Ecosystem Restoration Camps with John D Liu – Episode 7

Ecosystem Restoration Camps - Episode 7

Guest John D. Liu, ecosystem ambassador for the Common Land Foundation, joins host Robert Strock in a discussion about restoring the planet’s biodiversity and biomass through regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration. These two practices and concepts recognize and incorporate the symbiosis of all living things in order to restore and reclaim land. Restorative agriculture programs, including Liu’s Ecosystem Restoration Camps, are now found on six continents, including a massively successful pilot program on China’s Loess Plateau that covered 35,000 square kilometers. Regenerative agriculture organizations are now partnering with homelessness programs in LA to train the unsheltered in these techniques, developing skills and confidence in the unsheltered and providing a means to contribute to the health and well-being of society. Learn what you can do to learn more about and help support restorative agriculture organizations.


Mentioned in this episode
Common Land Foundation
Permaculture Magazine
Kosmos Journal
Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Program
Kiss the Ground (Movie)
The Weather Makers
Ecosystem Restoration Camps
The Global Bridge Foundation

Note: Below, you’ll find timecodes for specific sections of the podcast. To get the most value out of the podcast, I encourage you to listen to the complete episode. However, there are times when you want to skip ahead or repeat a particular section. By clicking on the timecode, you’ll be able to jump to that specific section of the podcast

Announcer: (00:02)
The Missing Conversation, Episode Seven.

John Liu: (00:06)
Well, the forests, the grasslands, the Alpine areas, the wetlands, the coastal regions, they all have a function. They’re not just there to be exploited. And when we exploit them, we damage them. So now we’re learning how to regenerate our agricultural systems to, to also increase biodiversity biomass and accumulated organic matter.

Announcer: (00:32)
On this podcast, we will propose critical new strategies to address world issues, including homelessness, immigration, amongst several others, and making a connection to how our individual psychology contributes and can help transform the dangers that we face. We will break from traditional thinking. As we look at our challenges from a freer and more independent point of view. Your host Robert Strock has had 45 years of experience as a psychotherapist, author, and humanitarian, and has developed a unique approach to communication, contemplation and inquiry born from working on his own challenges.

Robert Strock: (01:11)
Welcome to The Missing Conversation, where we explore issues on the world stage that have not been brought into the public eye to benefit our planet in the maximum way. We have a truly exceptional guest today who will help us explore and learn how to farm in a way that will not only greatly expand the nutrition and food itself, but also share tools to restore the vast land in our globe that has turned into deserts over human history. You’ll also learn from our guest, John Liu, how he has helped envision and implement the way to restore the soil on six continents. John currently is the ecosystem ambassador for the Common Land Foundation. John has also produced, filmed, written, directed, and presented numerous films on the environment, ecology, the BBC national geographic discovery, PBS, and other networks. John’s published and broadcast works are collected and available on the Global Bridge website, and just type in John Liu, that’s LIU, to find it. John it’s truly a great joy to welcome you to the podcast. Thank you so much. Good to be here. Can you help us understand in a concise way, because I know it’s hard to nutshell it, both regenerative, agriculture and ecosystem restoration for listeners that aren’t familiar with it yet.

John Liu: (02:54)
So let me give that a try here, um, in studying ecology and documenting restoration in different parts of the world. What I’ve seen is that over evolutionary time, there’s a natural evolutionary succession and this evolutionary succession always leads to an accumulation of more biodiversity, more biomass and more accumulated organic matter. And these, these, uh, processes cause, create and constantly filter and continuously renew the systems that we depend on for life, including the oxygenated atmosphere, the freshwater system, the fertile soils, and the amazing biodiversity on the planet. So, I think about 10 to 12,000 years ago, when human beings discovered that they could do agriculture, they thought what a great idea we’ll just do agriculture. And then we’ll be able to feed ourselves. We don’t have to run around looking for food and they didn’t realize that they were disrupting these evolutionary successional systems. And when they do that, they always have less biodiversity, less biomass accumulated organic matter.

