I have been promising a diary on John D. Liu's "Green Gold" documentary for months now. I even went so far as to include it as an embed before the main feature in "Introduction to Agroecology: Holistic Management- Cattle, Cause or Cure for Climate Crisis?" I have been putting this off for a while, not because I do not think it is worth sharing, but because the message (quoted in the title of this diary) is not an easy one to come to terms with.
It is an uncomfortable truth, one that I believe goes directly to the root of humanity's current crisis:
The products and services that we derive from those [functional ecosystems] are derivatives. It's impossible for the derivatives to be more valuable than the source. And yet in our economy now, as it stands, the products and services have monetary values, but the source- the functional ecosystems- are zero. So this cannot be true. It, it's false. So we've created a global institution of economic, economic institutions and economic theory based on a flaw in logic. So if we carry that flaw in logic from generation to generation we compound the mistake. -John D. Liu [38:44]1
1. Emphasis author's, not an approximation of tone. Also, I'm going to make extensive use of time stamping in this diary. All time stamps will refer to the closest time when a quote or series of events occurs during the film.
Last Time Here...
"Kariegasfontein Ranch, Aberdeen, South Africa: Land on the left managed under Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) in 200 mm [7.87 inches] rainfall, showing a contrast with advancing desertification," Photo Credit: Norman Kroon. Source. I fixed the horizon line from original image.
My last diary in this series shared Allan Savory's TED talk on his system of Holistic Management. In his talk, he made this bold statement: "There is no alternative left to mankind."
Recognizing the audacity of such a statement, I provided the following for context:
Allan Savory is NOT proclaiming that Holistic Management is the only solution for climate change. NOR is he saying that Holistic Management (from now on, HM) is appropriate everywhere all the time.
What he is saying is that HM is the only option we have at this time to reverse desertification of the world's grasslands. This is the case simply because grasslands need herbivores to survive. By removing herbivores (which are in many, if not most, cases going to be ruminants) from grasslands we slowly kill them. And when they die, they become deserts. Mr. Savory focuses on livestock in HM because the "former herds" of wild animals are not large enough to restore the world's grasslands at this time. [emphasis original]
In light of the acknowledgement that Holistic Management (HM in this diary) is not appropriate everywhere all the time, nor is it the only solution for climate change, I wish to present John D. Liu's "Green Gold."
Background for John D. Liu's "Green Gold"
Originally aired on Dutch TV by VPRO, Green Gold was made in conjunction with Liu's Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP)
Green Gold is an extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate," coproduced by EEMP and The Open University.3
The original film followed Liu as he traversed the globe documenting and inspiring large-scale projects from China, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Green Gold draws heavily from the first film for footage, but increases the depth of the film with a trip to Jordan, at the invitation of Princess Basma bint Talal, where he meets the Lawtons (well known permaculture designers) at the Permaculture Research Institute of Jordan.4 In addition to Princess Talal and the Lawtons' thoughts (and projects), the new documentary also features more of Liu's reflections on the regions he has visited.
So who is John Dennis Liu?
John Dennis Liu. Photo Credit: Kosima Weber Liu, EEMP
John Dennis Liu is a Chinese American who has lived in China for three decades. In 1981 Mr. Liu helped to open the CBS News bureau in Beijing at the time of normalization of relations between the U.S. and China, staying with CBS News for more than 10 years. [...] For the past 15 years, Mr. Liu has concentrated on ecological film making and has written, produced and directed films on grasslands, deserts, wetlands, oceans, rivers, urban development, atmosphere, forests, endangered animals and other topics primarily for Earth Report and Life Series on the BBC World. [links original]
Liu's life-long professional media career makes him well suited to produce a documentary of this scope. Green Gold is easily one of the most hopeful documentaries I have ever seen- an opinion shared by everyone I have watched it with. Quite honestly, I do not see how anyone could escape the urge to watch Green Gold more than once.
Good does not even begin to describe just how compelling the content of this film is. If you compound this documentary with the others I have shared in the past year or so, nothing short of the massive release of methane from methane clathrate deposits should be able to dampen one's spirits.
The world forecast for us by climatologists is not the only option.
2."The VPRO is part of the Dutch public broadcasting system," information in English here. Tegenlicht (Backlight) is a 50-minute documentary division of VPRO- English information.
3. The film has a very interesting list of sponsors including Syngenta.
4. Strangely, PRI Jordan does not have a functioning website. This first link will take you to their page on Permaculture Global, a website dedicated to mapping and networking permaculturalists world wide and. This second link takes you to Arabic Permaculture.
