Over the past 150 years, poor land management practices, driven by industrial agriculture, has resulted in the loss of half of the earth’s topsoil. Soil is becoming so degraded that some scientists are predicting that in some parts of the world, such as the UK, we only have 60 harvests left.
More carbon has been emitted from degraded soil than from the entire transportation industry. Without immediate, large-scale action, many parts of the world will become uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Conflict over resources such as water and farmable land will become common. Millions of people will either starve or, if they’re lucky, migrate, causing rising tensions in areas where land is still safe to live on.
But we do have another option. Enter John D. Liu, international journalist, soil scientist and filmmaker who has dedicated the past 25 years to the study, documentation and promotion of large-scale ecosystem restoration around the globe. Liu, who has come to be known as the “Indiana Jones of landscape degradation and regeneration,” was moved to action after a reporting assignment on the Loess Plateau of China – the cradle of Chinese civilization, reduced over the centuries to a vast desert. An initially skeptical Liu watched as the government’s massive restoration project transformed the landscape to a lush, biodiverse and productive ecosystem. He has been promoting and documenting ecosystem restoration around the globe ever since.
In 2017 John founded the Ecosystem Restoration Camps, a mass movement aimed at healing the Earth while healing ourselves — meanwhile, turning around runaway climate change. Sequestering the excess carbon in our atmosphere on a massive scale is one of the last remaining solutions to staving off the worst effects of climate change. By rehabilitating degraded ecosystems and helping farmers convert from industrial to regenerative agriculture, we can sequester enough carbon to create a safe level in the atmosphere (350ppm).
Ecosystem Restoration Camps are helping to create action towards this solution by teaching large numbers of people how to restore degraded land, whilst giving them the opportunity to work with local farmers who need support in transitioning to regenerative agriculture. At the camps, people are acquiring the knowledge and information they need in order to put theory into practice.
This gives farmers who are struggling financially the ability to try regenerative techniques, thanks to the voluntary manual labour, and gives people valuable experience in landscape restoration. Ecosystem Restoration Camps has the potential to give millions of people around the world the chance to reconnect with the natural world, causing ripple effects as they bring this knowledge and connection back into towns and cities across the globe. Some are rolling up their sleeves and spending time at an encampment; others are supporting by becoming members and funding the movement.
As a part of its webinar series with high-power world changers across the globe, Gaia University President Liora Adler organized an interview/webinar with internationally renowned ecosystem restoration expert John D. Liu. Here we share the video of that webinar and excerpts from the transcript.
Host Bio: John D Liu is the founder and Chair of Ecosystem Restoration Camps, a visiting Research Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO), and an Ecosystem Ambassador at the Commonland Foundation. After 15 years as a Television Producer and Cameraman for CBS News, RAI and ZDF, John began to study ecology. In the mid-1990s he began a participatory process with a number of media and broadcasting colleagues in Beijing that led to the creation of the Environmental Education Media Project for China (EEMPC). In 2013 he received the Communications Award from the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) for his film “Green Gold” about the restoration of Loess Plateau; a film about his work produced by the VPRO won a Prix Italia award. “Hope in a Changing Climate” was named the best ecosystem film by the International Wildlife Film Festival and won several other honors.
Excerpts from Gaia University Webinar with John D. Liu
John: I went to China in 1979 and I had the opportunity to work for CBS and I worked for them for quite a long time. This was a dramatic time for China and for the world. China had emerged from isolation and poverty, from a sleepy communist backwater to a major world power. So I had a front row seat to watch this change, and it was in 1995 when the World Bank asked me to go out and film the baseline study of the Loess Plateau watershed restoration project, and this was stunning and different. And I had to compare what I was seeing in this ruined landscape to the geopolitical events that I had been covering around the world.
And I couldn’t understand how a place that looked like this could actually be the birthplace of the largest ethnic group on the planet. So I became a bit obsessive, and I started to study this for a long time.
And it brought me to an understanding of ecology and evolution. I felt that in a sense I was looking through time — I could see all of human history, and go to a place before human history when that place had been beautiful and functional. And go to a place before human history to understand how that place had formed.
