In this important episode, John Liu shares knowledge and wisdom needed for mobilizing large-scale ecological regeneration. By creating a network of self-organizing place-based Ecosystem Restoration Camps, John is helping to spread and scale-up this essential response to the toxification and destabilization of our planet’s systems. From the Loess Plateau (the cradle of Chinese civilization, a formerly degraded landscape the size of France), to the sandy deserts of Egypt, Somalia, and the Sinai Peninsula (once the “Fertile Crescent” cradle of western civilization), communities are mobilizing to restore landscapes, regenerate soil, bring back rainfall, infiltrate moisture, detoxify drinking water, propagate plants, and cultivate thriving local economies. John tells us that, “The healing is in the doing, not the thinking!”
Discussing the urgent need for a fundamental shift from materialism toward collaborative inquiry, collective intelligence, and purposeful action, John also reveals a deeper philosophical (and psycho-spiritual) truth that the individuals and communities choosing restoration are also cultivating lives of much deeper meaning, satisfaction, and quality. This urgent work helps to reduce food insecurity, to dampen extreme weather events, to diminish climate change impacts, and to reverse desertification. The movement is place-based, rooted in soil, and therefore requires broad mobilization across all regions, cultures, and people – as John puts it, “The only institution that can heal Earth is human civilization.”
Get involved today, join the Ecosystem Restoration Camp movement, donate, start a camp, and help make this massively scale throughout the world!
John Liu is an ecologist, soil scientist, film maker, and the visionary behind the Ecosystem Restoration Camps movement. After working for 15 years as a Television Producer and Cameraman for RAI, SRG SSR, ZDF, BBC World, and National Geographic Channel, John began to study ecology. For the last three decades since, working in ecosystem restoration, he obtained numerous achievements as a filmmaker, researcher and environmentalist. Documentaries “Green Gold, “Hope in a Changing Climate”, and “What If We Change?” won numerous international awards.
From 2003 to 2006 John was a visiting fellow with the Faculty of Natural Sciences and the Faculty of the Built Environment at the University of the West of England. In 2006, he was named the Rothamsted International Fellow for the Communication of Science. Other positions include Senior Research Fellow for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, associate professor at the George Mason University, and Visiting Fellow at Netherlands Institute of Ecology. He is also Ecosystem Ambassador for the Commonland Foundation.
Inspired by the possibility of involving ordinary people alongside experts and local communities in the restoration of earth’s ecosystems, in 2016, John initiated the Ecosystem Restoration Camps (ERC) movement, which currently includes 36 camps on 6 continents.
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Aaron: Welcome to Y on Earth community podcast. I’m your host, Aaron William Perry. And today we’re visiting with John Liu, the founder of ecosystem restoration camps and the chairman of its advisory council. Hi John.
John Liu: Hello. How are you?
Aaron: I’m doing great. How are you doing?
John Liu: Not too bad. It’s a beautiful day in California.
Aaron: Yeah, it looks like a beautiful scene there with folks who are watching the video behind you. I, I can’t quite make out if those are mountains or trees or both, but it looks like a beautiful backdrop.
John Liu: These are trees, but it is in a mountainous area. I’m near Santa Cruz. This is the University of the Trees. It was pioneered by Christopher Hills who made spirulina long ago. Many decades ago. He’s passed away now, but this is a place where Alan Watts and Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna all hung out. So I’m honored to be here, hanging out where I feel like they’re, they’re here giving me some energy,
Aaron: What a beautiful history there to tap into. John Liu is an ecologist soil, scientist, filmmaker, and the visionary behind the ecosystem restoration camps movement. After working for 15 years as a television producer and camera man for RAI, SRG, SSR, ZDF, BBC World, and National Geographic Channel, John began to study ecology. For the last three decades since working in ecosystem restoration, he obtained numerous achievements as a filmmaker, researcher, and environmentalist. His documentaries include ‘green gold’, ‘hope in a changing climate’ and ‘what if we change’, which won numerous international awards. From 2003 to 2006, John was a visiting fellow with the faculty of natural sciences and the faculty of the built environment at the university of west of England. In 2006, he was named the Wrotham Stead international fellow for the communication of science. Other positions include senior research fellow for the international union for conservation of nature, associate professor at the George Mason University and visiting fellow at Netherlands Institute of Ecology. He is also eco-system ambassador for the common land foundation. And before we dive into our conversation, John which I’m so excited, we have the opportunity to share with our Y on Earth community audience, I want to point out that my friend, Judith Schwartz in her recent book ‘Reindeer Chronicles’, and some folks will remember we had an episode with her recently she refers to you as the Indiana Jones of landscape restoration. So I thought that was, that was a pretty fun way to kick things off here, John. And clearly you are helping lead a tremendous worldwide movement that is really gaining traction and now substantially scaling. And a welcome to the show to kick things off. I want to just ask you, John, what is it that ecosystem restoration camps is doing and why should we be encouraging other folks to get involved?
John Liu: Thank you so much. That was a lovely introduction. I just like to add two things to it. If, if, if it’s okay. I worked for 10 years for CBS news. They should. So they basically trained me in in professional observation and documentation. And also that I’m the ecosystem ambassador for the common land foundation, which now has over 2 million hectares in restoration around the world.
Aaron: Thank you. That’s beautiful.
John Liu: But to address your address, your question the ecosystem restoration camps movement is, is something that I founded because I had been working in ecosystem restoration after I, after I left journalism and the world bank had asked me to document the restoration of the Loess Plateau in the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River in China.