"You are looking at a landscape more or less bald, eroded down to almost to the bones of the geology." -Geoff Lawton [26:30]
Before we reach the actual documentary, I want to take some time to reflect on the concept of "shifting baselines
" as the impacts of this phenomenon reach to the very core of our predicament. I discussed this idea in my first diary on HM, but it needs to be repeated. Basically, the theory accounts for how major changes in the world around us can go by unnoticed because we are constantly changing our perception of what "normal" is.
Not only does this phenomenon account for how cultures can watch as the natural abundance around them is snuffed out, but it also accounts for our inability to grasp what it means when ecologists warn of ecosystem collapse. In this documentary, you will meet people who struggle to survive in landscapes that have been slowly degraded over the course of many generations.
Many ecosystems have a large amount of redundancy built in them- they can handle the loss of a few species. After all, the vast majority of all species on earth are extinct. But when enough of the threads are severed, the ecosystem functions provided by those species are lost forever- unless new species arrive from elsewhere.5 As diversity declines, redundancy may be able to patch over the loss of a few species. When enough relationships have been terminated the ecosystem can rapidly move into a new state.6
Imagine a spider web, such as this one:
Unknown spider catching insects feeding on crimson clover. Photo from the garden at my parent's place, partially documented here. Taken April 17, 2012.
Ok- it is not the best photograph of a spider web ever taken. Still, try to imagine what would happen if you snipped one or two threads. Not much more damage than a large insect might cause if it were to fly into the web. But if you kept cutting, eventually the web would collapse. Now do this do every spider web in the garden, then the neighborhood, county, and region. What happens? The population of insects will rise slowly at first, then skyrocket as you continue the destruction. The ecosystem can cope with the smaller changes, but once the changes become ecosystem-wide the risk of knocking a system into an undesired state becomes grave.
Now imagine someone had actually killed all the spiders centuries ago. You would be accustomed to higher numbers of insects (assuming no spiders moved in, you can count evolution out for a good while) without ever knowing that there were entire orders of creatures who managed insect populations in the past.
So not only do we "forget" the loss of individual species as our baselines shift, but we also forget the role they played in balancing the energy and nutrient flows throughout the ecosystem. One only needs to think of the fish runs, notably of salmon, that have collapsed throughout most of the world:
Grizzly bears function as ecosystem engineers, capturing salmon and carrying them into adjacent wooded areas. There they deposit nutrient-rich urine and faeces and partially eaten carcasses. It has been estimated that bears leave up to half the salmon they harvest on the forest floor, in densities that can reach 4,000 kilograms per hectare, providing as much as 24% of the total nitrogen available to the riparian woodlands. The foliage of spruce trees up to 500 m (1,600 ft) from a stream where grizzlies fish salmon have been found to contain nitrogen originating from fished salmon. [emphasis added]7
British Columbia and Alaska two of the last bioregions where we can see fish runs on this scale; but in the past, fish runs (along with eels and other species) were just as important in maintaining the nutrient balance in many areas of the planet. The impact of these runs could theoretically reach well beyond the 500m quoted: mychorrizal fungi are able to transport nutrients (along with water, plant hormones, and other substances) over vast distances to their symbiotic partners. Not only are the marine species long gone (or on the ropes), but we have extirpated many of the terrestrial creatures which made this ecosystem service possible.
So long has it been that many of us do not even know that such a nutrient pump ever existed in the first place. We have been playing the role of the Moirai for so long now that the tapestry of evolution is worse than ragged. And we do not even recognize the damage! We can only restore with what we have yet to drive to extinction.
"[...] it looks like the history of the Chinese in the Loess Plateau is not simply about the Chinese. It's about what happens when human beings don't understand how ecosystems function." -John D. Liu [2:19]
5. The debate surrounding non-native/exotic/invasive/opportunistic species is a lively one. Permaculturalists are often accused of spreading "weeds." IMHO, the word "weed" needs to be eradicated from our lexicon. The word is a pejorative loaded with innuendo and hate that does not lead to solutions, but rather perpetrates the sorry state of ecological awareness. This comes from someone who spent five months listening to the hate-filled drivel of customers wanting the assistance in their irrational War on NatureTM.
6. Here is a link to a talk on "resilience science" which will cover the subject in more detail.
7. I do not normally like to link to Wikipedia in these posts, sometimes I make an exception for cases such as this when I particularly like the phrasing and citations. While the citations do not actually go anywhere (haha), the names of the scientists are helpful in finding more information, such as this link here.
