When It Comes to Ecosystem Restoration, the Time Is Now, Says John D. Liu

"Currently, humanity faces existential threats, it is up to everyone alive today to stand up and face them."

John D. Liu

John D. Liu

If you're even remotely involved or in tune with ecosystem restoration, then John D. Liu is a familiar figure. Liu notably documented the restoration of China’s Loess Plateau from desert-like conditions to a functional ecosystem. He has worked on many award-winning film projects, including "The Lessons of the Loess Plateau," "Hope in a Changing Climate," "Green Gold," and "Leading With Agriculture." Liu has appeared in the recent films, "Kiss the Ground" on Netflix and “The Age of Nature – Awakening” streaming and broadcasting on various stations and platforms worldwide. 

Liu continues to study, document, and support the creation of new ecosystem restoration projects through the Commonland Foundation and the global Ecosystem Restoration Camps movement. Most of John’s broadcast and published work can be found here

Now, as an advisor on the board for the United Nations' Decade of Ecosystem Restoration, he is at the forefront of this important cause. Liu spoke to Treehugger about his projects and more.

Treehugger: We’d love to hear more about your projects—what are you working on right now?

John D. Liu: I’m currently in California very near to Hollywood. The COVID pandemic and travel restrictions made it difficult for me to get home to China and made my typical traveling life more difficult. As a result, I’ve been working more on writing and filming, and studying the situation in California. The state is expressing all the characteristics of early-stage desertification which can be seen in very long-term drought and in increasingly tragic wildfires. 

Coming to California made me understand the need here to restore the lower hydrological cycle. The impacts in California are mainly from the last 200 years so if the people in California understand that it is possible to restore ecosystem function if everyone works together and they act quickly and decisively it is possible to have a good result. If California does not change course then one of the greatest functional ecosystems on Earth will continue to degrade and could be lost in the very near future.

I stayed in the Hotlum Ecosystem Restoration Camp on Mt. Shasta for five months last year but then had to flee the fires. Sadly, the Hotlum camp recently burned in the “Lava Fire” during the huge heat wave that affected the Northwest of North America.

“The “Lava Fire” was the biggest fire so far this year and a harbinger of what the future may hold. The camp now needs to be rebuilt to help train more and more people in fire ecology and restoring the coastal forests that regulate the temperature and water cycle. I hope Hotlum will become a botanical sanctuary and an important contributor to restoring the great forests of the region. Please if you can help the Hotlum Camp to overcome this devastating event please contact them here.

I’ve mainly been observing, studying, and contemplating what I’ve been learning. But I’ve also been working on creating a new television series that I’ve been calling “The Flourishing Path.” This is designed to share what is going on in restoration around the world, bringing the voices of all who are working in restoration to engage the world in a profound conversation about restoration. My hope is that this new media vehicle will help raise the level of public discourse and inspire more people to join in Ecosystem Restoration activities locally and globally.

Which restoration projects globally most excite you at the moment or have the greatest potential for positive change?

All restoration projects excite me because in order to succeed we need to restore ecological function on a planetary scale.

Several large developments are emerging.

The UN's Decade of Restoration has officially launched. I’ve joined the advisory board. Hopefully, this will help bring political will and resources to grassroots actions. The grassroots actions seem to me to be most important because they represent "the will of the people." 

I feel certain that to succeed in reversing climate change, biodiversity loss, and hydrological collapse, ecosystem restoration must become the central intention of human civilization. We must consider how big a change this is. It is a paradigm shift of enormous complexity but if humanity decides collectively to restore the Earth’s natural ecological functionality, then really nothing can stop us.

My greatest hope is in “The Ecosystem Restoration Camps Movement” which is growing rapidly and after just 5 years is expected to have over 50 camps around the world by the end of 2021. The camps face challenges but they are successfully engaging new people and new energy to restoration efforts. I think that this method that allows all to participate is a key element to restoring the Earth.

Already there are camps on all continents. In the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East there are camps in Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Somalia, Turkey, and together with the UN and GAIA University, several villages are working on Rural Agriculture Development in Syria. We are working to link these together and get Arabic Language teaching materials flowing through the region to grow more camps and involve more communities.

What should our top priorities be (in terms of focus, areas for restoration, or changes) as we progress through the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration?

There is, I believe, a natural progression required for us to have transformational change.