John Liu: (04:22)
Well, if you play that out for 12,000 years, you get some really serious results, including desertification and climate change, hydrological disruptions, droughts, flooding, et cetera. So, this is quite serious. And now what we’ve seen is that if we change our agriculture away from exposing the soils to solar radiation increasing the surface temperatures, increasing the evaporation rates, then we can hold moisture into the lower atmosphere, which is what naturally happened in the evolutionary systems. And this is going to have a much better result for us. And then on, at the same time, our agriculture has just spread out and we’ve been trying to basically domesticate the whole earth. Well, the forests, the grasslands, the Alpine areas, the wetlands, the coastal regions, they all have a function. They’re not just there to be exploited. And when we exploit them, we damage them. So now we’re learning how to regenerate our agricultural systems to, to also increase biodiversity biomass and accumulated organic matter. And we’re, we’re also learning how to separate ecological land from agricultural land, which allows us to return vast areas to nature.

Robert Strock: (05:51)
Great, thanks so much for that. How do we optimize biodiversity and support the earth as humans and the life cycle? And also, could you please help us understand what biodiversity really is?

John Liu: (06:06)
Biodiversity is not exactly just considering the different kinds of life forms. Biodiversity is really about symbiosis and symbiosis is how different life forms have co-evolved with one another in order to live in symbiosis. So, for instance, human beings are, are breathing, animals, mammals are breathing in oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide, and plants are breathing in carbon dioxide and it’s exhaling oxygen. And through this method, the systems over billions of years, about 3.8 billion years is the figure normally discussed for evolutionary time. And life has completely covered the planet and created and constantly filtered and continuously renewed the oxygenated atmosphere and, and continuously evolved continuously differentiated and speciated, leading to an infinite potential variety in genetics. So this is, we are not separate from that. We can’t take ourselves out of that and say, well, we depend on cars and airplanes. We breathe air, we drink water, we eat foods in the soils. So, it’s absolutely necessary to understand how this is related.

Robert Strock: (07:33)
That’s really clear. Um, so what is the progress, uh, today with the eco system restoration camps?

John Liu: (07:43)
Well, um, ecosystem restoration camps started about four years ago. And what happened was I was dreaming about, I would wake up in the morning and this is after several decades of study and I thought I kept waking up with this dream that people were going camping and they were waking up and having breakfast and then going out and working in the, in the forests and restoring grasslands and wetlands and planting, propagating, planting out indigenous and endemic plants. And my first reaction to that was like, well, that will never happen. Nobody listens to me. I’ve been making all these films forever and who’s watching them. And, you know, I, I don’t really know that this is going to work. So, I sort of rejected the dream, but I kept having the dream. And when I kept having the dream, I thought, well, maybe I’d better write about this.

John Liu: (08:43)
And I started writing about it. I wrote some essays that went into journals and to magazines, Permaculture Magazine, Cosmos Journal, and also wrote about it on the social media and then thousands of people, and then tens of thousands of people started reacting and saying, well, let’s do that. I’m having the same dream. Or I agree with that. And so, from there, we had one camp the first year we had, we’ve created Foundations. Now there are two Foundations, one in Europe and one in the North, North America. And then we had a first camp in Spain and second camp in Mexico. The second year, the third year we had 21 camps. And the fourth year we had 37 camps and probably the end of this year, we expect to have probably around 60. So, the, the thing is that all over the world in six continents, we’re finding that people want to have a role to play.

John Liu: (09:37)
They want to know what that role could be. And we’re finding that they’re the ones who actually can increase fertility in the soils. They’re the ones who have an interest and time, it’s their environments, their, their ecology, their, their homes that they want to have this resilient as possible to make sure it has water, that they have food security and that the whole community is cared for. So, this looks like a really, really positive way forward for everyone to be involved. I’d also like to say in, in Los Angeles, I noticed this incredible situation of homelessness and hunger in California. And I thought, well, how can this, how can this be? And we started to talk about it. And when we talked about it, we, I found you, I found Robert, and we started to talk together about, um, how we could connect all of the problems together.

