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Ecologist and film maker John D. Liu. Photo: Screen shot from Liu documentary <a href=""><em>Green Gold</em></a>
Ecologist and film maker John D. Liu. Photo: Screen shot from Liu documentary Green Gold

Environmental filmmaker chases the biggest story

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Filmmaker and ecologist John D. Liu is in the North Country this week. He's meeting with students and giving a talk "Choosing the Pathway to Sustainability: Ecological Restoration" at Clarkson University, St. Lawrence University and Paul Smith's College.

Liu is an American who lives in China. As a journalist, he covered some of the really big geopolitical stories of our time: the normalization of relations with China, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He worked for CBS News for 10 years, and left there in 1990.

He's concentrated on ecological film making since the mid-1990s. He's written, produced and directed films on grasslands and deserts, stories where the interaction of people and the land has not worked so well--ruined landscapes and also their restoration.

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Reported by

Martha Foley
News and Public Affairs Director

John Liu speaks at Paul Smith's College, Freer Auditorium, Tue. 6:30 pm, and at St. Lawrence University, Carnegie Rm. 10, Wed. at 7 pm. Free and open to the public.
Martha Foley: Your story is a fascinating one, of course, for a journalist. What is more interesting about the stories you tell now as opposed to, say, normalization of relations with China?

John Liu: Well I think these geopolitical events that we look at in the normal news cycle, and what fascinates the media, are happening in a kind of bubble. They're important because people are in a sort of arrogance that we are so important. And we are missing something that is of epic proportion. We're not seeing the sweep of historical time, the growth in spirituality, and in philosophy and understanding. And it's more tangible, more real. It's what's left.

John D. Liu talks with news director Martha Foley. Photo: Dale Hobson
John D. Liu talks with news director Martha Foley. Photo: Dale Hobson
We're going to die. And after we're gone, who is going to remember these geopolitical events. But we'll be left with the ecological consequences of the decisions we've made. Future generations will be...the quality of their life, the experience that they have, will be determined by what we decide ecologically.

MF: I think most of us would recognize the sort of catastrophically ruined landscapes that you've documented. We might not recognize the restoration of that. I think the drama of those lands that have been overgrazed and the soil has blown away. That's pretty vivid. What does the restoration look like?

JL: I think with what you are talking about, it's very important to have a baseline. If you look at restored landscapes without a baseline, you can't actually see what has changed. It's also important to have a reference in terms of, what is ecological health? So if you have a beautiful landscape which is nearby and has similar conditions, then you can actually see what has been lost.

So protected areas, sacred areas, sacred groves, these are very important to see what nature would achieve without interference. If you have that, and then you see these massive degraded states, you have to wonder: is that necessary? Do human beings inevitably degrade their ecosystems? And after now after 20 years of study in this, I would say no, it's not necessary. Degraded states are caused by ignorance and greed. So we need to understand these things and then we can have a completely different result.

MF: I can think of landscapes that don't look ruined, but might be ruined; just by the pattern of human use…do you reach down into those sorts of areas as well?

JL: I look on a planetary scale. There is a hierarchy of functionality, it seems. And we need to understand this, we need to know, how did the atmosphere form? What is happening with the hydrological cycle? What is the meaning of biodiversity? If we're not thinking about these things...we're breathing air, eating food, drinking water.

We're filters; we're like bivalves, like a clam. We're taking in the air, we're filtering it, and exhaling another gas. We have to realize we're doing that with water, air, food. So any pollutant that exists in those systems, we're filtering. Gradually, for me, it's become something you can't ignore. It's infinitely fascinating to follow this line of inquiry. There is a lot to know. But, it is somehow also more important, more meaningful, more impactful than concentrating on, say, buying and selling things, for instance.

MF: I watched the documentary, Green Gold, at my desk yesterday. One thing I noticed was that it seems to come down to, I have to say, goats and grazing animals, and misuse of the land, and keeping those animals out is sort of the first step in the restoration. And I wonder, where do the people go? How do the people survive?

JL: Actually, it's the end game. Goats and sheep are the end game.

MF: They're the last that could get anything out of that land?

JL: Yeah. Humanity follows a typical scenario. Human beings cut the trees. When the trees were gone they tried using agricultural techniques, which are essentially neolithic. Even modern industrial agriculture could be interpreted as following neolithic agriculture because it exposes the soils to the sunlight and to the wind and the rain.

