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

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.

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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 ([email protected]), 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?

It is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems

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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