This is the cradle of Chinese civilization. And over 10 years, starting in 1994, I kept going out there and documenting what was happening, and it was astonishing. A place which was fundamentally degraded and had virtually no vegetation and no ecological function was returned to a trajectory which ultimately could lead to climax equilibrium again in evolution. So when I saw that, I just basically quit journalism and went into study ecology because I thought this is more important than the egos, the fragile egos of politicians. And in doing that for what happened to me was that I realized not only do we have the technologies, the understanding of how to restore these systems and that this is the absolutely best way to mitigate and adapt to climate changes and to ensure food security and reduce the possibility of food insecurity or our extreme weather events or climate impacts. I, I, I, I found that it also is happening too slow that the normal mechanisms for giant international projects or programs take years to define, and then more time to fund and then more time to implement. And they’re usually a short period of time, like three or five years maximum. And what I realized was that large numbers of people are not engaged in that if there’s a kind of a professional class and there’s a hierarchy of, of the powers that be, and these powers that be, have sort of various types of motives and, and various types of, of intentions. And one of the most important is to maintain the status quo. And when you’re trying to deal with ecosystem restoration, you realize, well, the status quo is what caused the, the degradation and that what’s needed to restore it is transformational change. And that these institutions may not be in the best shape for transformational leading transformational change. And also that it seems to me that the people who are available and able to infiltrate moisture, restore ecological function, or organic material to the soils or propagate and plant out mainly indigenous and endemic trees and plants are not the same people who are walking in marble halls, wearing Italian suits and having cufflinks. And so the poorest people on the earth seem to be the most available and the most capable of doing what needs to be done. But this then becomes a question of value, whether their lives are valued, whether their actions are valued and whether ecological function is valued. So we need to have this fundamental shift away from materialism. The idea that more manufacturing, more buying and selling is somehow the protecting us and not understanding that it’s air, water, food, biodiversity, soil fertility, climate regulation, and that these are more valuable than things. And who, who can understand that and who can act in that way, they’re the poorest people on the earth right now, who can do that? The people who are benefiting from materialism, they have a hard time imagining a transformational change.
Aaron: Yes, yes, absolutely. Well, in a, and I’m struck, I want to mentioned that the, the way in which author Judith shorts talks about your work on the Loess Plateau in particular in ranger Chronicles, that I’m holding up my copy here, by the way, folks if you want, you can go to the yearth.org partners page and click on the link to Chelsea Green and use the code a Y-O-E-one-zero Y-O-E-1-0 for a 10% discount on her book.
But the way she describes the work that that you’ve done and that you’ve documented on the Loess Plateau provides this incredibly pragmatic and hopeful vision for what’s possible worldwide, John. And I was hoping for our audience who aren’t yet familiar with your work there, you might create more of a picture for us as to what has occurred there over the last many years.
John Liu: Well, when I realized that the giant projects take so long and are pretty slow, I started to wonder, is there some way we could engage vast numbers of people in ecosystem restoration? And I, I started having dreams and I had these dreams that were, I was waking up in the morning and I had this, I had been clearly processing something overnight while I was asleep. And I was waking up with this vision of people going camping and restoring the soils and restoring the plants. And they were all happy and they were all purposeful and they didn’t need anybody to tell them what to do, because they knew what to do. They, they were studying this and there was a sort of, I call it collaborative inquiry for collective intelligence. So everybody was studying together as a Metta organism, instead of as individuals they were studying together. And humanity was the only agency that could actually do what needs to be done. And what was interesting about this was I rejected it. I said, well, nobody’s going to do that. I’ve been making these films about restoration for years and decades, and nobody really listens to me, or very few people are listening. And then, but I kept having the dreams. So they were recurrent. And so I, I said, well, okay, I’m clearly processing this as I’m sleeping. So maybe I’d better write about it. So I, I made a few essays. You can find one called ecosystem…I think the earth repair peace camps in the permaculture magazine and there was another one in cosmos journal. And then I also started writing on, on social media about it. And suddenly something strange happened first tens, then hundreds, then thousands. And then tens of thousands of people started to say, well, that’s a good idea. And we’re kind of having that same dream. And so I, I realized that this wasn’t just me. This was, this was in the air. This was, this was the time had, had come for this. And so when a thousand people agreed to share 10 euros per month, which is like two cups of coffee, it’s Starbucks now we, we said, well, okay, if a thousand people are going to share 120 euros per year, 10 euros per month, 120 euros per month or per year, then we’ll have to create a foundation. So we created, created a foundation to accept that money. And in doing that, we started talking about, well, where should the first camp be? And the first camp was built in Spain, and you can go learn about it at ecosystemrestorationcamps.org, where this is documented. And that was the-so we worked on foundations. And now there are two foundations, one in Europe and one in North America in the United States. And then the second, the first camp in Spain, and then the second camp and the next year was in Mexico. And then the third year there were 21 camps. And in the fourth year, there are 37 camps around the world in six continents. So we started to realize that this is the beginning of a really big movement, which engages a large number of people who might not necessarily be involved in ecological restoration, and that we’re already seeing exponential growth. So in the fifth year and sixth year, and up to the 10th year, could we end up with millions of people in very many camps all over the world. And so I think that’s the direction that we’re moving in right now. And what’s happening there is people are happy. Just like the dream, the dream is coming true.
People are happily working on soil for fertility and working on, on propagation and planting out and on watershed management. And it’s very satisfying to do that. There’s maybe nothing more satisfying than seeing a stream or a spring return that has been lost. And so we, we, we see people working in that area, we’re training more and more people. There’s various aspects of this knowledge hubs that are sharing information, training courses, online training courses, at camps. So there’s so much possibility.
