John’s posts

Schumacher College – Banking on Ourselves

To answer the question of new economic thinking I would suggest people consult the Schumacher College which is running seminars on this over the coming months. Best John,

Answering Frans van de Weijer


Dear John,

Today I watched the documentary of Dutch television on the rehabilitation of nature in damaged ecological areas. Just like you at the loss plateau, I am also surprised of the strength of nature to recover. This example is indeed a great message to the rest of the world, showing that we can improve standard of living for the local people and counteract global warming.

However, history has shown it is difficult for humanity to live in balance with nature. Do you think societies will be able to restrain themselves from overloading natural resources? Together with the ever growing world population, do you think governmental regulations will have a sustainable effect on human interaction with nature? What kind of regulations would you suggest? For instance, birth control such as in Japan?

I am really looking forward to hear your opinion about this topic. Many thanks in advance!

With kind regards,

Frans van de Weijer


Dear Frans van de Weijer:

Greetings and best wishes from Beijing. Sorry to take so long to reply but I’ve been traveling for work since the VPRO program came out.

The Loess Plateau in China as you rightly point out shows how it is possible to restore at least a measure of the ecological function to massively degraded areas. Understanding the biophysical part of the equation is extremely important as it suggests that if we do things differently we can get a different result.

The historical aspect of your question is perhaps the most challenging. What I think we are seeing is evolution in human consciousness. The “historical” perspective that you describe has led to the development of a self oriented economy and society. We are told that we are “consumers” and that happiness comes from material possessions. Yet record numbers of people are terribly unhappy. Worse although this worldview is not usually questioned, it seems now to be unsustainable. This means that if we don’t change we will face some fairly horrific predictable outcomes including climate changes and potentially human extinction. So we must change or face the consequences.

Having lived in China for the last 30+ years I have seen that change is very possible. As a journalist I witnessed the rise of China from poverty and isolation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and many more “historic” changes. I’d also note that my parents are both 93 years old and when they were young the things that we take for granted now (cars, airplanes, computers, artificial satellites, the internet, etc) barely existed. Even in the 60 years I’ve been alive I’m astonished at the pace of change. Basically I think change is inevitable. The question really is will change be driven by crisis or will it be consciously motivated.

What I like about ecological restoration as a unifying motivation for society is that it can address virtually all of the problems that we now face. Whether considering climate change, biodiversity loss, desertification, food insecurity, unemployment, financial crisis, war, mental illness … all of these problems are positively impacted through conscious ecological restoration initiatives. Even population growth can be controlled. When ecologic restoration is introduced in degraded lands it requires vocational training to learn how to restore damaged ecosystems, if women’s rights, access to contraception and family planning is provided too, then birth rates will go flat as they have everywhere in the world where these criteria exist. What I see emerging is a pathway that leads to sustainability and for me it becomes clearer and clearer. But the future isn’t up to me alone. It is up to humanity collectively.

I see the events in Syria or the random violence of the young man in Colorado and I am worried that so many people are alienated from life. But I have now been in 80 countries around the world and I know that while humanity has the potential for great evil, the majority of people in the world choose to be good. When there is a fire or other disaster, strangers will rush to save the people without concern for themselves. The impulse that gives them the courage to do this is the one we need to encourage. People worldwide need to stand up for their rights and demand a fair and sustainable future for everyone.

Change will happen, if we love each other and care about life, we will change the intent of the society and the economy to ensure that every person and indeed all species of life can live together in harmony. This seems to me to be the duty of all who are alive at this time. If we succeed then future generations will look back at this time as the moment when we realized that selfish pursuit of material goods was a evolutionary dead end and we moved toward greater human potential. This seems to me to be the way toward greater happiness, greater physical well being, and much greater fairness in the world. We are together making history by what each of us decides.

What I am learning

Last week we had a team building exercise for the “What if We Change?” project in Amsterdam. My wife, Kosima and I, traveled from filming in the Mata Atlantica Rainforest in Brazil following the RIO + 20 conference to attend this. Sitting in a circle in “The Hub” in Amsterdam immediately gave me “restless leg syndrome”. I was very worried about all the work I had to do and the lingering flu that uncharacteristically I couldn’t seem to shake. And then Mark said something that resonated with me. He quoted an African saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go with your friends.”

