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John D. Liu Interview: “It is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems.”

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Tags: landscaperestoration
John D. Liu participated in the Permaculture Design Certificate Course  conducted last May/June by the World Permaculture Association in Pisa (Tuscany, Italy) with Rhamis Kent as the lead teacher.
This event was convened in order to implement & initiate the  World Permaculture Association mission: to mobilize and inspire people  to achieve food security by improving human management of natural living  systems through the use and application of permaculture principles.
At the moment the World Permaculture Association is mainly focused on  building & developing international partnerships in order to  augment efforts aimed towards the rehabilitation of large-scale damaged  ecosystems as shown by documentarian John D. Liu in his acclaimed films.
The visit to Italy by Mr. Liu, organized in conjunction with the  World Permaculture Association, was an opportunity to exchange ideas and  knowledge pertaining to the promotion of ecological restoration and  permaculture design. Let’s join in on the conversation:
Italian Agronomist Riccardo Tucci (tucci@world-permaculture.org), along with WPA Executive Director Rhamis Kent, interviewed him.


Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: It has been a great pleasure having you in Italy, John.
Do you think that this land, particularly affected by hydrogeological  dysfunction due to degradation from long-term mismanagement, can  provide a valuable testing ground for ecological restoration activities  that you often show us in your films? What did you see that made an  impression on you?
John D. Liu: Thank you –  it was a great pleasure to  be in Tuscany again and to share close communication with people  striving to understand life and the Earth systems that life depends on.
I think that there is a great potential for restoring the water cycle  in Italy. There is essentially nothing wrong with the Earth; it is a  problem of human beings not understanding how the Earth’s natural  ecological systems function and acting from selfishness and ignorance.  Italy is an ancient culture and it is important to see that some of the  things that happened in the past were mistakes. We need to recognize and  correct these mistakes. Italy could be a leader if it is an early  adopter of what we now understand to be fundamental natural truths. We  are forced to differentiate between what we have done in the past that  damaged the water cycle and what we need to do now to fix it.
Today, many [within] the science community continue to confuse the  people by talking about ‘ecosystem services’ when in fact there are no  ‘ecosystem services’. There are only functional and dysfunctional  ecosystems and so-called ‘ecosystem services’ are benefits that derive  from functional ecosystems. We may WANT services but we NEED function.  Thinking of the source of life as a product is not a good idea.  Understanding the difference between desiring something and needing  something is a sign of maturity. To know the difference between  ecosystem function and ecosystem services is to be ecologically  literate.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: You are a great  promoter of ecological restoration. For those who do not yet know you,  can you explain in a few words some things about the activities which  you have undertaken for the last couple of decades?
John D. Liu: When I was 27 years old, I began to  work for CBS News as a producer and cameraman for international  television news. I covered very big geopolitical stories like the rise  of China from Poverty, The Tiananmen Tragedy, the Collapse of the Soviet  Union, and International Terrorism. Fifteen years later, when I was 42  years old, I got an assignment from the World Bank to film the baseline  study for the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project. In this  project, the Chinese Government and the Chinese People – with World Bank  support – were attempting to re-vegetate a vastly degraded landscape  about the size of Belgium.