"We now have food security. Our children can go to school. We have a better life. We no longer have to ask for government support." -Gabre Giday [17:35]
By now you are probably wondering where all that hope ran off to. Sadly, it is of paramount importance that we are aware of what has been lost so that the sheer scale of what is being undertaken (and what is suggested) in this documentary can be comprehended.
So without further ado, here is the embed you have been waiting for (the film is 48 minutes):
I do understand that many people are not able to watch large media files online, so I have written an account of the film's locations below. After this section I will continue with commentary.
China's Loess Plateau before restoration work began. Photo Credit: Kosima Weber Liu, EEMP
Green Gold's opening scenes acquaint the viewer with the restoration work taking place in the Loess Plateau region of China. The soils there are highly vulnerable to erosion and have been exploited for centuries by the local people. So long has the damage been ongoing that the Yellow River is said to take its name from the yellow sediment that is washed into it from the region. With a broken hydrological cycle, the rainfall in the region causes flooding which gives the river another name: "China's Sorrow [4:25]." Bare soil and destructive livestock practices mean that even in dry weather the soil is assailed by the wind, generating massive sand storms. As Mr. Liu says, "A local problem becomes a national problem [5:00]."
In 1994, the Chinese government decided to implement a plan that would attempt to put the brakes on erosion, restore ecosystem services, and improve the lives of the local people.8 A year later, John D. Liu was assigned to document the changes being undertaken. One of the most controversial government initiatives was to pay farmers to remove their livestock from the land and feed them in pens. Grazing, however, was not the problem.9 The methods the farmers were using were.
Loess Plateau, early September 1995. Terraces were built by hand as well as machine. Photo Credit: Kosima Weber Liu, EEMP
The colossal project required the enlistment of the local population. Chinese officials recompensed local residents for their monumental terrace building efforts. Farmers were also compensated for the loss of land as ravines and other critical parts of the landscape were set aside as ecological zones. Even with these incentives, government officials such as Ta Fuyuan, a lead engineer, ran into resistance from the population. A local resident had this to say about the project:
They want us to plant trees everywhere. Even on the good land! Even there. Well, how about the next generation? You can't eat trees [29:36].
Loess Plateau, early September 2009. Photo Credit: Kosima Weber Liu, EEMP
Cultural tradition, centuries old, combined with shifting baselines, meant that many struggled with the notion that the project was even necessary [29:28]. After assurances that they would reap the benefits of the project, the people made truly Herculean efforts to implement the plans. A hat of trees, a belt of terraces, and shoes made of dams have, over the past decade, led to a threefold increase in income while beginning the transition back to abundance.10
By the way, this project involved around 2.5 million people. Replication throughout China has seen nearly 20 million people's lives improved (see World Bank link, footnote 8).
China's Loess Plateau begins to heal. Photo Credit: Kosima Weber Liu, EEMP
Six minutes into the film, Mr. Liu visits Jordan at the request of Princess Basma bint Talal. Jordan faces a similar situation as the Loess region, albeit with its own challenges. Significantly, the two regions share a history of human habitation that stretches back to the earliest stages of human history. Baselines have shifted dramatically since the area was once known as the Land of Milk and Honey. Centuries of incessant poor management of livestock, burning of so-called "waste" organic matter, and other destructive practices have led to a denuded landscape.
Princess Basma bint Talal passionately describing their efforts to educate and reform practices in Jordan to Mr. Liu. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht (Backlight)
Princess Talal meets Liu in a botanical garden where the Princess is working with professionals to demonstrate the power of natives and the necessity of mimicking nature. There are test plots where grazing was excluded for three years. Without sowing a single seed, species thought to have been extinct have returned [9:05]. It is not until the last half of the film before the action returns to Jordan and focuses on the Permaculture Research Institute of Jordan.
When Geoff Lawton is asked what he believes the potential for areas like this is, he replies:11
There is absolute potential for an abundance. An absolute abundance of life, of water flow, of climate moderation. So you'll get micro climate and regional climate moderation. Completely different hydrology. And the interesting thing there is that you then get the potential for well designed productivity, leading to permanence in human culture. [after 26:30]
Geoff Lawton (left) discussing the "Land of Milk and Honey" with Mr. Liu. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
To back up his claim, just witness the site of "Greening the Desert II."12 The site currently uses drip irrigation, but has been designed to be weaned off irrigation within five years. As the canopy of the food forest closes, the site will retain much more water and therefore become independent of the irrigation system [34:52]. A closed canopy in a brittle environment brings about many other benefits as well, such as onsite production of all mulch material. Workshops, courses, and children's programs are all a matter of course at the PRI Jordan site.
