The Great Work of Our Time

By John D. Liu
Mr. Liu with Rwandan farmers creating terraces to restore the Rugezi wetlands for his film Hope in a Changing Climate [© Sam Gracey]

While filming a project in China, American filmmaker John D. Liu realized that large-scale ecological restoration is not only possible, but may be the path for the development of our humanity. Mr. Liu is currently director of the Environmental Education Media Project and visiting fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology at the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences (NIOO/KNAW).

In sacred and protected places on the Earth it is possible to see the magnificence of ancient intact systems--climax forests, grassland systems and the remnants of intact peatlands. The beauty and functionality of these biomes reflect the organization of nature without human interference. These perfect places illustrate that the Earth provides us with air, water, food and energy--all that is needed for life to flourish.

While it is still possible to find perfect systems, the reality is that all these biomes are under threat from human impacts and the majority of the Earth's natural systems have already been seriously altered. Pollution of all kinds can be found in all parts of the Earth. Human impacts have reduced the habitat of many species on all continents, causing widespread and alarming extinctions. It is now quite clear that human activities are altering the Earth's hydrological cycle, the weather and the climate. Also today, gunfire pops like a constant drumbeat at the edges of civilization. The screams and bewilderment of traumatized women and children echo through a shared human history of recurrent warfare.

Considering the ravages of history, I began to wonder: "Is it inevitable that we continue to live in violence and degrade the Earth's landscapes?" This question resonated with me, and after long study, I feel that I know the answer.

In 1995, on assignment for the World Bank, I was introduced to the Loess Plateau in northwest China. This vast plain of approximately 640,000 square kilometers is the cradle of Chinese civilization and the site of one of the earliest agricultural developments on the Earth. When I first went to the Loess Plateau, I was confronted with desperately poor people trying to eke out a living in a dry and dusty ruined landscape. I was there to document the baseline study for the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project, and seeing the extent of the degradation, it was hard to imagine that such a ravaged landscape could be restored.

A team of Chinese physical and social scientists, with the help of international experts, analyzed the history of the plateau and identified deforestation, primitive agriculture on slope lands and unrestricted grazing of goats and sheep as the main causes of the degradation. They noted the cycle of flooding, drought and famine that kept the population in poverty. They also studied the costs of sedimentation and found that these were extremely high. They reasoned that if they could reduce sedimentation and the effects of flooding and drought that this caused, the costs of restoration would be small in comparison. Armed with an econometric justification to spend whatever would be required, they began to engage the local people in a monumental task.

They began by explaining to the people why they were banning tree cutting, slope farming and unrestricted herding of goats and sheep, and they offered the people an alternative income for their participation in restoration. With the entire community's labor and expert management, integrated watershed management was implemented in a project the size of Belgium. Initially, water harvesting methods including terraces, small dams and sediment traps were established. These physical interventions quickly became biophysical as the natural and agricultural vegetation grew. Perennial, diverse and sustainable agriculture replaced annual monocultures. As I continued to study and document the work, it became clear that it is possible to restore large-scale damaged ecosystems and that this knowledge is not just an interesting fact, but a responsibility that can change the course of human history.

Before and after restoration, Loess Plateau, China [© The Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP)]

Since witnessing that transformational change is possible on the Loess Plateau, I have extended my study to see whether there are principles that can be universally applied. I have found that understanding three evolutionary trends can help us visualize the natural development of the Earth and the impact of human disruption. These accumulative trends are: total colonization of the planet by biological life, differentiation and speciation leading to infinite potential variety in genetics and the accumulation of organic material as each generation of life dies and gives up its body to nurture the next generation. Within this understanding, we can see the sweep of evolutionary time; the growth of microbiologic communities converting geological minerals into food for plants and these nutrients becoming available for animals; the exchange of gases through photosynthesis creating the atmosphere; the development of the hydrological cycle through plant respiration and infiltration; and retention of precipitation into biomass and accumulated organic materials in the fertile living soils. As these living processes further asserted themselves, they began to regulate the weather and the climate, creating a dynamic equilibrium that can adapt to various tectonic, volcanic and cosmic forces.

My observations made me realize that human beings emerged or evolved in paradise and all of human history is but a moment in cosmic time. From this perspective, our individual lives can be seen as part of our species' emergence from ignorance and greed to increasingly higher states of consciousness. When we consider the process of human evolution in this way, we can see where we have been, where we are now and where we need to be in order to consciously reflect an understanding of life--to actually live in harmony with other life-forms and to rebalance the natural Earth systems that humans have disrupted over historical time.

Ecological restoration represents the way forward. Through this effort, humanity can evolve greater consciousness by serving the Earth to restore the natural systems that create and continuously renew the atmosphere, hydrological cycle and soil fertility, and that naturally regulate the weather and the climate. Simultaneously, this will restore the habitat necessary for natural genetic variety to reassert itself.

In order to reach this point, we must correct certain glaring mistakes. The most obvious of these is the false belief that wealth is derived from the accumulation of material possessions. This flawed reasoning engenders the greed that corrupts the judgment of the privileged and creates the unnecessary poverty, disparity and suffering of billions worldwide. We need to see that the false value we have attached to extraction, production and consumption has devalued natural Earth systems, which are in fact the very source of all life and wealth.

Also, realizing that violence and war are actually manifestations of prehuman behavior, we must inhabit the understanding that religious teachings through the ages have espoused--and which in our time Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela have proved--that nonviolence and forgiveness are stronger than violence and revenge.

We live in a time of great risk but are also closer than we have ever been to a mass enlightenment. The healing is in the doing. Ecological restoration is the necessary next step of human evolution and "The Great Work of Our Time."