When I saw the Loess Plateau, I realized that this was more important  than the geopolitical events. The politics and economics seem important  but they are basically egotistical and only important to the people who  are experiencing them. In historical terms, the fleeting political and  economic dramas of individuals are trivial when compared to the Earth’s  ecological outcomes or the ultimate fate of human civilization.
On the Loess Plateau, I saw that it was possible to rehabilitate  large-scale degraded landscapes and I became obsessed with understanding  how you could do this. I realized that if human civilization(s) were  going to survive it would have to know how to do this. Everything else  became less important to me and I was lucky to be given the opportunity  to continuously study this and to do field work on every continent.  Having knowledge of this seems to be a responsibility because it will  determine the quality of life for everyone on Earth now and in the  future. If only a few people know [about] this, it is useless. This must  be the basic understanding of all people just like we know the Earth is  round. The more I learned, the more I wanted to share this knowledge  with everyone.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: In the multidisciplinary world of ecological restoration, what role do you attribute to Permaculture?
John D. Liu: Permaculture is a movement that began  when individuals began to learn the same things that I have learned by  studying ecosystems. They saw that water, plants, microbial communities  and biodiversity, were all inter-related and were part of functioning  ecosystems. They also saw that modern agriculture was simply  wrong-headed and really was just Neolithic agriculture with tractors and  chemicals. They saw that it was possible to collaborate with nature  rather than simply mine the soil extracting what they wanted and laying  waste to the Earth.
This is the knowledge that must be understood by all people on the  Earth as quickly as possible. Once you begin to understand, you cannot  go back – just like you can’t believe that the Earth is flat. When you  understand that moisture is infiltrated into the ground dependent on the  percentages and total amounts of organic material in the soil you,  cannot believe that plowing is a good idea. There is a great unhappiness  now in human civilization because everyone knows in their heart that  overconsumption, waste, and pollution are wrong. Yet the existing  society and economy demands that we need more and more growth even if it  kills us.
We are experiencing the end of an era. We cannot burn the remaining  petroleum in the Earth, we cannot burn the remaining coal. We cannot  mass-produce everything to enrich a few and let billions of people  starve in poverty or be serfs to serve the wealthy. We need to know that  not only all people but all living things have inalienable rights. We  need to live more simply. We need to know how to care for the soil, the  water, the plants and the animals on the Earth. We need to use our lives  to ensure that human civilization will survive. Permaculture is a way  for people who understand this to share their knowledge with those who  are seeking to learn more.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: Your work shows  specific ecological cases that most of the public would define as being  unrecoverable (desert valleys, arid areas, etc.), but have been  transformed by human action through projects intended to make them  fertile and functional again. This is a great message of hope – which is  also competing with an all-too-common vision of a global future that is  largely pessimistic, dystopian and catastrophic. If everyone was given  an opportunity to see your work, there would be a greater hope for the  future. How could it be made possible for your point of view to be more  widely known?
John D. Liu: The Earth is very old. Scientists say  it is over 4.5 billion years old. Human beings have the ability to  think, our species name is Homo Sapiens. This means we are sentient  beings. The Greeks, the Chinese, the Indians long ago began to consider  what this means. Human history when compared to Earth time or  Evolutionary time is very short, as agriculturalists or as literate  beings only a few thousand years. What I’ve been studying is how the  Earth’s natural evolutionary ecosystems function and what was the effect  of human impact on them. I have witnessed that in all ancient ‘cradles  of civilization’ there have been similar impacts to the water cycle,  soil fertility, and biodiversity and I was interested to know why.
What I learned was that there are three (3) main evolutionary trends  that shaped life on Earth. I see these as: first – total colonization of  the planet by biological life. Secondly – I see that starting with single cells, life evolved into wondrous diversity. Thirdly – I have  witnessed that each generation of life dies and gives up its body to  nurture the next generation. These three trends, until human beings emerged as the dominant species on the Earth, were always accumulative  in that there was always more biodiversity, always more biomass and  always more accumulated organic matter. After human beings emerged and  interrupted these trends we see deforestation, desertification, loss of  soil fertility, loss of biodiversity, growing poverty and hunger, etc.
What I have witnessed is that degradation is caused by ignorance and  greed and if we learn to live with consciousness and generosity then we  can protect the remaining functional parts of the Earth and restore the  degraded parts. This requires that everyone understand this and that  everyone participates. If we continue believing that people are always  selfish or always ignorant then we will fail. If we understand that  change is inevitable and the future will not be like the past, then we  have the chance to choose to do the right thing. To do the right thing  now is to live simply and share with everyone equally. Most importantly  to do the right thing means all working together to restore the natural  ecological function of the Earth. All who are alive today must choose  this.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: What do you see as being the strengths & weaknesses of current efforts focused on ecological restoration globally?
John D. Liu: Many people throughout the world are  just beginning to understand what I’m talking about. In the past, almost  no one knew anything about ecological restoration or thought it was  possible. More and more people are choosing to study and implement this  either through permaculture or the University system.  There is a  Society for Ecological Restoration (SER). There are policies that almost  all nations have agreed to. This is progress but there is a long way to  go.
A very important problem we must overcome is that now the economy  creates a perverse incentive for the Earth to be degraded by rewarding  the behavior that increases energy consumption, extraction, production,  consumption, pollution, and degradation. The neo-classical economists  believe that this is the way wealth is created. The truth is that this  is not wealth at all. The only thing that is happening in the existing  economy is that we are rapidly exhausting the resources of the Earth. If  we continue to plunder the Earth, the ecosystems we depend on will  eventually collapse and human civilization as we know it will fail. This  has happened before to other civilizations but now we face this  together on a planetary scale.
Recognizing that the ecological outcomes are not inevitable but are  the result of mistakes in economic thinking suggests the solution.  Essentially, the economy is inverted. Things produced by human beings  are derivatives of the Earth’s ecosystems. They have been inflated and  the Source of Life has been said to be worth nothing. This is simply  fundamentally untrue. In order to get a different result, we must invert  the economy again. Putting the source of life at a higher value that  the derivatives. If we invert the existing economy to recognize the  value of natural ecosystem function, the economy will be much larger  than it is now. Then growth in the economy will be increased  biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter, which is also what  nature wants. It will also be impossible to pollute or degrade as to do  this would reduce wealth.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: How do you envision global ecological restoration ideally occurring?
John D. Liu: Valuing Ecosystem Function higher than  material things is the paradigm shift that determines whether we  understand the meaning of our lives and survive or whether we remain  ignorant and selfish and destroy our own habitat trying to gain more  wealth or more power. If we reach this level of understanding, not only  can everyone live on the Earth but the natural systems on Earth can  reach their optimal ability to sustain life.  
The Earth must have the potential of reaching, an “Evolutionary  Climax Equilibrium”. This means that the soil, oceans, plants, animals,  atmosphere, water cycle and the Earth’s climate can interact in a  natural way as they did without human interference. If we are conscious  of this and do not interfere with the Earth Systems, then this is  possible. Knowledge is responsibility. To know that the Earth’s systems  are symbiotic, living systems is to realize that it is our choice  whether we will restore the Earth or whether we will continue to pretend  that our interests are different that those of all living things.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: In the foreseeable  future, will you continue to produce reports about ecological  restoration or do you have other projects forthcoming?
John D. Liu: I will do all that I can but the  outcome is not up to me. I must do my best but the responsibility lies  with each person. Everyone must choose what the future of human  civilization and the planet will be.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: Who are the partners you would most like to collaborate with?
John D. Liu: I want to work with everyone. We need  to act as a species on a planetary scale. This means we need everyone to  participate in this massive paradigm shift. Remember at one time in  Europe, people believed that the Earth was flat. Anyone saying then that  the Earth was round would be persecuted. For centuries, slavery was  legal in Europe. Now it is impossible to stand in public and proclaim  that the Earth is flat or that it is somehow acceptable to buy and sell  human beings. This is as large a change as those earlier shifts in  consciousness and when we make this change, there is no going back.
There are people who are already aware that the future for the Earth  and Human Civilization must have functional ecosystems. Everyone who  understands this and chooses to work together is an ally. This is a  growing movement. Young people especially are looking at the intentions  of society and making choices about how they want to live their lives.  It is very difficult for them because they must choose a new way of life  and build a new future on the remains of the old one.
My closest partner is the Commonland Foundation,  a leader worldwide in strategically making this change. Commonland’s  chief has defined four (4) returns from restoration. These are:  Inspiration, Social Capital, Natural Capital, and finally be-cause of  the other three, a Return on Financial Investment. This is a  sophisticated way of engaging the current economic capacity to focus on  restoration. This is renal growth so it is aligned with a sustainable  future. This is leading thought on how the society can peacefully reach  the goal of restoring the Earth.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: You have traveled  all over the world in doing this work. In which areas of the planet do  you think there has been demonstrated the greatest sensitivity towards  the issues that you are highlighting with such great passion?
John D. Liu: We live on the Earth and all people  everywhere are the same. We need to end the discussion about which  nationality are we, which place is better than another and realize that  we are all human beings related to each other. Science already tells us  this as we can see with genetics that all human beings have a common  ancestor. Equality and recognizing the inherent rights of all people and  all living things seems to be the way forward to a sustainable and  peaceful future in which there is joy and abundance.

