounded by circles of doubters, from Labour MPs to companies. The appointment of Peter Mandelson, who has the power, energy and motive to make it a success, has been greeted with behind-hand snickering from other ministers. But if Blair had funked this, the whole millennium project would have ground to a halt; and a rare opportunity to do something optimistic and unexpected would have been squandered.

Yet the biggest question remains unanswered. We know about the site of this Dome, the architecture, the planning, the politics. We know something, at least, about the funding. The impresario, Sir Cameron Macintosh, has been chosen. The directors are in place. The middle class are quite prepared. The only thing is ... what is to go inside it? What is this Great Something to be about?

Previous grand events have had clear enough themes. The Festival of Britain, led by Mr Mandelson's grandfather Herbert Morrison, was a moment of rebirth after the devastation and grimness of war. The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a triumphal celebration of mankind's ingenuity as the Industrial Revolution roared at full power. Yet in some ways the millennium is more resonant than either.

One can imagine, all too easily, how we could blow it. A "heritage" show would blow it. The easy, official-mind view of what the Dome should hold will instantly conjure up a dry-iced historical British pageant, with lasers and fake beards, booming music and plastic galleons, Good Queens and stovepipe-hatted Victorians, telling the story of these islands from the year 1000 onwards - Arthur Bryant meets Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Why would that be such a terrible thing? The first answer is that this should be a global show, pulling people in from overseas. London is the global city, a mosaic of different peoples, the world's biggest crossing point for airlines, telephony and the world's largest centre for cross- border shares. The whole point of Greenwich is that it is a world time- centre. The second answer, obviously, is that this must be more forward- looking than backward-looking.

But the third and most important answer is: seriousness. The first emphasis, even in our short attention-span, leisured culture, should not be patronising "fun" or entertainment-pap. People can go to lots of places for that.

If this is to be different it has to draw us to Greenwich because the Dome poses and tries to answer big questions about humanity - our future, our current behaviour, our wars, our consumption, our relationship with the rest of the biomass. It needs to have a hard core of serious intent, however it is presented.

It needs to be a stock-taking and thought-provoking place where we can look at ourselves in a mirror and then argue about how we will survive fairly and sustainably through the next century. As a species, we have exploded in numbers, power, technology and danger in a tiny space of time. The Dome can be and must be a place which spurs debate on the future of housing, of nationality; democracy and the Internet; the exploitation of space; the politics of food; the economics of biotechnology; the diplomacy of water.

And yes, inescapably, that means much of the exhibition would centre on the environment. Far from turning people off, that would attract them: the time is right. We are citizens, not simply consumers. Climate change - "whether" for some people, "how much, and when" for most of us - is the biggest news story of our time. From the English wondering what it means for the river-diverting farmers of Essex and Kent (and their chalk streams with the fat trout, now gurgling down thirsty boreholes) to the flooded Northern Italians and the desertified Africans.

We worry about the hillside-carving strip mines and water-meadow-destroying bypasses. Lots of us worry about the disappearing skylarks and song thrushes, the harbour porpoises and stone curlews, the assorted threatened newts, bats and bitterns.

All of us breathe. Most of us drive. And as the brown haze curdles over the great cities, and almost every family shops by car, sitting in slowly moving metal convoys, we all know we cannot go on like this. We all know that another generation of growing car use like the last two generations will seize up the last freely moving roads and make the cities unbearable.

We know that our farming has been too intensive, both for human health and the balance of the countryside. We know that an ocean economy which offers supermarket shoppers flash-frozen exotic fish, air-freighted by jumbo from the Indian Ocean, but which has little left to offer from the destroyed breeding-grounds around our coastline, is a short-term fishing economy.

We know all this. So let us, as one millennium ends and another begins, talk about it. There are plenty of energetic technological responses, as well as political ones, to be exhibited. An environmental campaigner, Peter Stone, has suggested using a ground- breaking, if provocative, report to the Club of Rome, Factor Four: Doubling Wealth, Halving Resource Use, by Amory Lovins, as a text for Greenwich.

The book discusses the new forms of energy efficiency, building, transport and trading that are likely to be necessary in the century ahead. Such seriousness may send a shiver down the spines of some politicians and business executives. But great events need great purposes. And this may be the modern equivalent to the industrial enthusiasm of 1851 or the consumer enthusiasm of the Festival a century later.

Certainly, it is far likelier to attract big outside agencies and companies, from the more far-sighted oil companies to the World Bank. It would make Greenwich a real global centre - impossible to ignore, difficult to deride. In a letter to Mr Mandelson, Mr Stone argues: "Is it not more relevant to the next millennium than just a good old national knees-up ... Let Britain, which has done so much to create the modern world, take the golden opportunity of the first high noon of the new millennium to invite the world to take stock ...''

I couldn't agree more. There is real vision, a generous-minded intellectual response to the decision to go ahead with the Dome as a structure. Yes, there should be fun and entertainment too. Yes, it needs to be slick and professional. But this thing will work if it catches the imagination of millions. The only way to do that is to treat them seriously.

If it does that - and the early signals in Whitehall are that Mr Mandelson and his team see the challenge very clearly - then the Dome will be a great success. But if it is designed purely as a pleasure dome, or a trade fair, it will be a turkey; and all the dry ice, amplification systems and laser shows in the world won't save it. Fun is fun; but life is more interesting still.