I wrote this article about one of my 'eco-heros' as part of my work with the Water Symposium last month in Tamera. Below you will find two additional posts about the Water Symposium and the Global Love School, both gatherings in Tamera in April 2012.
John D. Liu - filmmaker, educator, and social and environmental activist - is a man with a clear purpose, one that he lives with passion and power. When I asked him about his path towards discovering his work, he said, "We don't need activity, we need purposeful activity. Human activity without consciousness is useless." John’s advice : if you don't know what to do, or if you don't understand what you are doing, don't do anything. Be still. Once you know what to do, then you have a responsibility to act, and you have to do it precisely. He explained, "Every choice we make effects the whole”, referring to the butterfly effect and the interconnected nature of the world. John's contribution to transforming the current epoch of destruction is sharing the message of environmental restoration. It is now scientifically proven that it is possible to reverse the effects of deforestation, over-production and environmental degradation. "Nothing is as important as large scale landscape regeneration."
John is an activator, has been called a 'thought leader', and is turning the world on to the message that change is possible. A true bridge person, John has worked with CBS, the World Bank and the UN. He named the importance of working on a policy level, as the dysfunction is systematic, and he recognizes that the same issues that are seen in the global systems are mirrors for the human structures of fear, disconnection and the lack of trust.
I first met John at the Bioneers Conference in California. His stunning images and clear dialogue created a picture of hope that called for action, and I was compelled to connect with him. A powerful figure in the world, he has been 'eco-warrior' traveling the world (90 countries so far) using the tools of media and education to spread information for change. From our first conversation I recognized him also as a community being. He was receptive, present and curious, interested not only in the projects I spoke of but of me as a human as well. During our first conversation in Tamera during the Water Symposium he told me how important community is to him. His first experiences with community were in his youth, and while they may not have been the most successful models, he remained connected to the dream of community. "I live wherever I am, and I have a very large community."
When John spoke of what he has learned from visiting diverse cultures, I witnessed him being very moved. His eyes softened and glistened as he described the cross-cultural harvest of solutions as a gift and a big source of inspiration. "There are many models, and each culture is teaching us something, and each has its flaws." While his path may continue to take him to all corners of the world, researching and spreading the message of functional eco-systems and regeneration projects, I sensed a resonance with the vision of creating models. "It is urgent to have a vision of a future without war." Indeed, the tag line of one of his projects is "Envisioning a future without poverty in a world with functional ecosystems."
Media has been his passion, his medium and his work, and through this he has seen how vision creates reality through the information that is released into the world. He explained, "It is urgent to have a vision that works" in a time that Hollywood broadcasts apocalyptic images and TV shows focus on surveillance, hate and violence. "If we don't have a vision more compelling than that, then that will be the future." Looking at the world through Liu's eyes, I can see the dysfunction of our society and its roots in the information we receive. John sees TV as the successor to the village storyteller; throughout history stories have been passed from one generation to the next. Stories, and now our T.V. programming and access to the internet, represent the sum of human knowledge that is increasingly available to everyone. This is terrifying from the perspective that media is a corrupt tool. John explained, "In media there is so much power and very little responsibility." Again and again he referenced Noam Chomsky's concept of 'manufactured consent' - corporate owned media is motivated by profit rather than public interest or truth, and the news that we, the public, receive creates our perception of reality and therefore what we can imagine. And, "If we can't imagine it, we can't have it."
"Nothing needs to be said if you don't understand it. This concept has made me a much better researcher." John looks at the world with wonder, he spoke of his "healthy skepticism" which leads to ultimately judging whether something is effective or not. If it is effective, it is because it is logical and true. "Tell the truth, and tell everyone the same thing." John identifies the need to talk about base level destruction; a 'truth' I hear him repeating again and again is the 'mistake' of the basis of our economic system, a mistake we have perpetuated throughout history. We have based our economy on production and consumption, which creates deserts, a reality we can see not only in the overwhelming trend of desertification in the world, but also social deserts. This system will either collapse or evolve into a system based on ecological function: "Everything is grace, everything is a gift. I don't want to live my life buying and selling, constantly negotiating."