Aaron: Yeah, that’s so inspiring. And I want to remind folks, ecosystemrestorationcamps.org is a wonderful resource with all kinds of opportunities to engage and to learn and to mobilize, we’ll have this and other links in the show notes. Of course. But let me just, let me just get right to, I think, a really important question, John, how can folks get involved and support this work that is scaling up?
John Liu: Well, there’s sort of various ways that they can do this. On the one hand, it’s possible to join as a supporting member of the camps movement. So this is generally people, actually, we don’t have a, a set thing. Some people are giving five euros, some people, 10 euros, other people are going to the U S 5 0 1 C 3 and giving dollars. And it could be $5 or $10 a month. But if you have more money, it could be $50 or a hundred dollars a month, whatever you think. That’s one thing another way to participate is actually to go to camp. So those people, young people who might not have any money or people from the developing world to them, maybe five or 10 euros is a lot of money. If they’re living under a dollar a day or something, then they don’t need to give any money to this. Uh the people who have money can give money and the people who have time can give time. And so going to camp is a way to learn how to infiltrate and retain moisture in the soils and how to restore watersheds and how to propagate and plant out the indigenous and endemic plants. So there’s quite a lot to learn. You start to understand the complexity of this it’s prodigious, but it’s also a great deal of fun to, to do this, and it’s really needed. So as we see this happening, many people perhaps are not thinking about other parts of the world, they’re thinking about where they live. And of course it depends on where you live. So if you live in Mauritania or Mali or Somalia or Libya or Lebanon or Turkey or Greece, or a whole bunch of other places, even Southern California or all up and down the coast here in the Pacific, if you’re, if you’re thinking about recurrent drought or you’re thinking about wildfires, or you’re thinking about mudslides and floods and this sort of thing, then you might want to just deal with your own place. But if you’re in a wonderful place and you’re thinking about the Middle East or the dangers around the world, you have another possibility, both are possible. You can immediately work in camps near you, and you can work in camps around the world, or you can support the whole camps movement, which will just continue to grow.
Aaron: Beautiful. Well, and of course, our friends and colleagues, through the winery community are located, throughout the world as, we’re continuing to grow globally on this end as well. But, at the same time, most of our audience is in the United States. And I’m curious, John, here in the U S where are their existing camps and or where do you foresee, new camps potentially emerging that folks closer to this area might engage.
John Liu: I’m seeing that I’m going into shadow. Should I move a little bit to be in the sunlight? Or are you happy with this?
Aaron: I, I think moving a little for sun is generally a great idea. So if you would like to, if you’d be more comfortable, that sounds good.
John Liu: Thank you. Just a moment.
Aaron: Okay. And one of the things I love about our podcast series is that we do very little post-production work, which allows for two things. One is allows us to get a lot more productivity out of our modest budget. And it also allows for a bit more, I think, candor and in a sense authenticity in our conversations. And so when this sort of thing occurs, it’s fabulous, right? Because indeed the relative position of the sun, from our perspective moods and the, to have a little shade thrown across you by a, I imagine a tree or a structure as part of real life. Yeah. So, so yeah, John, I was just, I was asking about existing camps and the possibility of emerging camps here in the United States.
John Liu: Yeah. I think that you know, there can be camps everywhere. Basically. It’s not about anyone other than the camps themselves choosing where they are because all of the camps are autonomous self-organizing and self-governing, so it’s, it’s not that we’re creating an institution it’s that we’re creating a network. And I would, I would call it more like a, a mycelium network. One of the wonderful things about Paul Stamets, in his work with, with funig is the understanding that mycelial networks from the fungi are like a pathway, a communications pathway, but actually a physical pathway. So you have very small bacteria, which is critical for releasing nutrients from geologic materials and making them available to vascular plants and higher, higher organisms, more complex organisms. But in order for them to, to actually move those bacteria are sort of stuck in place, but when they touch the mycelium network, they can go everywhere in the network instantly. So I kind of think of it. I think of the ecosystem restoration camps in this way, that it’s like a mycelium network, which allows for all, any, any breakthrough or accomplishments in any of the camps to transfer to all the other camps instantly. And when we do that, then we start to see, for instance, I’ve been working for decades in this concept of restoration, and I thought, oh, we’re going to fail. But then when I had this dream and started to see it materialize, I thought, well, now that could work because the whole of humanity could rise up and say, yes, let’s, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s not in my interest personally, or I don’t profit from, from restoration personally, but we all benefit. So this is in the collective interest of all humanity. And I think that’s such a easier thing for us to get behind and it allows everyone to participate and it allows everyone to participate instantly. Like you don’t have to go get a graduate degree in ecology in order to participate, you can go and there’ll be people who know a more than you do if you’ve just contacted this information and you’ll be able to talk with them and you’ll be able to work. And as you do it you’ll know everything because it excuse the analogy, but it, it enters from another orifice. And you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, you, you own, you possess this information because you, you did it. The healing is in the doing, not in the thinking or they’re talking about it, it’s in the doing. So we need to really get to this place where everyone is deeply engaged in working for restoration.
Aaron: That is so beautiful. And, you know, I imagine that many of us in the Y on Earth community would like to engage further and perhaps even help plant the seeds of new camps. And so in terms of nuts and bolts, what are the practical steps that we would take to help establish new camps?