This week Kosima and I are at the Human Security Forum at Caux in Switzerland and the sheer numbers of people and projects working to ensure peace and sustainability around the world is staggering. The central theme around the successful projects is Community. They all build up the capacity of the community to act together for the collective interest. Whatever can be done for development, can be done better with the support of the entire community.

Another theme is the economy and how far human economy has strayed from valuing nature and from any moral underpinning. The legacy of feudalism, slavery, imperialism and colonization has given us a system that is fatally flawed. Now that it is breaking apart it is imperative that we design its replacement. To do this we will have to engage everyone on Earth and reach a consensus. As hard as this seems there also seems to be no other way since the “Business as Usual” scenario leads to predictable catastrophic outcomes.

Can we change? I think we have to realize that change is inevitable.  The only thing that we can count on is that things will change.  The real question should be what will they change into?  Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia has been here this week and last night the assembly discussed his apology to the aboriginal people of Australia. If you haven’t seen this I highly recommend that you take a look.

It was a beautiful and emotional time and suggested what is possible if we take the long path together.

Be well and happy,  John

Kosmos Journal Article

I’ve been very busy and finally gotten home to Beijing for a couple of weeks.  But my inner clock is now on Africa time and I can’t sleep.  I’m feeling a bit guilty for not blogging more … I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Rwanda and Kenya without communicating on this blog about the amazing things I found there.  But these will have to wait because I really should go to sleep.

So here is a link to a very comprehensive article that I wrote.

The pictures are from Kosima and they liked them so much they even put one on the cover of the journal.

I hope you like it.  Just copy the link into your browser and it should take you to the Kosmos Journal.

Be very well and happy.  John

Leaving Oman

Happy Year of the Dragon to everyone.  I hope this finds you well and happy.

I’m leaving Oman tonight on yet another overnight flight.  This is the year of the Dragon and the year I turn 60.  I think a little respect is in order and no more of these physically punishing overnight flights please!!!!  I wonder if the people who schedule the flights read the blog?  Let’s find out!

Oman was truly wonderful.  I was hosted by The Research Council which is the funding and approval body for much of the Research done in Oman.  I met with the my hosts from The Research Council, the Royal Court Office of Environment, The Ministry of Environment, The Environmental Center and the Dean of Research of theSultan · Qaboos University and some of the staff of the remarkable Oman Botanical Gardens.

Its been much too short and I want to say a lot but I’ll have to revisit this from Rwanda tomorrow.

All the best for the Lunar New Year.  John D. Liu

What Motivates Me to Do This?

A questioner last month asked why do we do this?

For me, studying to understand the Earth’s Systems and facing the fact that we have a responsibility to learn and must act on this knowledge, gives my life meaning.  When I look at the consumer society, or the types of entertainment that seem to be popular around the world, I see a kind of emptiness.  But when I see functional ecosystems I see how generations of life have lived and then their bodies have been transformed into the next generation and it is comforting.

For far too long the conservation community has been fascinated with dysfunction.  We need to see that the dysfunction is human and that the functional systems are the natural ones.

The springs that pour from the rocks or the ground are inspiring.  To see that with the right understanding, policies and actions it is possible to reverse degradation is satisfying but also carries with it a responsibility.

I think we are obligated to do all that we can to understand ourselves and to share what we have learned.

That’s what motivates me to pursue this work.

An article appeared in the ECOS Magazine published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation about my work. You can read that here.


Back from Durban


I’m finally sitting in my chair in my studio in Beijing.  After spending months in the southern hemisphere it is interesting to wear long underwear and shiver a bit.

Durban was interesting in several ways not least for the living arrangements.  Kosima and I stayed in an apartment arranged by the Initiatives of Change.  This is the group that organized the Human Security Conference in Caux Switzerland this summer where they added Ecosystem Restoration as a major theme.  The apartment was smallish and we were 8 people all told.  I haven’t experienced such close living conditions with people I hardly know since the 1970′s.  In many ways it was great fun.  All our flatmates were kind and thoughtful and it was a truly wonderful experience despite the occasional cramped conditions.