The Loess Plateau was John's first case study of large-scale regeneration of an ecological system corrupted by overproduction. The Loess Plateau in China is one of the world’s cradles of civilization, generally known as the second region to develop agriculture, which led to environmental degradation and famine. In 1995 John was hired by the World Bank to document one of the world's largest scale degeneration control projects, a project that through impressive research successfully changed the intent of the societal and economic systems from production to function. John explained, "When you value ecological function higher than production and consumption, then you move towards ecological sustainability. Otherwise, you devalue the source." As he wrote in his article 'Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration in the Kosmos Journal, "Witnessing the incredible potential of restoration has helped me to understand that degradation is not inevitable and that there is a path forward for humanity that leads to a sustainable future."
One key to the success in the Loess Plateau was the use of vocational training and participatory rural assessment, not only creating jobs in a depressed economic region but also engaging the whole community in the research of solutions. Of course they made a lot of mistakes, but through highly organized structures they documented their work and evolved. This approach helps to create 'buy in', change is often met by resistance on every level from peasant farmers (“Why should we plant trees? The next generation can not eat trees.”), to policy makers facing a drastic cultural and economic shift from a production driven economy towards a concept of wealth based on economic function.
John made two films about the restoration of the Loess Plateau, "The Lessons of the Loess Plateau" and "Hope in a Changing Climate". The films are exciting and strong; John uses informative narrative and rich images to bring the viewer into the macro and microscopic picture of what is happening. The images help us to see the power of destruction in our current state of degradation, while also seeing the life power of nature. From close ups of flowers to views of large bodies of water eroding the earth, his images strike a chord deep inside of me, speak to me of the human-nature relationship, and awaken a deep human longing for healing. His in-person presentations are even more dynamic, as the dialogue comes straight from his life knowledge and is very clear and poignant. Leila Dregger of Tamera said of his presentation during the water symposium: “The short piece he showed was really strong and in a positive way emotional. I could see how to use mainstream skills in a good and opening way, not only in a manipulative way. I did not find myself being manipulated, just touched and with the information I was provided ready to act.”
He continues to bring hope to the world through media, collaborating with other journalists and filmmakers in a variety of projects. The latest development is a new television program called "What If We Change" which is aired in many countries in East Africa. The focus is on ecological success stories. While in Tamera he created a segment on the Water Symposium and Tamera's model water retention landscape. From there he traveled to the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, a protected research center focused on forests, streams and watersheds for over 40 years. He follows invitations and callings to all corners of the world. When it comes to collaboration, he is ready to "try", to work with anyone who wants to work with him.
When I asked John what he thought of Tamera's work he replied quickly and clearly: "The water retention landscape is perfect for this area." He was very happy to learn more about this approach, AND, "It doesn't necessarily need to be lakes." From his view, the percentage of land cover is the most essential, the physical interference of creating lakes must become biophysical, biomass is more important than water retention spaces. Bio-diversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter are keys for human survival. "After following this line of inquiry for so long I now know that soil moisture, relative humidity, fertility, microclimates and infiltration and retention of rainfall are dynamic. We can physically change the amount of biomass, accumulated organic matter and even ensure biodiversity is protected. It is our choice." -from his article "Envisioning a future without poverty in a world with intact ecosystems" published by Network of Climate Journalists of the Greater Horn of Africa.
John D. Liu is a key player in the system change we are all embarking on. He is doing his part, and he is not alone. As he said, "The knowledge is bigger than the individual or the community, it is needed on a planetary level. " In the current system, most people do not have access to the true 'sum of human knowledge.' Those of us who access knowledge, have free minds ad consider what is needed to be done are privileged, and "with this privilege comes great responsibility". I give thanks to the path of this one man, and thank him for the way he came into contact with Tamera, sharing his knowledge, allowing himself to be touched by what he met, revealing his vulnerable human side, and for the huge gift he gave me, as a young peace worker in training, to see him in his humanity. This is a hopeful picture in this time of transformation.