Riccardo Tucci & Rhamis Kent: In your opinion,  how could we generate more interest among people, including private and  public institutions, to realize the potential of ecological restoration?
John D. Liu: We are living in and witnessing the end  of an era. The energy waste, the mass production for the sake of profit  not because it is actually needed, the planned obsolescence that makes  an engineer or designer build something that will fall apart so that the  consumer must buy another, the vast disparity between the rich and the  poor has led to altering the planet’s life support systems. The climate  is changing. Temperatures are rising. The oceans are rising and are at  risk of acidification. The Earth’s wondrous biodiversity is disappearing  not naturally but ripped from the ground by greedy individuals and  corporations. If this continues to its logical conclusion, then civilization as we know it will end because we are billions and billions  of people. To survive we must find another purpose, another intention.
The future will be different. Human life will change because it must.  This is an inevitable process. Thinking, contemplating, meditating and  sharing with one an-other is the way to move forward. Protecting water,  soil, vegetation, and animals are the way forward. Working with degraded  lands to bring the water back, to take dry dust and grow fertile soils,  to restore vegetation and biodiversity, to eat healthy delicious food  that is not contaminated is very satisfying. People who work with each other to do this begin to experience great joy. They eat great food.  They are healthy. They begin to understand what it means to live and to  love unconditionally. This is the future for the humanity and the Earth  if it is to survive. This seems to me the way to engage people in  restoration.

Short Presentation of John D. Liu:
John Dennis Liu (born 1953 in Nashville, Tennessee) is a Chinese  American film-maker and ecologist. He is also a researcher at several  institutions. In January 2015 John was named Visiting Fellow at Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO) of the Royal Netherlands Academy  of Arts and Sciences. John is also Ecosystem Ambassador for the Commonland Foundation based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

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