John Liu: (10:39)
So, stacking the functions, it’s a permaculture concept. And if we, if we try to deal with homelessness or hunger by itself, or even restoration by itself or regenerative agriculture by itself, we don’t get a great result. But if we add them all together, we start to see a, an integrated holistic approach where we can not only feed and, and care for the people who are most vulnerable, but we can engage them in the work that needs to be done training and learning how to do regenerative agriculture training and learning how to reforest the massive degraded landscapes in the coastal forest, which are so important, not only for California, but for the world.

Robert Strock: (11:28)
Yeah. I’m really, truly grateful for the contribution of you helping to bring regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration to the homeless programs in Los Angeles that are now actively working together with us to try to combine those two incredible needs and what a mind-blower it would be for the population to see the unsheltered population be able to contribute to humanity in such a profound way and in reality, as they get trained, become trainers of the future. So, it’s, it’s really quite a credit gift. Can you give us an idea of what they did in China? And that if I understand it correctly, it was 65,000 square kilometers or something like that?

John Liu: (12:23)
Well, uh, I, I didn’t, I was documenting a project that the Chinese government together with the world bank that engaged millions of people in doing and the, the pilot project of the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Program was 35,000 square kilometers. The, the larger part of the Loess Plateau, the entire Loess Plateau is 640,000 square kilometers. So that’s approximately the size of France, 35,000 square kilometers. That’s the size of Netherlands or Belgium. And that was the pilot area. But after I started to see this, I had been a journalist working for CBS News and then the Italian State Television, German State Television, for 15 years already, by that point. And when I, when I went out to the Loess Plateau, I just looked at that and compared what I was seeing in this massive degraded place where the Chinese race have emerged, and it was a desert.

John Liu: (13:33)
And I, I tried to think about this in relationship to say the rise of China from poverty and isolation or the collapse of the Soviet Union or the international terrorism I’d been covering before. And I thought, well, this is more important, and this is more useful for human society. And for human understanding, then, you know, just following these kind of egotistical political leaders and in this temporal illusion of, of society, but look at this, this is definitely true. What I was seeing there. And I, that, that made it much more, uh, purposeful. So, what I was doing was documenting all the steps that the Chinese government and the World Bank experts were, were doing to restore this area. And as I followed this progress over a decade, it became clear that it was possible to rehydrate dehydrated biomes. It was possible to restore the fertile soils. It was possible to return first biomass, and then later biodiversity over vast areas. And if do that, you’ll get a completely different result. You, you have changed the development trajectory from one which moves toward collapse to one, which goes back toward an evolutionary successional, uh, outcome, which is what caused the symbiotic relationships and, and created the systems we rely on for life and all life realized on. So, This, this, uh, was huge for me. And it made me quit being a journalist and become an ecological researcher.

Robert Strock: (15:24)
Yeah. One of the things that is impossible to really convey, although in the movie, which I would encourage all the listeners to, to see on Kiss the Ground, the step-by-step, year by year, photography of the evolution of that land that you worked on to actually look at a desert and then see progress every year and then get a glimpse of the atmosphere. It’s so optimistic and in this world today, what that revealed and the possibility of the globe getting inspired by that vision. So, it, it can’t really be comprehended, but seeing it in film as another dimension that can’t be expressed in words, um, could you also help us understand the realistic benefit to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and what is commonly referred to as carbon sequestration?

John Liu: (16:29)
Well, yeah, I think I would want to try to nuance that a little bit because actually carbon disequilibrium in the atmosphere means that we’ve released carbon into the atmosphere where formally over evolutionary time, it had been, it had been brought into the soil and in the biomass and our destroying these systems, we’ve released that carbon into the atmosphere, but this is not the total impact of human beings on climate changes. So, it’s very important to see carbon more as a symptom than as the disease itself and the, but carbon sequestration is when you use photosynthesis. We have a biochemical photo reactive process, which evolved over 3.8 billion years. And it’s simply impossible to build a machine that works this well, or that works at the scale of a planetary, a planetary system, which absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. So, this is basically what’s happening, but it’s also building up the organic layer.

