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15 avril 2007

£67m Eden project will show the perils of a warmer world

Plans for Britain's first tourist attraction dedicated to climate change and how humans will live with increasing temperatures will be unveiled this week at the Eden Project in Cornwall.

As Britain basks in unseasonably warm spring sunshine, temperatures this weekend are expected to hit 25C as warm air from the Azores covers the country, the founders of Eden's 'biomes' - giant plant-filled bubbles - want to build a new area to allow people to explore what life will be like when weather patterns push humans to invent new ways of living.

The £67m building, called The Edge, will not be a semi-spherical greenhouse like the existing two structures, but the same designers hope the undulating, super environmentally friendly structure will be just as much of a talking point. Green innovations include indoor 'wind' turbines powered by the updraft of air heated through the greenhouse-like roof and the most up-to-date designs to collect and recycle water. The building will generate its own light from the turbines and heat from stored warm air.

The plans will be submitted by the end of May to the Big Lottery Fund, which has shortlisted The Edge and five other projects for a contest for up to £50m to be decided by viewers after a TV series, probably this winter.

Inside the new building will be a hypothetical country, based on dry tropical regions, with examples of how past civilisations dealt with massive changes in climate, how current societies are learning to cope with global warming and what people might have to do in future to survive when energy, water and other vital resources begin to run out. Underneath will be chambers of light and dark, with displays designed by famous names including musician Peter Gabriel and the author Philip Pullman to give visitors different sensory experiences.

Early ideas for The Edge include a wall of keys, from shed doors to a death chamber; a room filled with voices speaking about love in every language; and connecting corridors which force people to navigate using different senses, possibly bare feet or sound.

There will be plenty of plants, but Eden's latest - and last - zone will be very different, says Tim Smit, the co-founder and chief executive. 'The biomes we already have are a shop window for the world, plants and human dependence on them,' says Smit. 'We'll be inverting [that]: looking at us rather than the plants, looking at humans and what it is to be human.'

Eden caused a sensation when it opened six years ago, when visitors peaked at 1.8 million. Numbers have levelled off at just below 1.2 million visitors a year - but it is still one of England's top 10 paid-for attractions.

Eden staff hope that The Edge could tap into the zeitgeist as successfully as the centre's original recipe of education and entertainment.

Weather forecasters promise the recent mini-heatwave should continue this weekend and after a brief cool patch should return again later this week.

Last week the Met Office predicted another summer of above-average temperatures, after a spate of record-breaking years, while earlier this month the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued an apocalyptic warning of future mass migrations fuelled by loss of fertile land, droughts, rising seas and more intense storms - the very problems The Edge would address.

Despite some of the best environmental credentials of any organisation in Britain, Eden has been criticised in the past for not doing more to promote the issue of climate change.

Now the Cornish attraction will have to tread a fine line between educating visitors about their effect on potentially catastrophic climate change and not turning people away by lecturing or overwhelming them. It will also be entering the controversial tussle between environmental campaigners and climate change sceptics over how to present 'balanced' evidence - including scientific consensus that man-made global warming is causing damaging change and remaining uncertainties over the problem.

The new zone is an evolution of the original plan for a third desert biome, which had to be put on hold because the project initially raised enough money only for the existing rainforest and Mediterranean biomes.

In keeping with its past caution, Eden insists The Edge is 'not a building about climate change; it is a building because of climate change'. The focus will be on the dangers of humans living beyond their means - the reason past civilisations have collapsed, Smit points out - but, just as important, on how future generations can avoid the same mistakes, he says.

'The building will be to explain what it means to live within the limits, and because of climate change those limits will become more and more extreme, so we'll be hitting it head on. But it's not a shrine to the dangers, it's a response to them,' said Smit.

'The point is not about making them feel hopeless. Our brief is to make them feel excited about what humans are capable of if they can organise themselves. The single biggest message from Eden is optimism.'

Simple measures are not enough, says Smit, who talks of 'a new language, a new paradigm'. But he also rejects the idea that the transformation needed will significantly alter our quality of life, stressing instead how society can reduce massive waste and live more efficiently: 'We're going to have to view growth as a different animal and be very careful with language, so people realise we can live and progress without that impacting so heavily on the environment.'

Smit says his inspirations for the project include the Holocaust museum in Berlin, where visitors have to walk across a floor covered in tin plates with smiling faces and the names of victims before they enter the main display halls; and a clay print of a gorilla hand which has fascinated visitors to Bristol Zoo.

Eden's competitors for Lottery funds are a massive extension of cycle and walkways by Sustrans; the restoration of Sherwood Forest; plans to transform Somerset's waterways into a network of tourist attractions; a scheme to open up much of the National Museum of Science and Industry's stored collections; and an environmental regeneration of the Black Country industrial heartland.

Juliette Jowit, environment editor
Sunday April 15, 2007
The Observer

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