John Liu: Well, I think the first thing might be to join the ecosystem restoration camps, movement as a supporting member at some minimal way. But then when you do, you’re equal to everyone else in the movement, basically we’re all the same. We’re all sharing a little bit in order to be more powerful than we are as individuals. So what I, what I’ve noticed is that together,
I think if humanity chooses ecosystem restoration as the central intention of civilization, there’s nothing that can stop us. But if we don’t, we’re facing quite serious problems. So having, having a method that allows a low entry point, but then from there, it’s up to you, what do you want to do? Do you want to go to camp? Do you want to study it? Do you want to do make new camps? Do you want to, but whatever we do, the first thing is activities. The first thing is we have to work every day toward increasing soil fertility, increasing carbon sequestration in the soils, in the, in the biomass. And then we need to ensure that the hydrological cycle is functional. And then we need to understand that the biodiversity is the highest order of ecological function and is massively complex. It’s symbiotic, multidimensional, symbiotic systems. And it’s really, really a high level of understanding. So how can we get this level of understanding? Okay, you can go and start to study it in graduate school and just go on for years and decades in this. And it works. Ultimately you understand it, but the best way is to go to the land and restore the soil and the plants and the biodiversity. And suddenly you, you not only know it theoretically, but you understand exactly how it comes about, and you understand that everyone has a role to play in this and that we can do this Now we don’t need to wait years and decades. We have to do it now because we’re at the crisis point. So the way to make camps is first to have activities. And then when your activities are, you can’t do it alone. There’s no way individuals. There’s no way I can restore the earth. There’s no way any agency or any institution, the only agency that can do this is human civilization. So when we understand this and we all work together, then we can have this effect. And so the more people who are working and what we’re trying to do is create this network that will provide resources, provide encouragement, and provide a model that people can follow. But those models are now morphing into numerous models. So you have models which are coming from the-Morocco and Somalia and Egypt, and you have models which are coming from Brazil and from Mexico and from Guatemala. And you have models, which are coming from India and Thailand and from Europe and from California. So here in California, we’ve, we most definitely got to restore these huge forests, which are burning down. And we’ve got to reverse the trend toward decade, long drought and desertification. We’re changing the climate here. And if we don’t restore it, then it’ll continue to decline. But all of that is possible if we work together. And if we take it outside of the transactional economic system, and we say, well, let’s just do this because it’s a duty to do this for our children and for future generations. And it’s not about ownership, it’s not about like, okay, now we restored the environment. It’s mine, you know, that’s ridiculous, it’s it belongs to all life. And so when we understand that, then I think we’re at a higher level of consciousness. And when we’re at this higher level of consciousness, we’re not really talking about selfish impulses. We’re talking about the collective interest of all life. Not only all human beings, but all living things.
Aaron: Yeah. It’s so it’s so beautiful, John, and, and it’s so exciting as, as you and I have been discussing over the last few days preparing for this interview. There there’s a lot of potential opportunity for collaboration between the Y on Earth community and ecosystem restoration camps.
And as I mentioned to you, I’m living at elk run farm here in Colorado where my friends, Nick and Marissa are doing amazing work with their non-profit called dry land agro ecology research. And they’ve already planted over 2000 trees and have done all kinds of swelling work and are doing holistic grazing work with sheep and running pigs, chickens, ducks through the landscape. And of course here in Colorado, much of the terrain is semi-arid. And that means getting a lot of the water into the ground and keeping it in the soil when we get snows and rains, intermittently, and I, I just, I get so excited thinking there’s a whole lot we can do to collaborate and help scale. Of course, we’ll be developing videos with Nick and Marissa in the coming months. That may just be a value and interest to many others through your network. So you know, thinking about the sustainable development goals of which there are 17 developed by our global communities for the United Nations and that number 17, the final goal be in the partnerships and collaboration. I get so jazzed because truly, as you’re saying, there’s way more that we can accomplish through these networks and in partnership than any of us can do individually as people, or even as organizations. So I I’m sharing my enthusiasm with you and really look forward to working hand in hand as we move forward here in these next few critical years.
John Liu: Well, I I’m sure that that’s completely possible. We’ve already shared the Y on Earth network contact information with the people at the ecosystem restoration camps movement, and I’m sure that it will come about. There’s, there’s just a decision to be made that we want to work together. And, you know, from my perspective and everybody, I know we want to work with everyone who has this, who shares this intention. So I don’t think there’s any problem with it. And I think already the materials that you’ve developed in your book and other books and the children’s materials, they’re completely relevant. And I think maybe through this global movement, they can also go into other languages. If you haven’t already done that. They’re probably many languages I can imagine Arabic and Hindi and of course, Spanish and French and so on. So if, if we can all work together to make this happen, it can go around the world as quickly as possible.
Aaron: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve, we’ve begun translating our children’s books into Spanish, but clearly there’s a whole lot more to be done with the other resources as well as other languages. And, you know, I’m, I’m struck by some of the work that is being done already in North Africa and the Middle East which, you know, policy walks often refer to as Mina. But a lot of us will know as the Fertile Crescent from the, you know, Judeo-Christian roots of, of much of Western culture and a whole lot of that is deserted at this point. And what you’re describing in what’s being done in Somalia and particularly on the Sinai peninsula, and what can be done is, is so hopeful for the truly the, the restoration, the regeneration of this, this region that has been so burdened by conflict and drought and challenging social and cultural issues. Can, can you describe for us what you believe in foresee that those landscapes might look like in a number of years here, if we’re able to scale this up?
John Liu: Well, um, I think we have to recognize that things are incremental. You know, they’re there there’s feedback loops and they’re either going in a virtuous circle or they’re going in a vicious cycle. And so we need to re reverse the vicious cycle with this virtuous circle. And in the last four years at the same time that the ecosystem restoration camps movement has been developing a research project for the massive restoration of the Sinai Peninsula has been going on.