And I realized that when the Earth had formed it was a molten rock surrounded by gases that we could not breathe. And over prodigious time it was processed by life — so symbiotic relationships between life and basically breath — breathing — was the biochemical photo reactive process that led to an oxygenated atmosphere and the freshwater hydrological cycle. And then as each generation died and gave up its body, the soils grew up over the mineral skeleton of the Earth — and all of this is about creation, it’s about constantly filtering and continuously renewing life on earth. And it’s a kind of collective intelligence.
The thing I realized was that over evolutionary time, it was understandable how the natural Earth systems developed. And then I saw that the rise of civilization in China had fundamentally destroyed the ecological systems. But this was simply determined by whether we understood the systems and whether we did something to maintain them, or not.
If we went onto a development trajectory where we reduced biodiversity, reduced biomass and reduced the accumulation of organic matter, we were making an inversion of evolution. So if you take away all the political aspects — who killed who, and who had money, which battles were won and which palaces created or whatever, and you look at it through an ecological point of view — we didn’t understand that through evolutionary time, there was a constant increase in biomass. Each living thing died and its body built up with the other bodies to change the lithosphere into the pedosphere. And that biodiversity was a higher order of functionality where there was a constant increase through secession that could lead to infinite potential variety in genetics.
So over billions of years the complexity from single-cellar life to human beings and other types of life forms had been going on continuously — and that suggests it’s a very bad idea to mess around with genetic material. But as I saw this, the reason I went out there was that I was looking at this massive degraded landscape. And what I found was that it’s possible to rehabilitate large scale degraded ecosystems. I will encourage you to look at Hope in a Changing Climate, or look at Green Gold later on. Because you can see the transition that took place in China.
Having seen that I became a little bit insistent that people try to listen to me – and I found this was a very bad idea because no one wanted to listen to me – and if I grabbed them by the shirt and started saying look, we’ve been recovering large scale degraded ecosystems, they would say get away, what are you doing? Leave me alone.
So I had to think about, what is it that I can do? And I decided, I can just do what I do – that’s all I get to do. What other people do, that’s up to them – but what I do, that’s what i get to decide. So I just kept working in this area. Now I’m in the third decade of this, and a lot has happened. So when I get asked to speak I think that’s a good sign – because it means they are interested. So I tell them that there are principles which are natural laws, that when we apply these, they work.
Since I started documenting the Loess Plateau, Hope in a Changing Climate was very influential because it came out and was broadcast on the BBC one day before the COP 15 in Copenhagen of the UN framework convention on climate change. if you remember that’s the first time the big state entities and multilateral institutions thought that there was going to be a climate agreement. And of course that political agreement was not very successful – most people say it was a failure. But the fact is that there was no possibility of coming to an agreement at that time — nobody was talking about nature-based solutions. They were talking about carbon capture and storage, and they were talking about energy efficiency — which is not unnecessary, but it just doesn’t restore the ecological function.
I think it may be important to mention at this time that we should all be cautious about the carbon discussions — because carbon is more of an indicator. It’s been almost communicated as that the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are the same or equal to human impact on the climate. And I think that’s not true — that’s a partial truth. So yes, CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions are an impact — but it’s not the only impact. For instance, high altitude moisture in the upper atmosphere is more of a greenhouse gas than CO2. But we haven’t heard about this very much. And also this is connected to the physics of degradation.
When we degrade landscapes we remove the vegetative cover and solar radiation directly hits the surface, it changes the temperatures on the surface of the Earth massively. When we do that, we’re causing physical effects; often we’re talking about biodiversity, or botany, or soil science, so we’ve gotten that far, to talk about the microbiology. But the fundamental aspects, when we’ve massively degraded landscapes, we’re talking about physics. And the physics is of huge importance.
We see that we’re creating negative feedback loops when we degrade the landscape. When we raise the temperatures, this causes thermal drafts, which drives moist air high up into the atmosphere. This changes the density of the air, the wind speed and the wind direction, and it creates vortex activity.