Nothing in nature does this. You don't see any exposed soils except in catostrophic geologic events like earthquakes or volcanoes or tectonic events. So that's just an unnatural act. We have human beings who don't understand the process.

I guess if you really want to understand it you have to look at the evolutionary trends. How did the Earth form? The Earth originally was a molten rock surrounded by poisonous gases. Then it was processed by biological life. The atmosphere did not magically appear, the gases were absorbed by photosynthesis, and oxygen was released, which made a very fragile atmosphere; but one in which, after billions of years, human beings emerged.

So it's not like human beings can't live on the earth and they have to go somewhere else. Of course they can live here. But they have to understand which processes are creating air, water, food, and energy.

MF: Are there just too many of us? This is obviously another great question that goes along with this. Are there just too many of us to live by those processes that you're describing or alluding to?

JL: I don't think so. I think what's happening is, we're experiencing and we will experience transformational change. We think that we're doing the right things, we're socialized; we study to do certain things, and actually many of those things will not be here in the future. And it's not because we have too many people, exactly—we're evolving. So, a few hundred years ago, slavery was normal. Well, that's not acceptable, and humanity reached a point where they said "that's not acceptable." And now we have billions of people living in poverty at the edges of degraded ecosystems. Why? Because we're saying that the value in the earth is extracting things, and buying and selling things, and that these people have no intrinsic value. They're nothings; they're zero.

MF: They're just helping us do that, or not.

JL: They're a lumpen proletariat or whatever they are—it's not true. They're human beings, we're human beings. They were born. Everyone who's alive today is a representation of all life since the beginning of time. It can't be any other way. So, if they're born on the earth, they have equal rights. But that's not what's reflected in our societies and in our economies.

So, how did this happen? This is a progression of things and we see that something is wrong and we try to address it. And that's what we need to do now. We see that something is wrong—the climate is changing—we're actually altering the atmosphere and the climate. They're calling this the Anthropocene Era. So we're now bigger than geologic events. We need to take this into consideration, but is that the outcome that we have to have? Absolutely not, but that's the outcome that we have, because we're doing greedy and ignorant things.

MF: You're talking to the next generation, another generation, this week. What do they say to you? Are they getting this?

JL: Well, I think some of the people understand this, and I've been doing this for a long time—I've been studying this for about 20 years. In the beginning, people were definitely like, "what are you on about? Please, who cares? Soil, poor people? Leave us alone." But now I think the time has caught up with me, and we're facing quite predictable catastrophic outcomes on a planetary scale.

If I look back over my lifetime and I think about Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, I think we've actually had some progress in terms of understanding. I watched the collapse of the Soviet Union. Who thought this enormous power could disappear, instantly? But now violence is returning around the world.

We need to realize that actually nonviolence and peace is more powerful than violence. That degradation is not an accident; it's a result of certain behaviors. So that means we have to analyze very carefully, why is this happening—what exactly is happening? If that's caused by what we're doing, we have to have other behaviors. So it's not so much how many people we have, it's what we do. In fact, having a lot of people could be a really good thing, if we all did the right thing.

MF: My last question actually goes to that. What is necessary? Is it political will, individual action? We've already decided it's not money.

JL: Well, I don't know if it's not money. I think it may actually be money, but it's not money as we think of it now. Because we think of money as coming from production and consumption of goods and services. But I think money or wealth or value actually comes from functional ecosystems.

So if our economy and our monetary system reflected the value of ecosystem function, then all human action would go toward conserving or restoring what we need in order to be sustainable and survive. So I would say you could sort of reverse engineer this, and you could say, well, business as usual is leading to massive biodiversity loss, desertification, climate change, enormous poverty and disparity between those who have obscene wealth, and those who are abjectly poor.

So is that the way we think is the best possible organization that human beings can reach? If that's our greatest imagination then we're pretty pitiful. But if we can see another way forward where there is equality, where there is democracy, for instance, where we hold these truths to be self-evident. Why don't we hear this kind of thing? Now, of course, that was very hypocritical when it was initially said, but it doesn't make it less true. And that's why it's so stirring to hear that sort of thing.

But we have to make a decision, and if money were based on ecological function, we would have a new larger economy. We could have full employment. Our work would not hurt other people and be simply to accumulate material possessions, but would be to do what we need to do to ensure that humanity will survive and the earth will become sustainable.


BBC News interview with John D. Liu:

John D. Liu's documentary film Green Gold:


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