John Dennis Liu doesn't do small talk well. Even a brief telephone conversation about setting up an interview launches him into a speech about ecological restoration, Earth's future, and the errors of humanity's ways.
He simply can't help himself, and he knows it. "It's pretty much the same thing I say each time," he says. "People ask me, 'What are you on?' "
What the Beijing-based ecologist and filmmaker is "on" is the fervent belief that our planet is heading toward environmental disaster. But it is a disaster that can be averted. He argues that humans can stop the ecological destruction of the planet, and that they have a moral obligation to do so.
Just don't try to distract him with talk about anything less than the future of humanity. "We're facing catastrophic outcomes from climate change," he says.
In fact, Mr. Liu sees the destruction of Earth's natural resources as a fight of biblical proportions, a tragic step that takes humanity away from the Garden of Eden that is biodiversity.
For the past 17 years, he's been involved in projects such as the restoration of China's Loess Plateau, a roughly 250,000-square-mile area across north-central China nearly the size of Texas that had been reduced to barren sands as a result of overgrazing and improper farming. Through a project of tree-planting, tiered agriculture, and setting land aside, the erosion has been stopped and the area is fertile again.
Liu has moved on to document ecological restoration projects in Rwanda, Haiti, Mozambique, Jordan, and a giant panda habitat area in Sichuan Province in China.
"This is the epic story of human history," Liu says. When people ignore ecological consequences, they're "committing long-term suicide."
Liu, who speaks with his eyes fixed steadily on his listener, has never been accused of understating matters. He has lived in China, his father's homeland, since 1979. (His parents, an American-born mother, Eleanor, and a Chinese-born father, John, have been visiting China from their home in the United States since 1978, when China opened up after the Cultural Revolution.)
About that same time, Liu decided to learn Chinese. He started work as a cameraman in 1981, helping CBS News set up its first Beijing bureau. Later he worked for Radiotelevisione Italiana and Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, a German TV station.
In 1990, Liu and his German-born wife, Kosima, built a traditional Chinese courtyard-style house on the outskirts of Beijing, which they now share with his parents, who spend half the year with him and half with his sister in Kansas.
Although the city of 20 million is slowly expanding out to where the Lius live, their home is still an idyllic sanctuary where China's boisterous tree crickets make conversation almost impossible on a summer afternoon.
One side of the courtyard is devoted to his film studio. Liu's evolution from cameraman to ecological evangelist began in the Loess Plateau. On a trip there in 1995 he witnessed a devastated landscape, so barren and wind-swept that millions of tons of silt from the once-fertile soil was being washed into the Yellow River.
"I would say, 'Somebody should do something about the environment,' " Liu says. "But I really meant somebody else." Slowly, it dawned on him that the "somebody" was him.
He signed on to film a project conducted by the World Bank and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection to restore the Loess. The result was his film "Hope in a Changing Climate."
The success of the restoration project there led the Chinese government to adopt policies of restoration in other places in China, says Gabrielle Harris, executive director at PlaNet Finance China, a nonprofit group that uses microfinance to help eradicate poverty.
For Liu, that initial project set in motion his lifework. In 1997, he and Kosima founded the Environmental Education Media Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to distribute films and information about the environment.
On the EEMP website he writes, "The inquiry that began with a short assignment to document a project in China has led me to every continent on Earth and to cast my thoughts across historic, evolutionary, and geologic time."
Today, Liu has gathered film footage in almost 80 countries and has given more than 300 talks, speaking to groups as wide-ranging as the International Water Symposium in Tamera, Portugal; the World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Jeju, South Korea; and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa. Over the next few months, he's slated to speak in Zurich, Switzerland; Calgary, Alberta; Madison, Wis.; Quito, Ecuador; the Galápagos Islands; and Amsterdam.
The connection between restoring devastated landscapes and the eradication of global poverty is one of Liu's primary messages. Humanity's thinking about wealth is skewed, he argues.
"Wealth is clean air, clean water, food with no chemicals. We don't really have wealth," he says. When a landscape is degraded, the cycle of poverty is perpetuated, he says. If we value products above the wealth of nature, our belief systems are skewed.
One of the groups he's influenced is the Global Issues Network, an organization that encourages young people who attend international schools to create solutions to global issues, bringing them together at conferences on topics ranging from biodiversity to property rights.
Linda Sills, the Berkeley, Calif.-based program development director for GIN, says that several years back, she invited Liu to speak to the students. "He does a keynote speech that changes kids' lives," she says. "I've had more kids come up to me and say, 'Now I know what I want to do' " because they've met Liu.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the prospect of global warming, Liu "was one of the main ones who offered [the students] hope," Ms. Sills says.
Rhamis Kent, a London-based consultant at the Permaculture Research Institute, helped introduce Liu to a new region for his 2012 film, "Green Gold," produced for the Dutch television network VPRO. "Green Gold" focuses on Jordan, where the desert is advancing and ecologists are working to limit overgrazing and bring the arid climate back to green.
"He has a willingness to go to any and all places to cover this," Mr. Kent says. "It doesn't matter the continent, the time. He has really dedicated his life to doing this."
Willem Ferwerda is an Amsterdam-based adviser at the Commission on Ecosystem Management, part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature based in Gland, Switzerland. He first met Liu at a conference in 2009.
The two talked over the course of two days, and Mr. Ferwerda proposed that the two of them work together "for the rest of our lives," he says. Many ecologists understand the science behind restoring the natural world, but few can tell the story the way Liu can, he says.
Ferwerda is beginning a new project that will encourage companies and investors, including mining and oil companies, to invest in land restoration, and will use Liu's storytelling talents for that effort as well.
Ms. Harris at PlaNet Finance China says that her work brought her to China's Gansu Province, where the effects of dry soil and desertification were partly the result of bad policies by the Chinese government. After spending much time talking to and working informally with Liu and EEMP, Harris says, "I started getting pulled into his way of thinking, which has become my way of life.
"I call him the ancient ecologist, instead of the ancient mariner," Harris says. "And now I've become an ancient ecologist myself."
• For more info, visit http://eempc.org.
Teach in China – and other ways to help
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