So these types of impacts are huge. And I think in the past, for many many generations of human beings from neolithic agriculture, we didn’t know these things. And now that we know these things I think we have to incorporate them into our thinking about what happens.
What I’ve seen is that we now have quite a lot of knowledge about these subjects; it’s being studied in all parts of the world — but we have a lot of experts.
What we really need is to have collective intelligence — the same type of collective intelligence that the various symbiotic species of life have come together and through their respiration and through their exudates and through their symbiotic behavior they have processed the Earth’s surface so that it’s basically a paradise. But human beings, without understanding that, have destroyed it. But there’s no need for that, if we understand that these principles remain intact.
Toxic substances is another thing where we introduce poisons into the environment, which is just outrageous. We don’t need to do that. And it’s connected with the belief that we are creating wealth. The idea that we’re creating wealth by extracting and manufacturing and buying and selling things – or somehow speculation between the cost and the interest bearing debt.
This is just a strange intellectual construct which is not really true, because we’re creating material accumulation to a minority on the Earth, and we’re creating mass poverty for billions of people around the world.
So once we begin to understand these processes and we start to understand the causes of the degradation that we see, and we start to realize that the degradation is unnecessary, and that there’s a different pathway forward — then it opens up that here’s a solution; here’s a way forward. But it requires us to go into a new paradigm. And I think that new paradigm re-evaluates what is the intention, what is the purpose of human life.
We’re kind of recognizing that the purpose of life is to go shopping. But this is a very low level of understanding, and it’s damaging our landscapes and it’s endangering our children and future generations of life.
So if we understand what is possible, and we start to work together — this is where the camps movement has originated. There are so many people all over the world; I can see beautiful images with Rodrigo, his landscapes and so on — so it’s wonderful the possibilities of creating soils, of creating nursery systems, of working with the biology of the soil to restore the vegetative canopy, to have a high canopy where the solar radiation is interrupted, and to restore the hydrological cycle. This is what is required of us, all of us who are alive today. I think within this group, this is a very knowledgeable group, but we have about 7 billion people on the planet, and many people don’t know these things.
Many people are in a virtual reality — and we need to be physically restoring Earth systems. So the idea of Ecosystems Restoration Camps came about because even though I was involved in several large-scale restoration projects with the United Nations or the World Bank or certain governments and NGOs and multinational institutions, it didn’t look like that was fast enough, or engaging or empowering everyone. So I started to think about what we need for this. And I thought, actually what we need is less, not more. We need to create the basic infrastructure. I’m looking at Rodrigo and I’m thinking about the beautiful story of the hammock — and thinking we should be measuring wealth in terms of hammock time. What I realized is that if we simplify — we have to stop having such a high-consumption society. So we need to practice that.
To go instantly from where we are now to nothing is very difficult — but if we go camping, we can practice that. And while we’re camping and practicing low consumption and practicing community building, we can restore soils. We can infiltrate and retain available moisture, and learn the principles and we can understand the taxonomy and propagation of healthy landscapes.
And so what I imagine for the Ecosystem Restoration Camps is that each one of the camps must be autonomous, must be self-organizing and self-governing. But they also need to be connected by a mycelial network so that all of the things that are learned — and we can have very rapid learning — but all of the knowledge that emerges must flow to all the other places on the Earth immediately.
Given the urgency of this problem, we need a method that can sweep across the world and engage millions of people immediately and effectively in increasing organic layers of soil, infiltrating moisture and propagating and planting and especially allowing natural secession leading to an evolutionary outcome.
So this is how my thinking has been going, and if you go to the various camp pages on Facebook you can see how it’s emerged from nothing. And now we’re at a point where we can read exponential growth in this. Because there’s not a lot of pushback against the idea of restoring the Earth at a time when there’s a fear of existential threats to civilization. the idea that a vast number of people around the globe start to restore the Earth — it’s not like people are going to say, oh, that’s a bad idea. Don’t do that.
Actually it’s very acceptable across the way — and it also kind of addresses this climate anxiety issue, which I think a lot of young people have.
So this is what I think is important. And then I realized, when people come together, the only way for this to work is if we all work together.