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Bringing the millennium down to earth

As the Guardian's environment duo Paul Brown and John Vidal sipped on their organic beer last Christmas, they placed great hope in Earth Centre - Doncaster's £50 million visitor attraction based upon the theme of sustainable development. Earth Centre, they argued, 'may act as a catalyst to show people what is possible'. As the green lobby attempts to present itself as the harbingers of good news in the run-up to the millennium, how inspired have Doncaster's locals been by this landmark project?

Earth Centre officially opened to the public on 2 April 1999, becoming one of Britain's first Millennium Landmark visitor attractions. It aims to answer the question of 'how to live and work sustainable in a developing world'. Built on the site of two former coalmines, Earth Centre opened to rousing support from environmentalists, community activists and politicians alike. The Doncaster borough in which Earth Centre is situated is one of the poorest in western Europe; up to a third of the 13 000 inhabitants of the two villages are unemployed. Earth Centre, it was believed, would heal a scarred land and a scarred community.

An evangelical zeal developed around it. 'This place is re-forming the community. It's like a phoenix out of the ashes', said one member of staff. Local councillor Tony Sellars noted the 'sense of excitement and exhilaration in the communities', arguing that he had 'never seen anything like it. For the first time people are beginning to see that they have a future. People are lifting their heads and starting to believe in themselves. The cynicism is going'.

Earth Centre is the brainchild of Jonathan Smales, a geographer who has worked in the health service and later for Greenpeace. According to Smales, 'Earth Centre is here to engage, inspire, support and encourage. We're not an environmental information centre, or a visitor centre, in the sense that we're happy if people just come. We want people to see things differently and to change how they live. For me, a sustainable future is a much better future. This isn't tinkering or about survival. It's about actually starting something better'. Smales is one of those environmentalists who accepts that we are not on the verge of environmental catastrophe, yet maintains that we need to change how we live.

But six months down the line and Earth Centre has been renamed a 'Green Elephant' by locals. Visitor numbers have been poor, with weekly figures barely meeting the predicted daily attendance of 2400. Nearly a third of the staff have been laid off or switched to jobsharing, and many of the local businesses set up to feed off Earth Centre's success have now gone bust. Jonathan Smales has been moved sideways, and the bog gardens that rely upon the human sewage left by visitors are starting to wilt. Even a 'Kaki' tree, taken from a cutting of the only tree to survive the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, has failed to take root at Earth Centre.

The only two areas in which Earth Centre has done well are corporate sponsorship, where major multinationals have been pumping six-figure sums into the project (despite the fact that Earth Centre is openly hostile to their industrial practices), and school trips - when teachers rather than young people decide to attend.

Why has this multimillion-pound project failed to grab the public's attention? Could it be that people are simply not interested in, or inspired by, the goal of cutting back and using less? Or could it be that people today have already adopted Smales' message - and are so environmentally responsible that they don't want to waste the resources needed to make the trip to Doncaster?

James Firth

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999

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