When John Liu was a teenager growing up in Indiana he was a year younger and much smaller than the others in his grade, many of whom found his intelligence annoying. In 1970, he was kicked off the debate team because he refused to cut his hair. His high school teachers kept wanting him to shut up. One of them told him very frankly that he had to stop telling her she was wrong when she was trying to teach class. “You don’t need to worry,” the teacher said. “You will pass the class. Now get out of here.”
Before travel stopped last year, John and I had been consistently bumping into each other at planet-care kinds of events for 20 or more years. Last week we spoke by phone from our respective pandemic safe houses. I asked if he could share his story with my readers. “My parents met in a small college in Nashville,” he told me, launching right in. “My dad looked sort of like a Casablanca Humphrey Bogart, only Chinese. He had been all over the world already and was wearing Saville Row suits.”
It was the habit in rural China in those times, and indeed the present times in many parts of the world, that one son remains to manage the family holdings while the other goes away to become educated and obtain worldly success. John’s father, the subject of a later biography, The Red Thread, was born in 1920, the oldest of two sons from a small village in Hunan Province.
Sent from home, John’s father had spent nearly a decade in uniform, fighting the Japanese invasion and then commanding joint Chinese, British and American forces in Burma under Stillwell, where he was severely wounded. Expecting imminent death, he relinquished his command to a marine sergeant from Tennessee, who fought off the attackers and carried Liu’s father to the rear. The injured man moved through hospitals in Burma, then India, and on to London. Recovered, he was appointed Chinese Army liaison to the Allied Command on D-Day, serving as a senior staff officer to Eisenhower until the end of the War.
At age 25 he was a decorated veteran, had been all over the world, and was acquainted with the next President of the United States. He decided that traveling across Russia to get home to China was probably a bad idea, so instead he chose to go west.
So he goes down to Nashville to see this guy who saved his life. And he meets my mother and they get married. Then the communists take over China and he is stateless, suddenly.
To marry a white woman in Tennessee at that time was crazy but he was basically given honorary white status.
Despite misogyny laws at the time, or perhaps because of them, their wedding made the front page of The Tennessean. John was born in 1953 and the family moved to Bloomington so his father could study civil engineering at Purdue. His father, rather than pursue an aerospace career in California like many of his classmates, decided he had had enough of the military industrial complex and instead opened a restaurant, and then another, until he was THE owner of Chinese restaurants in Bloomington, Indiana. Not wanting his children to become too provincial, he sent John’s older sister to school in Taiwan for two years. Then the whole family went there on sabbatical and John’s mother took a job teaching at the International School in Taipei. Returning by sea in 1967, the family called at Hong Kong, The Philippines, Bangkok, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Cape Town and Marseilles, where they switched to a Mercedes sedan and went sightseeing all over Europe. Then it was back to their Chinese restaurants in Bloomington.
“I think I am badly socialized but I’m pretty well educated,” he deadpanned.
In 1973, in the midst of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, his father drove to the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa and asked for a travel visa. Returning after three months in Hunan, he told his son China was very safe, you should go. “Really?” John said. No matter how little he enjoyed working in his father’s restaurants, had no desire to go to China. But in 1979 word reached the family that his grandmother in Hunan was passing, and his father said John had to go.
And I said, ‘Okay.’ I just packed everything and sold everything I owned and went to China with a racing bicycle and fencing equipment.
At the Language Institute in Beijing where he was learning Chinese he was given charge of a video studio full of government ministry equipment that no one knew how to use. He put together 80 video lessons in how to speak Chinese, populating the dialogs with top actors. He found a fencing partner in a baroness from Germany that rounded out his days. Then one day he learned that US news networks were being allowed to set up bureaus in Beijing, so he went to the hotel where CBS had just arrived and introduced himself. That day, and for the next five years, he became CBS News cameraman John Dennis Liu.
“Despite his Jedi status, 68-year-old Liu is easygoing and conversational, more midwestern ex-hippy than cryptic Zen master.”
In 1995, he was asked by the World Bank to document the “Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project.” Throughout the Han, the Qin and the Tang dynasties, the Loess had been known for its giant forests, rushing rivers, and fertile soils that were the cradle of settled agriculture and Chinese civilization. “By 1000 years ago,” Liu wrote, “the Loess Plateau had been abandoned by the wealthy and powerful and by the mid-1990s was famous mainly for a continuous cycle of flooding, drought and famine known as ‘China’s Sorrow’ (中国的悲哀).”