John Liu: (17:42)
It’s building up this, this amazing living material biomass, and it’s, it’s differentiating and speciating, leading to infinite potential variety in genetics. So, these are the, these are the things which just fascinated me and led me to continue to study because it’s infinitely fascinating. You can, all, I I’m, I’m 68, but I’m still learning all the time. And I’ve gone so far down this road. Now that I’m, when I learn things, they’re fairly obscure things now, but they’re, they’re critically important. So, this is fun, fascinating, and necessary. So, I recommend for everyone go learn about ecosystem function and ecology and evolution, because it’s really interesting.

Robert Strock: (18:34)
Well, I can, I can certainly sense as I always have the fun and the joy you have in the discovery process. And I know, I know that will never end, you know, until you, and, um, would you give us a glimpse into what’s going to occur at the United Nations in June?

John Liu: (18:53)
Right. Well, um, the United Nations is going to officially launch the decade of ecosystem restoration on June the fifth. And this is a recognition by, I think about 196 different countries. That ecosystem restoration is what we need to do. It’s it’s, uh, you know, we have to be careful not to just create new linguistic potentials for nature-based solutions or something. But what we, what we have to do is restore the oxygenated atmosphere, the fertile soils, and the tremendous amounts of vegetation and biodiversity. And if we do that our lives and our civilization are protected. If we don’t do that, we’re going further along this role. Now it’s already interesting that the United Nations has made this determination. And we’ll launch this actually here with our colleagues and friends and in Hollywood, we’re working on some media materials to, to help support this, this idea to, to help more people understand it.

John Liu: (20:10)
And, um, it’s, it’s, uh, something that has to be done. And we’re seeing, especially in Africa or central America, South America, in places which are, are at high risk, I mean, already you have millions of refugees. You have recurrent drought, you have wars, you have all of these things. What is going to address those? Just like we have to stack the functions in Los Angeles, we’ve got to stack the functions in the Middle East and in Africa and elsewhere. So, we can see that the hydrology, the fertility in the soil, the famines, the refugee problems, the worst, they’re all interconnected, and we have to deal with them together in order to solve them. So, I think the United nations focusing on this and encouraging people to do this all over the world is a great thing.

Robert Strock: (21:07)
I really, really hope that all of the listeners can see at this time when there’s so much discouragement and so much focus in a negative way, how incredibly optimistic and inspiring this can be. If the world really joins the United Nations and really gets together and takes action, puts their wealth into it, puts their time, puts their energy and have their little container where they’re, they can do it on their backyard, or they can do it, they can do it on their deck of creating, uh, live plants in good soil and make their contribution. So, I’d also like to ask you, uh, what is happening in Egypt and what role you might be playing there?

John Liu: (21:55)
Well, for about four years, a group, which is called The Weather Makers, um, has been forming, and I would call this a, an evolutionary step for human industrial development. So, most of our industries have been focused on extraction manufacturing and buying and selling in a, a biotic system of things. And human beings have primarily fought and acted as if these things were more important than life itself. And what we can see is that in early cradles of civilization, like China’s Loess Plateau, but also in the Fertile Crescent, in the Middle East, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, you, you had the development of the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic world emerging, and then the place names were things like the Garden of Eden or the Land of Milk and Honey. Well, if you go there now, the sand is blowing across the ruins of once great civilizations and it’s fairly dramatic.

John Liu: (23:14)
So, I’ve now been several times to Egypt and, and other colleagues, especially if you read the holy grail of restoration, which I published in the Cosmos Journal, you’ll see the development of that. And I also know that the, the, uh, Guardian newspaper is preparing a large discussion of this. And what we found was that, uh, over time, they had devegetated, the Sinai Peninsula and the Sinai Peninsula is a very important area where you have multiple, you have continental divides. So, you have different weather systems that meet here. And when that area is disrupted, it causes enormous disruptions. So, what we found was the evidence showed that over a long period of time, over evolutionary time that the moisture and the air flows and the pollen and the biodiversity was coming from the South, from the Indian Ocean, but, uh, about, you know, several thousand years ago, all that ended and the, and the wind turned and changed direction and went toward the, from the North to the South. And it changed the bringing of moisture into the region, to the vacuuming of moisture out of the region. And that’s the same period that just created the Sahara and dried out many of the civilizations in the Mediterranean and the middle east.