You can see information about this at the weather makers, who are the people who have led in, in the strategy and, and restoration. And what they’re, what they’re finding is that the food, the food web is based on its lowest parts. The, the most simple basis of, of, of these things are microbiological. And this is true, both for aquatic and for terrestrial systems.
So if you look at the terrestrial systems or the aquatic systems, and you imagine Sequoia trees and Redwoods, and in the, on the terrestrial and whales and, you know, apex predators in the aquatic systems, then you’re not quite understanding that for them to survive, it starts with the microbial activities. And what we see when we measure and study in desertified areas is that there’s virtually no bacterial or fungal life. It’s not like the, the genome isn’t there, but it’s more like the habitat has been lost. So in order to analyze this as, as this study has gone on, and you can find that in the holy grail of restoration, which is a an essay that I’ve written, that was in cosmos journal. So you can, you can look at that. And I happened to know that the guardian is preparing a very exhaustive piece on this development as well. But what, what is, what, what this shows is that long ago in ancient times when, when we are told that these areas were the Fertile Crescent or the land of milk and honey, or the garden of Eden, then the, the trends that we can see where that moisture came over, the Sinai, which is, is, is, is a special place. It’s like an acupuncture point on the earth where you have a continental divide where the Mediterranean and that the Atlantic systems are merging, and you have Europe and Asia, the Mediterranean and north Africa and the Sahel, and, you know, all the African continent, they’re all reliant on all these, these things. And what was happening was that the moisture and the air flow was from the south coming out of the Indian ocean and flowing over Mount Sinai now also called Mount Catherine, I guess that’s crusade change. But so the moisture and the airflow was coming from the south and it was bringing moisture into the region. And at that time, apparently this was the land of milk and honey, it was a beautiful place. And there are, there is fossil evidence. There is through soil core sampling. You can see the biodiversity and where, where it came from. And it all came from the south, from the Indian ocean, but then about 8,000, approximately 8,000 years ago, it seems clear that the, that the wind shifted direction, and in trying to understand what can cause the wind to shift direction from the south to turn to the, to, to move from coming from the south, to going from, from, from the north to the south, what could cause that shift? And we found a professor, professor miyan-miyan in Spain. I’m sure that this is a big influence on Judith’s understanding as well. That when you, when you de vegetate the landscape, you find that the surface temperatures are massively increased. And when the surface, when the solar radiation directly hits the soil, then these temperatures are rising by huge amounts. I found 45 degrees centigrade, but that’s, that’s in a very extreme condition, 10, 15, 20 degrees, normal in many parts of the world. So what happens when this, when, when the temperatures of the soil rise, it begins to change the physics and the physics push the temperature differentials.
John Liu: A couple of changes. When you have all this vegetation around you, like we have here, then you have respiration and the ecologists have, and then you, on the other side, you have evaporation and ecology has conflated these two to be evapotranspiration. And this is an important measurement for functional ecosystems. Evapotranspiration is a mixture of respiration and evaporation, but when you have a massively degraded state without vegetation, you don’t really have that much respiration. So then evaporation is a much better measure because it’s more accurate. And what you have here when the evaporations have, have evaporation has been raised by a tremendous amount, is that the temperature creates thermic drafts, which push the moisture into the upper atmosphere, where it becomes a serious greenhouse gas. And it’s more effective at, at holding heat into the, in the atmosphere than CO2. So and it it’s a larger, it’s a larger part of the greenhouse effect than so high altitude moisture is larger as a CO2, as a greenhouse gas than CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. And what we find is that in order to change the outcome, we’re going to have to restore the vegetative cover. And we’re going to have to do that from the edge systems. So the edge systems in this case are the, the, the land that, where, where it contacts the scene, but we’ve also got to work in the, in the sea or in the, in the salt water lakes, because they’re now increasing in salinity and in temperature, which makes them extremely difficult to be functional. They raise in temperature and they raise in, in salinity, and then they have less life there so that if you read the holy grail of restoration, it’s fairly complex. But basically they found that by working in the coastal regions, we can begin to restore the sea. And when we begin to restore the sea part of this is by removing Marine sediments, which are the eroded soils that have eroded off the Sinai. So if we can take those out of the sea and put them back on the land, and then we can start to both physically and then biophysically capture water, then we can change and recharge the lower hydrological cycle. So doing this kind of thing is of extraordinary importance and great complexity, but it has begun. There is evidence that it can work. It’s quite robust. And if it goes on for a very long time, then it can bring the conditions which could allow the air, the, the wind direction to switch again, to bring back moisture from the south into North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. So if we, if we really have an interest in shifting the course of human civilization, then that’s what we need to do to. see I’m back in the shade again.
Aaron: Yeah. Well, I’ll tell you what if, if you want to scoot just a little more for the, the last several minutes here of our conversation, I will take the opportunity to remind our audience that this is the Y on Earth community podcast. I’m your host, Aaron William Perry.