At one time the Loess could have been the backdrop for a film like Avatar, Liu told me. In 2011 he word painted the scene for a Dutch magazine:
“Great forests rich with oxygen, moisture, the scent of orchids and other flowers… epiphytes cling to every surface, making it seem that the trees have beards hanging from their limbs and fur on their bark. Even the rocks are covered in moss or mottled with lichens. The forest floor is covered with decaying organic matter, the remains of former generations of plants, from which spring giant ferns and colorful fungi. Animal droppings on the pathways, paw-prints, birdsong and animal cries….
Within these forests are ancient trees that live for thousands of years — giant trees anchoring vast diverse ecosystems, coexisting with their descendants and symbiotically with myriad forms of life. When it rains, the raindrops hit the towering ancient canopy and then drizzle down, nurturing each level of the multi-story environment. Water drops bead on the tips of the leaves, slowly forming, and when fat and heavy they drop to the next lower level, the process beginning again. The air is dense with humidity that bathes everything in the forest. Water springs spontaneously from rock formations and flows joyously in clear streams growing stronger and stronger until eventually forming great rivers.
The rivers flowing from the highland forests inundate the wetlands in the lower lands below on their paths to the sea. During the rainy seasons these wetland systems absorb huge amounts of water and during the dry seasons they slowly release it so that the land is never dry. At various times in the year the sky is darkened by enormous migratory flocks of birds. Various species compete in seeking nesting grounds in a riot of birdsong and the beating of wings. In the coastal zones where the land and the sea meet are vast mangrove forests, the interface between the land and the sea and the breeding grounds for much of the sea’s life. Where there is little rainfall one finds seemingly endless grasslands interspersed with trees and plants specially adapted to the exact rainfall patterns of each specific ecological habitat. In the grasslands and savannah regions vast herds of migratory animals abound.***As human power has grown we have cut down vast forests, converted natural systems to agriculture, relentlessly grazed our livestock, and built great cities and industrial zones. Throughout the last 10,000 years various civilizations have risen, but they have also fallen. Human history shows numerous examples of civilizations that failed to conserve and protect the natural diversity of life, the fertility of the soil and the hydrological cycle and collapsed. Currently, as we experience biodiversity loss, extreme weather events, desertification, food insecurity, human-induced climate changes, financial crisis, poverty, disparity, war and all our other problems, we are facing the same fate as those civilizations that went before us. But our dilemma is somewhat more dangerous because while in the past the centers of power and affluence just shifted, we are now altering planetary ecosystems. We urgently need to understand what is happening and what to do to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Liu filmed the restoration of Loess Plateau from its inception to completion of the intervention (natural succession continues). He attended the public support meetings the government used to inform residents as to what was going to happen and why. He watched engineers as they penciled on maps from satellite images that showed the contours of every watershed on the plateau. From these assessments, the government reached a critical decision that might have seemed counter-intuitive, but was transformative. For whatever reason, China decided that biodiversity was of greater economic value than sustainable resource extraction and sectioned the land accordingly, to optimize for diversity.
People still needed to eat and make a living, and since they were forbidden to plow on slopes, the government hired them to terrace slopes in the economic zone and plant those. The supplementary income from terraforming work, using only simple hand tools, saw them through until the new terraces began to produce.
…[T]he Chinese essentially helped transition poor, often illiterate subsistence agriculturalists to a new paradigm within one generation. Seeing and documenting the restoration of the Loess Plateau has been a source of inspiration and purpose but also a huge responsibility. When I began to realize how important the developments I was witnessing were, I began to speak publicly about it.
“Witnessing the incredible potential of restoration has helped me to understand that degradation is not inevitable,” he told the World Bank. “There is a path forward for humanity that leads to a sustainable future.”
At the annual meeting of the Society for Ecological Restoration in Merida, Yucatan in 2011, I was seated with Ronald Nigh, one of the worlds leading ethnobotanical anthropologists, when Liu, in his standard squashed hat and photographer’s vest came up. He wanted us all to come to the screening of his documentary on the Loess Plateau that evening.