Robert Strock: (24:45)
Can you just give us, real briefly, how big of an area are we talking about the Sinai Peninsula, approximately? How, how vast of an area?

John Liu: (24:53)
Well, it’s approximately 70,000 square kilometers. So, it’s twice the size of the pilot project in China. Maybe it’s the size of, uh, Netherlands and Belgium together, but, but it’s more important than its size because of this continental divide and the, and the weather systems. So, if we, if we are able to bring back moisture into North Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, then the world will have a different, uh, you know, human civilization will have a different, a different possibility in the future.

Robert Strock: (25:30)
So, because we want to also deal with a potential reality, what really happens if we do nothing?

John Liu: (25:39)
Ah, well, at least at least 20 civilizations have collapsed over historical time. And what, what happens is when you raise up a civilization and you start having buildings and institutions and agriculture and things and everything, and that’s what your focus is on, you have very temporal time. You’re saying, well, this is our time. And we’re taking all this, but you’re you’re, if you’re not watching what’s happening to the river systems, to the soil, fertility, to the biodiversity you’re on, on this path toward collapse. And so, at the highest point of the civilization, when the maximum use of resources is happening, the system collapses, but that’s not necessary. That’s just what happens if you’re ignorant and you’re selfish. You know, if, if, if we, if we act with greed and ignorance, then we know their outcome. If we act consciousness and generosity, we also now know you get a completely different result.

Speaker 3: (26:48)
Right? I think in simple terms, if we don’t really take action to find a way to use this, we’re going to die, would you, would you agree with that? If we really don’t find a way to, to lessen the carbon in the atmosphere?

John Liu: (27:07)
Well, again, I wouldn’t focus everything on carbon, but I would, I would talk more about the, the concept that of extinction. So, we know that there are extensions. And when there is an extinction event, the major extinction event, the top of the food chain is most at risk. Human beings are the top of the food chain. So, we’re most at risk. And so, we’re all going to die as individuals. But if we understand that we’re not just individuals, we’re a map. Our DNA carries the history of all life since the beginning of time. And we’re related, not only to all other human beings, but all other life forms. So, if we, if we are aware of this and we also have to think, what is the role of human beings? And I think it’s for consciousness, we’re supposed to be conscious of what’s going on. We’re just not very good at it. We’ve been focused on our own interests and being selfish and being it’s, it’s like hubris. And, you know, we, we need to understand that if we focus on consciousness and generosity, we will get a different result. And I think that’s the unique evolutionary niche that human beings are supposed to inhabit. We’re just not very good at it.

Robert Strock: (28:34)
Okay, great. So, John, I think you’ve given us a really great, uh, concise understanding as much as one can do in a short period of time. What way can our audience really contribute directly to you and your work? What would, what would be the contact information that you’d want to give?

John Liu: (28:55)
Well, I think it, it would be really good to go to, and become a supporting member of this, because this is already reaching exponential growth and the people in Kenya and The Gambia and Senegal and Somalia and Syria and Egypt and Morocco and Vietnam and Thailand and India, and all over the world, Bolivia, they, you know, El Salvador, Guatemala, they all need help because they have actually, through this colonial development been impacted heavily. They were the, many of those places where the most bio-diverse, most wonderful places. And now they’re, they’re in terrible conditions. And the, the sort of colonial mentality has taught them to desire more and more material possessions. We need them to work for themselves and for the rest of life, as well as we need to do this, we need to reduce our consumption and restore ecological function on a planetary scale. So how are we going to do that? We’re not going to do that only at home. We’re going to have to do that at home and around the world. So, join the Ecosystem Restoration Camps and help this to, to grow further.

Robert Strock: (30:25)
Well, I’m very proud to say that the Global Bridge Foundation is joyous to have joined Ecosystem, Ecosystem Restoration Camps. It’s an honor. I hope that our listeners will really get the importance of this. And you can also go to the show notes at and search for John Liu, and you’ll see his contact information. And all I can say John is, is it’s a great honor and a joy to have you, uh, share with our audience. And thanks so much.

John Liu: (30:57)
Thank you. Thank you. It’s my pleasure.


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