Consciousness: We are going to have to value life higher than things. We must transform the economy in order to reflect the true value of life. This requires us to stop thinking that buying and selling things is somehow the basis of wealth and allows us to understand and care for all people and all living beings. Now we are invested in death and are consuming the Earth’s life support systems. This false belief in materialism must end, so we can take another path.

If we are unable to understand this or unable to do it then we cannot change the trends that are leading to predictable catastrophic outcomes.

Intention: We must be intentional. Intention depends on what we understand and is the bridge between theoretic understanding and action. I believe that when people make this shift then all politicians and theorists will follow. We must reverse the course of what is happening now. We can no longer wait for the vested interests to lead because they believe that it is in their interest to keep things the same, we require a paradigm shift.

Action: Now is the time to act. All people who understand that our children and future generations of life are dependent on this choice must now stand up and take action. If we are conscious of the value of the Earth’s living systems and of all life and we have the intention to stop exploiting and start conserving and restoring then we must act with fairness, efficiency, and effectiveness. The best way to do this is joyously and collaboratively. It is a monumental shift in civilization.

I’ve mentioned restoring California and the coastal forests and restoring the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East. Coral Reef restoration is also very much on my mind. This needs to be done rapidly and systematically and it has great potential.

I think that a major trend could be to make Ecosystem Restoration Camps that engage those who want to scuba dive to join in mass efforts to restore coral reefs. Restoring Coral Reefs is a much more purposeful use of scuba diving than just swimming around and looking at fish. This requires expert scientific oversight, a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, many willing participants, very mindful care, and continuous study. It also requires us all to choose to work together for the benefit of all.

The Amazon and Congo Basin, as well as Indonesia, are critical. But as said before we need to restore the entire Earth.

What, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges in ecosystem restoration?

Overcoming the philosophy of materialism is perhaps the biggest challenge.

We are in a race now. For thousands of years, humans have been on the wrong path that leads to unnecessarily consuming the Earth’s life support systems. I think the biggest challenge is the scale of the problem and the degree of difficulty. Most people have been socialized to accept their position in a mercantile hierarchy that is simply false. We are not cogs in a machine or consumers. The purpose of life is not to go shopping.

Every human being and all living beings are the expressions of all life since the beginning of time. All life is sacred. This means that all living beings have inherent rights. You don’t have to buy rights, they are yours. Expressing this fundamental truth and working for the good of all is what we need to do, and this is both a right and a responsibility.

What are some practical takeaways from your work on restoration projects that you would like to share?

We can directly lower the temperature on the surface of the Earth. We can do this by increasing the vegetative cover and the organic matter in the soil. This also protects biodiversity and soil fertility, as well as restoring the lower hydrological cycle. Each of us can do this in our own communities and we can all do this together as a species on a planetary scale. This is exactly what is needed to save human civilization and each of us has a role to play. This is the basis of life and health and is also the basis of wealth. This understanding is central to a new era in human history.

Knowing that we are doing what we can to save human civilization is a lot better than denying that we have a responsibility or running away from our problems. We are all living our lives and part of life is death. Our time in our bodies on Earth is limited but life is infinite. We are making history. We are shaping the future. What we do with our life’s energy while we are alive is very important and determines the future for our children and generations of life to come. 

Living with purpose is satisfying. Currently, humanity faces existential threats, it is up to everyone alive today to stand up and face them.

We all need each other. The challenges that we face are very complex and we can only succeed in addressing them if we call work together. Alone we are limited but together we are strong.

What would you advise readers to do to help in our goals?

I recommend that everyone join the Ecosystem Restoration Camps movement as supporting members. This is a simple way to come together in a community committed to restoring the Earth. If one million people share the cost of 2 or 3 cups of coffee a month then ordinary people will be leading the restoration process and it will continue to grow as more people realize there is no alternative to restoring the Earth’s life support systems.

The Camps movement is only five years old and it has grown to over 50 camps. This is a way to very quickly empower more and more people to collaborate with their neighbors, and with sympathetic people all over the world. This is exactly what is needed to heal the Earth and the Human Spirit.

I recommend that we all work together, study together, eat together, sing together, and restore the Earth together. If we take this first step, we can live in peace and care for everyone and all living beings. From restoration camps, we can experiment on how to live the change we want to see on the Earth. It all depends on as many of us as possible leading at this time of crisis.

Here is a link to a recent interview I gave to Helen Denham’s “Lifted” podcast that explains what I’ve been considering in great detail.