Nadia Lawton teaching Jordanian girls ecological gardening. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
Geoff Lawton giving a guided tour of the nascent food forest. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
Life-giving water is also returning to the uplands of Ethiopia where the local people are implementing many of the same strategies as the Chinese [13:15]. Mr. Liu meets with Professor Legesse Negash, who has led efforts to replant indigenous shrubs and trees. Within six years, clear running streams have sprung due to the vegetative cover on the mountain [14:41].
Location of Professor Legesse Negash's work, before restoration work. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
Professor Negash leads Mr. Liu on a tour, five years later. Same location. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
After visiting with the Professor, Mr. Liu heads north. Gabre Giday- a tribal leader- and his people live approximately one thousand kilometers north of Professor Negash's site [16:40]. The people had previously migrated away from their homeland due to drought. Now, after less than five years of restoration, the people are in an accumulative stage.13 As the title of this section lays bare, these techniques have literally changed the fate of his people. Providing education and financial assistance, local people are able to wean themselves off of emergency government support. Self-sufficiency is one of the highest rewards agroecological principles have to offer.14
Professor Negash and Mr. Liu discussing the re-hydration of the landscape near a clear flowing stream. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
Professor Negash makes it clear that the number one issue facing Africa is restoration [18:00]. Restoring the highlands of Ethiopia and Rwanda will only benefit those 200 million people downstream- the entire Nile River basin. Restoring hydrological function of a landscape means that fluctuations of the base flow of watercourses will be reduced as water is stored in the soil and biomass. Streams and rivers flow longer and less violently.15 This can only be beneficial.16
Water harvesting earthworks in Gabre Giday's homeland. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
Close to twenty minutes in, the crew interviews Rwandan President Paul Kagame about government backed restoration projects. Just as in China and Ethiopia, centuries of agricultural exploitation combined with a population explosion in the past half century, have led to severe erosion and subsequent declining fertility on the hillsides. When the land could no longer sustain the population, people began to move into protected the protected Rugezi wetlands.
Destruction of the hillsides, Rwanda. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
As they drained the Rugezi wetlands to plant crops, the capital, Kigali, began to experience severe problems with their power supply [21:10]. The hydroelectric dams could not produce enough power and the government rented diesel generators [21:20]. This is, of course, in addition to loss of critical habitat for many species.
Mr. Liu, armed with the successful projects in China and Ethiopia, convinced the Rwandan government to implement a restoration project. Assistance was given to farmers to move back to the hillsides and begin restoring their land's ability to capture and store rainwater. One particularly interesting change the government made was to institute a policy of setting a boundary between human activity and natural systems [23:40]. The government realized that certain aspects of the ecosystem are more valuable when intact than when "producing."
Setting aside higher elevations as preserves to maintain ecosystem services, Rwanda. Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
"We have to turn everything around into a functional relationship. We need as many people as we can get right now. And they have to go into action. We have to go into service. And that's what we are finding, people want to go into service... to kind of save the world really. To save our present existence." -Geoff Lawton [44:45]
8. The World Bank has a very good overview of the restoration project (which they helped fund).
9. Mr. Liu had this to say in a comment posted on the YouTube discussion:
Grazing is not the problem as Allan Savory has shown. The problem is not emulating nature. What I've been looking at is what constitutes ecological function and what is dysfunctional. Relentless grazing is not natural and is destructive. Very well managed large herds rotational grazing can be restorative but you must know how to do it. Savory learned the lesson and is showing how this is done. But in many places they are not following that model but one which has degraded soils for millennia.
10. The clothing analogy was stated by Mr. Fuyuan at [30:20]. 3x increase income is from [40:26].
11. Geoff Lawton is famous world-wide as a permaculture designer, teacher, and pioneer. He helps run PRI Australia, which he founded at the behest of Bill Mollison (one of the cofounders of permaculture). Geoff has a relatively new site where he plans on releasing free videos on permaculture design, which can be found here. Note- the site auto plays a video. Here is his profile on Permaculture Global.
12. My first entry in this series on agroecology has links to documentaries focused solely on both sites.
13. This accumulative stage refers to organic matter (OM), true natural capital as described by Mr. Liu at [10:30]. In my diary on soils in an ecological garden, I wrote a fair amount on the relationship between OM and soil life.
14. I will talk about this more in the next section. Also, see this highly elucidating article about a permaculture project in Southern Ethiopia for more about the challenges faced by projects such as this.