And today we’re visiting with John Liu, the founder of ecosystem restoration camps and the chairman of its advisory council. I’d like to give a very special thanks to the sponsors and supporters who make this podcast series possible. And that includes earth coast productions, the Lynch family foundation, Alpine botanicals period, earth hero, Vera herbals, growing spaces, soil works, earth water press, 1% for the planet, Dr. Bronner’s and zeal optics. And as many of you may be aware, we have a page on the yonearth.org website, our sponsors and partner’s page, where you can go and click into the website ecosystems of many of these wonderful social enterprises and sustainable businesses to get discounts on their products, often using a code yonearth YOE10 or something like that. And so I encourage you to check them out when you shop with them. Not only are you getting a discount, but some of the proceeds will come back to the Y on Earth community to support the podcast and to support our community mobilization work. I also want to mention, we’ve got many links to get to John’s work. And that includes his Facebook profile, which is john.d.liu L-I-U on Twitter. It’s John D Lou. On Instagram, it’s John Dennis liu. And again, ecosystemrestorationcamps.org has a variety of resources. And John’s on LinkedIn also. And that’s John D Liu there. Additionally John mentioned common land, common land foundation, which is commonland.com. And we’ll, we’ll be sure, as I mentioned to list all of these resources for you in the show notes, so you can check those out. Now, John, I want to ask you, I wrote call you. You had mentioned permaculture a few times. That’s a strategy I’m so happy to see more and more folks getting familiar with getting educated in and mobilizing. And I studied under Scott Pittman to give Scott a shout out about 20 some years ago. And he’s from New Mexico. So dry land strategies are a big part of that work there. And I also recall, and we were chatting the other day. You mentioned biodynamics. And so I’m just curious in the global network of ecosystem restoration camps, are you seeing that, you know, most folks are, are quite up to speed on, on permaculture. And to what degree are you seeing folks using biodynamic techniques?
John Liu: Well, I think you can, one of the premiere camps that you can take a look at is called second. It’s a community that’s 43 years old in Egypt. It’s a biodynamic and anthroposophic community that was created by Ibrahim Abouleish, and a lot of people who supported him and Egyptian community surrounding that that place. And they, so you can see what biodynamics and permaculture concepts can do there because they’ve had 43 years of experience. And it’s, it’s an amazing outcome. So that’s a premiere camp. And I think many of the other places there’s in Guatemala, you have people working on swales and on reforestation and on and on especially the concept of food forests. So perennial agriculture multi-story cropping, that sort of thing is a really big thing. Some of the camps also are working for instance, here in California. There’s a need to understand and study honor the heritage of the indigenous people who, who cared for the forests for thousands of years before there was any colonization here. And the outcomes since settlement by colonists has been devastating to, to the landscape and to the forest. And this is leading to this multi-year drought followed by decade long drought followed by multi-year wildlife. And so the question is, can we, can we get to a point where we’ve processed what happened in the past and put it behind us?
So it’s really the past instead of carrying the trauma from these things, which happened so long ago, but still inform the way people feel the way people are treated. Can we get beyond that? So I would say permaculture, biodynamics, but also a respect and understanding of the rights and, and the knowledge and, and the wisdom of-oops-of the indigenous people is, is also happening in many of the camp areas. So all the camps are different, but all the camps do share these main principles and main values.
Aaron: Beautiful. John, thank you. And I I’m, I’m so touched by that and in a good bit of the work that we’re doing here through the Y on Earth community is also working with indigenous wisdom keepers and indigenous communities. And of course, especially here in the Americas, that is of particular import and there are not many other regions around the world as well. And I happened to be here, you know, in Colorado and North America, as you are in California. And hardly a week goes by when that work does not come up in our, in our community gatherings and communications. So thank you for speaking to that. And I am again, so excited about the work that you’re helping to bring to the world, John and we recently had the opportunity to visit with Finney and make peace who is executive director of ‘kiss the ground’ and helped produce the amazing documentary called ‘kiss the ground’. Um I’ve seen a lot of documentaries over the years and I will say, this is one of my very favorites. And I do think it’s one of the most effective in communicating both some of the challenges we’re facing and the solutions we can all engage in. And of course you’re in that documentary. And so is a time-lapse of what occurred in the lowest plowed plateau. That is I think the most effective several seconds in that whole piece. And it’s stunning what has occurred there? I want to, I know I asked this earlier in our discussion. I want to revisit asking you to please describe the scope and the scale in terms of acres, in terms of what that landscape looked like a few years back and what it is looking like now. But most importantly, perhaps how that restoration work has dramatically transformed the quality of life and economic sustainability of the many communities living in that region. If you could please describe that for us.
John Liu: Okay. First of all, the entire Loess Plateau is 640,000 square kilometers. That is approximately the size of France, the actual project area of the Loess Plateau watershed rehabilitation project. And later the China watershed rehabilitation project was 35,000 square kilometers. So that’s approximately the size of Belgium and the, this was implemented by a, by the Chinese government together with the local communities, because what they found was that the local communities were engaged in destructive practices and practices that they, they had to change. If they, if they were unable to change these practices, then the outcome would be constantly destructive. So when the people were cutting the trees, then the forest would be lost after the forests were lost, they were planting on the sides of hillsides. And then the soil would gradually erode. And Loess is a very minerally rich soil, but it has to have organic material to really be fertile. And so when they eroded this away, it got very quickly, it’s very erodible, both from wind and from water. So when they, when they stripped away the vegetative cover and they lost the top soils, they were down to geologic materials. And this is what you see loss of in the Middle East. So it’s informing a lot of other, other places too. And then finally, because of the loss of the forest, the loss of the soils, then the hydrology was completely destroyed. And actually the yellow river was called the yellow river because it was filled with Loess sediments. So it turned it chocolaty. It looked like, like a chocolate milk can really, and over the thing that happened was the government through the Chinese academy of sciences, the Institute of soil and water conservation, and all of these and, and international experts analyzing the situation.
