Tim Smit at Liverpool Philharmonic – Eden, Tony Bradshaw and positive liberty

 September 23, 2009         3 Comments

I went to see Tim Smit last night at the Phil, part of a series of lectures arranged by the University of Liverpool as part of Liverpool’s Year of the Environment theme.

I’ve followed Smit ever since I read his book on Eden, an extraordinary, inspirational book about one man’s fight with nature, administrators, economics, common sense and received wisdom.

I read the book as I, along with two friends, were in the process of battling various Quangos, competitors, truculent advertisers, the dole office and abject penury to produce the magazine that eventually became Black+White.

The similarities don’t really go much beyond that, as Smit managed to build the eighth wonder of the world and we produced eight copies of the listings guide which was a critical success but a commercial disaster.

Still, I took a lot of the lessons learned to heart and have remained inordinately impressed by Smit, a likeable, charismatic, forward-thinking, self-deprecating and extremely able man.

Smit’s talk was based loosely on the theme of the environment and took the influence of Liverpool biologist Tony Bradshaw as a starting point.

But the talk soon veered away towards a more general approach ( I hesitate to use the word ‘holistic’, because it’s bloody awful), taking aim at nothing less than the entire received wisdom of politics, administration, housing, ecology and work.

With Heligan and Eden under his belt, Smit is now helping to save Mauritius (or, more accurately, helping Mauritius to save itself) and is involved in the bidding to build an eco town.

I hope he succeeds. Smit’s message is optimistic on the environment – he’s simply that kind of guy. I’m less optimistic, because while the likes of Smit are thought of highly they’re rarely indulged at the highest levels.

I get the impression that Smit’s approach to red tape, pessimism, realpolitik, vested interests, intransigence, institutionalism and rank stupidity would blow through the corridors of power like a cleansing hurricane if allowed – but how do you change decades of entrenched interests and mindsets?

During his talk I was reminded of Adam Curtis’s documentary on game theory – The Trap – which proposed the idea of government, civil service, people and business essentially at war with one another and themselves, thus maintaining a deliberate status quo.

Curtis’ documentary looks at the two concepts of liberty: positive liberty, involving the empowerment of people to take control of their own destinies; and negative liberty, the freedom to live a life free from the restraints of others.

Its a subtle distinction, but Smit’s talk seemed to me to propose a shift from the latter to the former, and his credentials and rhetoric indicate that, if there’s anyone capable of catalysing this transformation, it’s him.

We need more like him but, as a questioner pointed out, few of the rest of us are Tim Smits, as I found out several years ago.

• You can watch the first part of The Trap and watch Smit’s lecture at these respective links.


  1. Must have missed you there. We were upstairs in the Circle. Smit was proper good entertainment and I agreed with a lot of what he said about devolving democratic power and empowering ordinary people (urrgh, horrid managerialist politico speak). How it would turn out God only knows, given we’re not all blessed with Smit-like levels of ability and staying power, but I’d definitely argue it’s worth a go.

  2. Thanks for posting the link – I’ve missed all these lectures, and hadn’t realised they’re available online.

    I’ve just watched the Tim Smit one and it was superb. Gutted I didn’t make it along to see it in person.

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