15. When Hurricane Irene devastated Vermont back in 2011, Ben Falk's homestead and permaculture farm not only survived, but did not contribute much at all to flooding downhill (video).
16. If humanity were to get truly serious about restoring earth systems and producing renewable energy from solar, wind, and geothermal, we could remove many of the dams which prevent a more natural flow of nutrients. Also see Let the Water Do the Work: Induced Meandering, an Evolving Method for Restoring Incised Channels to see earth mimicry at work with watercourses.
"It is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems, so if we can rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems, why don't we do that?" -John D. Liu
Mr. Liu, in my mind, correctly identifies that our economic system has an inherent, deeply rooted fatal flaw: our pursuit of endless growth, endless profits, and mad consumption is fueled by our use of different currencies that do not take into consideration the ecosystem services our species rely upon for survival.
This simple fact is not so easily remedied. How can we revalue our currencies to reflect reality: without healthy, functioning ecosystems our species will be driven to extinction, taking the almighty "economy" along with it?
We are clearly capable of regenerating and restoring landscapes to functionality. Hydrological cycles can be fixed. Fertility can be restored and improved generation upon generation. A primary economy based up on regeneration is much more stable than any other. From primary production come secondary and tertiary products and services. Lives are literally saved, carbon is sequestered, and ecosystem resiliency improved.
People are no longer dependent upon outside aid and can stand on their own feet. Communities and regions can move towards self-determination when they meet their own needs.
So what is holding us back?
If we know that this economic system we currently are saddled with is the primary driver of inequity and climate change, and if this system's currencies are truly based on fantasy, what will it take for society to stop playing the game?
To stop valuing money based upon the rape of the planet and begin working doggedly for a future in which we can all live without necessarily destroying our life support systems?
At what point do we refuse to lend the mandate of governance to politicians whom we know are going to serve corporate masters rather than the people?
Our current system is not just unsustainable, it is destroying any semblance of societal cohesion. People are genuinely afraid. We go about our daily lives without any sense of purpose. Consumer capitalism cannot offer anything beyond placating perceived needs.
Making the regeneration of the earth's degraded lands our highest priority will lift all boats. Doing this in conjunction with a reevaluation of our economic foundation will lessen the impacts of human induced climate change in a way that dispels fear and instills confidence and begets happiness.
We need this new model. We can have this new model. No new technology needs to be developed to implement these techniques. The only thing missing is political will, which will only come when people know this is possible and believe in their ability to make change.
"Wealth is being happy. Living in nature, listening to the birds. Breathing clean air. Not having chemical pollution throughout everything. Not having these horrible problems. We need to redefine and revalue our belief systems. We need to understand that money is a belief system. There is nothing wrong with money, it turns out; the problem is, what is money based on? If money is based on functional ecosystems, then the future will be beautiful. If money continues to be based on production of goods and services we'll turn everything into a desert. What is the future for our children and our children's children and generations to come in the future?" -John D. Liu [40:47]
I would like to extend a special thanks to the Environmental Education Media Project, VPRO's Tegenlicht, and the Savory Institute for their support with the media for this diary. When I reached out to the EEMP to ask about using images from the film for this diary, my query was almost immediately responded to with professionalism and warmth. My connection at the EEMP provided me with a contact at Tegenlicht who looked into my permission request. I was ecstatic when they offered to provide me with higher resolution stills than I could "grab" from YouTube. As always, the Savory Institute has been wonderful in helping me with my authorization requests.
Without their help this diary would not have been possible. So I want to thank you, publicly, for your generosity.
For other's out there who wish to write- whatever the subject- do not be afraid to reach out. You may be pleasantly surprised by the willingness of others to assist you.
[I promise I will clean this section up eventually. Perhaps my next "diary" will simply be a reworking of this list... although I already have my next 2 diaries planned]
More by John D. Liu. Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration.
Holistic Management: The Savory Institute.
The Africa Centre For Holistic Management.
Holistic Management International.
Seth Itzkan has put together a very good reference list for Holistic Management, here.
Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit.
There are some excellent video presentations from 2011's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from 2011 (around the time of the Convergence). John Liu's Green Gold also features the site and is probably newer than the 2011 pictures. If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence. Most were delivered in Bedouin tents near Wadi Rum.
You can also find a few more great documentaries in the first diary of this series- one about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods as well as a documentary about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian noted for his ability to cultivate citrus in the Alps.
My favorite books:
Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010.
Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!
For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List. The article I linked to up top is also a great read.
There are plenty of materials online as well.
The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here.
The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.