They said, okay, we understand what happened here. And we’re going to have to reverse that. But in order to reverse that we’re going to have to completely change the behavior of the people. So they, they banned tree cutting. They banned slope farming, and they banned free ranging of goats and sheep. Now, those were pretty much the only activities that the people had. So in order to, to make these illegal, they had to replace their act- those activities with other activities. And so they, they told the people, all right, we’re going to have to transform this landscape. And it’s in your benefits and everyone’s benefit to do this. And you’re going to have to be the mechanism to do it first, by not doing any of the destructive behaviors that have come down traditionally, but nobody in the past knew were so destructive. And we’re going to have to replace those with positive development. So we’re going to have to rebuild the hydrological cycle, rebuild the soil, fertility, and rebuild the vegetative canopy and the biodiversity. So to understand this, and to, to think that way at such a large scale is dramatic, but when they did this and they sat down with the people and they said, all right, we have $500 million for this, and we’re going to use that judiciously.
John Liu: So we’re in order to go into a place that’s basically a wasteland with desperately poor people living in [inaudible] is you, you can’t just say, well, here’s $500 million, good luck. You know, you, you have to create an administrative capacity to handle that. And so they did this by using satellite imagery where they could a, a total mapping system of all the watersheds in the, in the area. And they could give them unique resource locations so that they all had an address so that any investment or any, any intervention that took place was connected to a place and that whatever amount of money, whatever amount of human energy went into that, whatever amount of study went into that would be always located by that, that address. Then you could see exactly what can change and what happened was that, first of all, they gave the people money. They paid them to do the work. And that first work was like swales, but they were using mostly terracing. They were flattening out and infiltrating and retaining moisture and increasing the organic layer so that they were absorbing and maintaining that. And then they revegetating mainly whenever possible with perennials. They also, if they could make the fields flat, they, they would make the, those could be used for annual cropping as well because people like to eat vegetables, grains. But the interesting thing was that something quite extraordinary happened besides bringing back the hydrology and recharging the lower or hydrological cycle. It also brought back soil fertility, and they worked very hard on that too, but they also increased agricultural productivity by reducing the area in cultivation. So instead of having extensive agriculture in massively degraded states, they just restored small areas, which were then were then used for intensive agriculture. And the, and the, and the areas were released to natural regeneration of ecological systems. This is a huge, huge, important thing to understand. And it’s also counterintuitive.
If you’re a farmer, you just want more land because you think you’re going to have more land and more productivity, but the opposite was true when you understood that if you use these sustainable and regenerative methods, you have higher returns or higher productive capacity in, by reducing the area in cultivation. So all of this basically happened. And for me to see that and to document it and to have the opportunity to speak with all of the experts and the people who are directing this, it, it just made me think this is more important than anything I, anything else I’ve seen. And I covered the rise of China from poverty and isolation and, and the collapse of the Soviet Union and international terrorism. And I think all of these problems can be, if we restore the earth systems, we can live in peace and we can live in harmony with one another and with the earth and other species of life. And it’s in the interest of future generations. And when I saw that and understood that my, my thought was like, well, that’s what I want to devote the rest of my life too,
Aaron: Yeah. So, so beautiful. Thank you for creating that picture for us, John, and how many, how many people roughly is inhabit that region of that project?
John Liu: Millions. Yeah. And they were all engaged and they were all subsidized to change. And their example then went outside the project area because we found, I’m pretty sure everybody may know this, but for peer, peer communication is a very good one. Like if, if you come from a foreign country or from a scientific background and you go and you try to talk to farmers, they look at you with a lot. This is sufficient. But if you, if the farmers themselves who have done it are the, are the transmitters of this knowledge, it works very well. I, I would recommend also, there’s another film that you didn’t mention earlier. It’s called the lessons of the Loess plateau. And this, this particular film is one, which I think is probably the best film that I’ve made about this. And it, and it has a lot of the people involved and it shows exactly what, what happened to the local people and how they embraced it and what it meant for them.
Aaron: Beautiful. Thanks. I’ll track down a, a, a link or a way for folks to get at that film as well.
John Liu: I’ll send it to you right after this,
Aaron: That’s great John. Well, I am so grateful. We’ve had this opportunity to visit today, John, and before signing off from this episode, I just want to invite you if there’s anything else you’d like to share with our audience any additional calls to action. Of course, I’m going to encourage folks to join ecosystem restoration camps, support the movement. But if there’s anything you’d like to share with us, John, I would love to hear that from you.
John Liu: Well, I think I’d like to, I’d like to just discuss for a moment what we’ve been working on here in California, because there’s been just a, you know, this is an incredible moment. I think everybody’s talking about how strange and different 2020 has been from every other year. I I’m 67 years old, and this is very different from all the other years that I’ve experienced. And one of the things that I noticed was that there’s quite a lot of hunger now in America, and there’s also growing homelessness, which is very troubling. And especially, I’m now near Santa Cruz and at the University of the Trees. But I was for about a month down in near Hollywood in just, just north of Hollywood. And what I saw there was that this homelessness and hunger is actually wretched because it’s, it’s, it’s in, it’s in stark juxtaposition to the over consumption and waste and sort of mass materialism. That’s also going on there. So you, you, you basically have the flip side of a coin, the extravagance on the one hand, and then, and then the suffering on the other side. And we started to in the same way that I was dreaming about the ecosystem restoration camps, I started dreaming about like, well, what can we do with this situation here? Because I can’t enjoy privilege while I’m surrounded by so much suffering.
It, it it’s troubling to me. And this is true for so many people. So we started to have a conversation now, there’s, I think it’s close, it’s close to like 120, 130 people now. And they represent strong organizations, people in the government, people in, in corporations and ordinary people and activists, and it’s, it’s also connected to the camps movement in that actually these people who are hungry and who are, who are unemployed and maybe homeless, they actually have time. And, but because their situation is dire, they spend most of their time just concerned and anxiety and worried about survival. So we started to talk about, well, how could we help to get them out of this anxiety and out of this risk of, of, of completely not being able to feed themselves or having no place to go. And we came to the conclusion that if we were to make central kitchens to help feed them and connect them with the organic and biodynamic growers, then basically food is like a medicine. And instead of having very bad, toxic, processed foods, that’s expensive, we could help them to access free freely high quality food by organizing, raising the money, to buy the food from the producers and sharing it with the people who are in, in, in hunger. And that’s been for the last few weeks, that seems to be the, the conversation that I’ve been having with a very large number of people and it’s growing.