You can see how we all fared at the Initiatives of Change Blog. <>

Durban for the Climate Change negotiations was not nearly as harmonious as the little Initiatives of Change “commune”.  Thankfully, the negotiators agreed to eventually agree but pushed the times to 2015 and even 2020.  This means that the real saving grace actions in the crucial NOW must be taken by individual actors who care enough to try to save the future.  The leaders are not leading and there will be consequences.  My feeling about the official agenda in Durban was similar to the way I felt in Copenhagen and Cancun.  Until there is a recognition of what is happening to the Earth Systems rather than simply thinking that carbon disequilibrium equals climate change then we are unlikely to have an enlightened policy discussion.  Furthermore, the entrenched vested interests are showing that they simply want to control the billions and perhaps trillions of dollars needed to address climate change rather than actually address climate change.  There are so many things which are not on the agenda that matter if you want to have a comprehensive global response.  Every person on Earth must understand and act for us to have a species response.  Yet most people must be more confused rather than more knowledgeable after such a confusing exercise.

But as ineffective as the negotiations are what I’m seeing in my research and documentation in various parts of the world is that there is much to be hopeful about although it is not reflected yet in the leadership or in the economy.

What I have seen is that natural systems work.  When biomass is allowed to grow and organic matter is allowed to degrade at ecosystem scale it naturally regulates the water cycle, the weather and the climate.  These are the concepts that must be discussed and are to some extent in “Climate Smart Agriculture” and in “Resilience”, and in “Adaptation”.  But too often these are rhetorical catchphrases where we need to transmit knowledge.  We don’t need another slogan we need profound understanding.

What is exciting is that if you understand how nature functions and act on this understanding then you are contributing to restoring ecosystem function and combating climate change.  So compost everything.  Grow more endemic and indigenous plants.  Think about it before raking up the crop waste and certainly don’t burn it.   Don’t plow the Earth.  Encourage worms and microbial communities living in abundant organic matter.   Encourage a closed canopy of vegetation, the higher the better.

Personally, I felt like there was some acceptance of my thinking and I can see it is permeating many aspects of the discussion.  I spoke at 3 side events and my films were shown at 3 other events.   The highlight was the premier of “Rwanda – Emerging in a Changing Climate” sponsored by the Climate Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) which you can download at the following link.


My thinking was printed in the Stakeholder outreach magazine distributed at the COP and available online and the long Kosmos Magazine article came out just before the COP.

Now I’m back in Beijing for just a few days before celebrating the holidays with family.  A few days of rest and celebration seem awfully good right now.

Then in January it is India, Saudi Arabia and Oman.  I hope that everyone will be very well and happy.

The picture was taken by – KOSIMA WEBER LIU

Choosing the Path to Sustainability

Studying the Earth’s natural ecosystems helps to explain why we are experiencing financial upheaval, biodiversity loss, desertification, climate change, migration, poverty and disparity.  Far from suggesting the widespread view that carbon disequilibrium alone is the cause of all our problems, the Earth’s systems are exhibiting systemic dysfunction on a planetary scale of which carbon disequilibrium in the atmosphere is a symptom.  The worldwide discussion on climate change and sustainable development has strayed far from natural ecology toward politics and markets.   These attempts often fail to inspire confidence because they are actually a continuation of the business as usual scenario.  Allowing nature to participate in the discussion illuminates a pathway that leads to sustainability.  This vision is far more compelling than recapitalizing those who have created many of the problems we currently face.  Let’s take a moment to look at our problems from an ecological perspective.


We know that over evolutionary time the Earth’s ecosystem has been shaped by biological life.  Three long-term evolutionary trends spanning billions of years have been fundamental to nurturing life on Earth.  Namely, total colonization of the planet by biological life, the trend toward differentiation of species leading to the potential of infinite variety in genetics, and the trend toward the accumulation of organic matter as each generation of life dies and gives up its body.  The engine for converting sunlight, water and geologic minerals into living matter is photosynthesis.   Photosynthesis is a biochemical, photo-reactive process that is the basis of gas exchange, soil fertility as microbial communities release (and recycle) minerals, and infiltration and retention of rainfall in the organic materials that accumulate and through absorption into the respiring biomass itself.  This can be expressed in somewhat simpler terms by stating that the Earth’s functional ecosystems are generating, filtering, constantly renewing and naturally regulating the atmosphere, the hydrological cycle, and the natural fertility of the soil.  These natural processes form the basis of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat.  These processes are also the basis of the fossil energy sources we have come to rely on to fuel our infrastructure.