We did, were suitably impressed, and John and I went on to have a beautiful, globetrotting friendship. He and I rode a boat up the Seine with a drum circle of Indigenous delegates to COP20-Paris, built rock dams in Morocco at the edge of the Sahara with the Hopi Rainkeepers, and worked at white boards together at Marlborough House in London to fashion a regenerative development plan to reverse climate change for the 52 Commonwealth countries. We have spent these past 65 weeks of pandemic in our respective borrowed lodging lockdowns, but we are still convening meetings on Zoom to discuss ecovillages, regenerative ag, carbon cascades, and the Ecosystem Restoration Camps he has been developing.
|Sea Surface Temperature|
Last week we were both in a Zoom to discuss progress at Camp Altiplano, Spain. The barren highlands of Galacia are rapidly desertifying as the climate of Northern Africa migrates into the Iberian Peninsula en route to Sweden and Norway. In 2016 a farmer there had offered ERC his land for a demonstration and John recruited a cadre of permaculture volunteers to build the first camp (there are more than 40 around the world now — slogan: “Let’s go camping!”).
In the very beginning this was a physical intervention, but it quickly became a biophysical succession.
In the Altiplano, just as 20 years before in the Loess, permanent vegetation returned. Biodiversity blossomed. The desert greened. Neighboring farmers, struggling with their own desperate poverty, came to gawk and marvel.
|ERC established camps|
Ten years ago, writing from Amsterdam, where he is now Visiting Fellow at Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO) of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences and an Ambassador for the Commonland Foundation, Liu said:
Money is now derived from the production and consumption of goods and services. This is the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. This thinking says that the total of the economy is what we produce and consume. But there is the rub. All the products and services we produce and consume come from functional ecosystems. If the ecosystems collapse then we actually have no productivity. This suggests the same finding that the Chinese had, that “Ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services.” Recently there have been many attempts to envision ‘Green Economics’ but the problem with many of these efforts is that they leave the fundamentals the same. They continue to assume that the basis of money is production and consumption.
This line of thinking made me ask: What would happen if money were not derived from production and consumption but the basis of money was functional ecosystems? The answer seems to be that everything would change. Society would be completely changed by this understanding; instead of working to produce and consume more and more, humanity would work to ensure that ecosystems functioned well. If ecosystem function was the basis of money, the development trajectory would be accumulative and ecosystem function would be protected and improved. This replaces scarcity with abundance. This shows where and how the economy can grow larger than it is now, and it doesn’t require endless and mindless growth in order to have wealth.
“As long as our global economy continues to value production and consumption higher than the functioning ecosystem, the results will remain the same and the outcome for humanity and the planet is bleak,” he said. But when he first saw what the humble Chinese farmers with their hoes and wood wheelbarrows were doing in the Loess Plateau, he had an epiphany.
This is more valuable than anything anyone understands. … I realized I had transcended dimensions and I am in another dimension of thought that doesn’t exist in the same way as mercantilism and commodification.***I started presenting at the Royal Academy in Stockholm, many universities, institutions and governments. The governments of Rwanda and Ethiopia were quite an experience because then they rewrote their land use policy laws.***So what I am working on now is to create a vehicle that allows me to have an ongoing societal conversation that raises the tenor of the collective dialogue. I have come to understand the role of the media more. It is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next.***There are a lot of people around the world for whom the light bulb is going on. There is consciousness rising. … If you have any awareness of what’s gone on, just in my lifetime alone, not to mention going back through human history, going back through evolutionary time, back through earth time, to the edge of the cosmos, and thinking, ‘All right, what is my position in this … story?’ That is where I am at. This vehicle is not for me alone. This is a gigantic gift to the world. There can be botanic sanctuaries and human care sanctuaries all over the world. If nobody is listening to me what does it matter? But if nobody is listening to what is going on we’re in trouble.
But thanks to John and those around him, people are listening. Thousands now. Millions soon. John said he felt like this was the largest wave of awareness he had ever seen. “It’s huge,” I agreed. “I can barely surf. I need a tow-in.”
As the world confronts the pandemic and emerges into recovery, there is growing recognition that the recovery must be a pathway to a new carbon economy, one that goes beyond zero emissions and runs the industrial carbon cycle backwards — taking CO2 from the atmosphere and ocean, turning it into coal and oil, and burying it in the ground. The triple bottom line of this new economy is antifragility, regeneration, and resilience.
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“There are the good tipping points, the tipping points in public consciousness when it comes to addressing this crisis, and I think we are very close to that.”
— Climate Scientist Michael Mann, January 13, 2021
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