John Liu: And we’re finding that there’s lots of organizations and lots of individuals who are willing to share. And, and we’re, we’re starting to see that there’s also many groups who are working in this area. We’re starting to learn about the groups that are working in Syria, and we’re finding that they’re completely overwhelmed by the situation and that it’s, it’s, it’s grim and they need help. And so if we, if we can learn from them, what it is that they’re doing and what we can do to help them, this could be hugely impactful. And that gradually we could move away from just helping these people to get food, to helping them get employment. And what better employment could they have than restoring ecological function at scale. So then we look at the problem of the giant fires that have taken place in California. Well, these people could use a job. Well, why don’t we put them to work reforesting, and we can train them how to, how to reforest and, and they can live in a community that is doing meaningful work. In fact, they’re heroes. At that point, then they become the leaders of, of human civilization, which is doing exactly what is necessary for the restoration of earth systems. So that’s a, that’s a big thing. And I think that that’s something that the ecosystem restoration camps, movement is part of, but there are so many other aspects to this that what we see is that we don’t need to make new institutions. We need to make new networks. And so the bringing all those together and also using the permaculture concept of stacking functions.
So I don’t think we’re going to restore the earth. If we have all these people in hunger who are, who are going to be, you know, just devastating in, in, in their activities. So let’s work to help them and then work to help them become the agency that is able to do restoration at scale in California. So when we, when we connect these two problems, the hunger, the homelessness to the fires, then we actually see, oh, together, we can answer all of these problems, but separately we can’t, we can’t answer any of them.
Aaron: Yeah. So powerful. How can people get involved and support that project in particular with the work that you’re doing in Los Angeles?
John Liu: Well, that’s, that’s being, the bird house, which is the first urban camp within the ecosystem restoration camps movement in Hollywood, in Los Angeles is leading there’s another group called gorilla masks movement, which started to bring mass to the, the first line first responders and First Line workers during this COVID crisis, when they didn’t have access to two personal protective equipment, they acted out of civic duty as individuals. And they were faster than the government at delivering personal protective equipment. So all of these people now want to do something which is effective. And we’re seeing that actually the situation could increase in risk. There could be more suffering in the near future because the economy, after months of this lockdown, many small businesses are going out of business. And if those people have nowhere to go and nothing to do, they were productive members of society. But now they’re joining the already large group of people who are, who are stressed by just survival. So if we can, if we can help these things, and we’re seeing how this moves, we first get them to the point where they’re eating really good food and they’re getting healthier. And then when they’re ready, they can go out to, to the forests and help restore the forests, so this is all one long thing that could lead them to ecosystem restoration camps, ultimately, but it’s not just ecosystem restoration camps. It’s all the different organizations working together with the government together, with, with everyone who wants to, is it like, no, everyone is welcome and everyone is, is needed to solve this problem. So that’s what I’ve been noticing is that people are rallying around this idea of participation as the solution, and some have money. Some have time, some have knowledge and, and ability. And then there are many unemployed, like the restaurant workers who’ve, who are left, those restaurants that had to close, well, let’s give them work. Let’s pay them to cook the food and share the food let’s build. We’re talking about creator spaces where all the, all the people can repair things and make things. And the first thing that we have to make are showers and saunas and laundries and clothing banks, and central kitchens to feed all the people and in doing that, why don’t we have a, we all have a community because we’re having dinner together. So let’s make a stage and have music and let’s have movie night and show ‘kiss the ground’ again and again, and other, other films like that so that people can be inspired and work together. So that’s what I’ve been working on. And I guess going to the bird house and I’ll send you some links to, they’re calling it land- land-based healing for people and place. Land-Based healing for people in place. It’s just an, it’s just an emergent concept now, but it’s moving very fast after a few weeks. And I, I noticed that when things move this fast, they’re really coalescing there. There’s a common intention and it’s, it’s more powerful. It’s not just an idea. It’s an idea. That’s time has come. And it’s an idea that is understood by large numbers of people.
Aaron: Yeah. Yeah. Beautiful. Well, thank you for sharing that with us, John. And thank you for visiting with me today and sharing all of, all of this work that you’ve been engaged in in moreover, thank you for all of the work that you’re doing and helping to lead in our world. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you today and really appreciate it.
John Liu: Well, it’s, it’s my pleasure, Aaron, and I hope that for the rest of our lives, we can become really good friends and work together in many ways. Thank you for having me.
Aaron: I look forward to it. Yup. Take care.
Speaker 3: The Y on Earth community stewardship and sustainability podcast series is hosted by Aaron William Perry, author, thought-leader, and executive consultant. The podcast and video recordings are made possible by the generous support of people like you. To sign up as a daily, weekly or monthly supporter please visit yonearth.org/support. Support packages start at just $1 per month. The podcast series is also sponsored by several corporate and organization sponsors. You can get discounts on their products and services using the code YONEARTH. All one word with a “y”. These sponsors are listed on the yonearth.org/support page. If you found this particular podcast episode especially insightful, informative or inspiring please pass it on and share it with a friend who you think will also enjoy it. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your support and thank you for being a part of the Y on Earth community.
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