Over historical time, human beings have created the built environment of farms, cities, science, industry, laws and government.  Human ingenuity has led to massively increased agricultural yields and the burgeoning human population.  Advances in medicine have prolonged life.  Complex understanding of physics have allowed us to explore the depths of the oceans, the space surrounding the planet, and begin to extend our inquiry into deep space.  Many people have begun to believe that we can technologically determine outcomes and are not subject to natural laws.  However, as fascinating as our scientific, cultural, artistic accomplishments are they have not occurred in isolation.  Simultaneously we have been driven numerous species to extinction, created vast swathes of deserts in many parts of the world, ensured that billions of people are hungry and separated from the global economy at the same time that for some, fabulous wealth has become the norm.  We have built a human construct that inevitably leads to biodiversity loss, desertification, poverty and disparity.  In short, when we study how human beings have interacted with the Earth’s natural systems we find that in general we have interrupted the long-term evolutionary trends and disrupted the processes that are necessary for life.


Interestingly and importantly, the outcomes we are currently experiencing have been caused by human decisions and choices.  It is not inevitable that we must interrupt evolutionary trends.  The outcomes are dependent on our understanding and our actions.  If we make different choices and act differently we will get very different results.  In analyzing the natural systems on which we depend we can see that biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter are requirements for life and therefore sustainability.  Yet these natural systems have been degraded because through ignorance and greed we humans have built the global economy and society on the assumption that the products and services that we produce and consume are more valuable than these natural systems.


As we consider the suffering and disruptions from financial collapse, climate changes, desertification and poverty, we need to ask whether we are actually trying to solve these issues or whether vested interests are simply clinging to the wealth, privileges and institutions that have been built over the last few hundreds and thousands of years.


If we are able to understand that natural ecosystem function is vastly more valuable than the production and consumption of goods and services and reflect this in our society and economy we can completely change the current outcomes.  It is possible to sequester carbon, naturally regulate the water cycle, the weather and the climate, to increase fertility and productivity assuring food security.  It is even possible to end poverty and reduce the huge historical disparity between the wealthy and the poor.  Although all this is possible we don’t put much effort into this because we have defined our success as the accumulation of wealth.


Over recent years many scientists have been considering the issue of human self-interest and John Nash and Elinor Ostrum, have been awarded the Nobel Prize for showing that if humans pursue individual interest to the point where it damages the collective interest, it is no longer in the individual’s interest.  This means that individual and collective interest can be seen to be the same.  From this perspective it is possible to imagine that human beings must evolve beyond the selfish motivations that have for so long driven us to create war, slavery, and colonization, and that has driven numerous species of life to extinction, created huge deserts, allowed some to become fabulously wealthy while billions live in poverty.


What nature shows is that there is a pathway that leads to sustainability.  The real question is whether we can evolve beyond greed and supposed self-interest to realize our responsibility to each other and to the Earth.  If we cannot then the future is in doubt but if we can then future generations will look back at this time and celebrate the lives of the people who changed the course of human history and ensured that humanity would survive.


Interview for Kosmos Magazine

Here’s an interview I did for Kosmos Magazine, the journal for global citizens creating the new civilization. It’s eight pages, but well worth the read. Download the interview, nov 2011 (4 MB)

Read the rest of this entry »

Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development

Today I’m meeting in London with broadcasters, filmmakers, think tank researchers, donors and others.  This conference is set up by the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), IIED, CDKN and IPS and is called “Reframing Rio”.  The discussion is on how to make partnerships, what are the messages and what are the methods to use to get the public involved.  There are some differences emerging which is similar to many other communications conferences.  There is a difference between the “Medium” and the “Message”.  Some people feel that the task is to make catchy, fast, modern, entertaining, and popular “stories” and others feel that getting the message absolutely correct is the main task.

One cross cutting issue is the economic crisis that is taking place throughout the world.  One highlight of this was a speaker from the World Bank who said quite clearly GDP is a fundamentally flawed measure.   This is a shared theme and many have stated that the economy is connected to sustainable development.

This is an amazing realization.  That our ecological issues are essentially economic issues.