I meet John D. Liu on a zoom call in the afternoon at the 6th of November. It is pitch black
outside my window. I’m sitting in front of the gas heater in my workshop with a candle light
and lambskin over my legs - on the other side of the screen John is wearing sunglasses and
his background is the blue Californian sky. His time is 8.27 in the morning. Throughout our
talk John unfolds his perspectives on humanity, the challenges we face and the systems we
are connected in.
John D. Liu is a multitalented scientist, filmmaker and environmental activist. Among other
things he works with restoration of large-scale damaged ecosystems.
John, what are you working on at the moment?
I got trapped in California by covid, so I began to consider what our main problems are
including the problems of the ecology: there is a lot of homelessness and hunger and social
inequity and mental illness and addiction. At the same time fires are burning across the
states. We have had several years of very dangerous fires .. I have been doing media,
writing – a good thing to do in isolation – and I have been filming a lot.
One problem is to get some organic food - it is to make sure that the water cycle is fully functional, that we can drink from the rivers and that the soil is healthy and fertile.
Other problems are homelessness and hunger and mental illness and addiction. I started thinking:
could we add all these problems together? I think it would be an important thing if we could
address all these things together.
Let’s take the fires as an example. Because of the fires that has been out here this summer,
there is a real risk of toxic run off. When houses and especially trailer houses made from
industrial plastics and such things burn, it release toxins into the air but it is also in the soil.
There was a fatal fire in Paradise California 2 years ago and that is when we started the first
restoration camp in the United States. 80 people died and the entire community was wiped
out. It was very bad. Thousands of people got homeless and 80 people got killed because
there were unable to escape the fire and the whole town was destroyed. A friend of mine
said to me: you have to come to California right now and help to make this first camp in
Paradise California. I went to California and we did that. We started that. We got a lot of
people engaged in participatory activity after this terrible tragedy and it actually made them
feel better. They did some good things but more importantly was that psychologically they
got involved in rebuilding their home and community which helped them get through this
terrible psychological time. This year when the fires came the county came immediately to
the friend of mine and said: what should we do, what should we do. He helped them write
an emergency response plan and that plan was adopted by the state which means the state
pays the costs and the people can participate in it. That is a win-win situation.
It is quite good to have participatory activity both from the psychological perspective of the people who are affected but also to move the policy and the actions by the government.
It is a completely different scenario than people saying: okay, how can I make money from this disaster: if you don’t pay me I won’t do anything.
The homeless, the hungry and the unemployed are the perfect people to work on restoration
because they have nothing else to do and they are already failing – the state law have to
pay for them if they do nothing or accept to walk over their bodies as they lie on the side of
the street – it is grotesque, you know. You can’t have a lot of affluence in Hollywood and all
these super rich people driving around in their expensive cars and expensive homes and
then at the same time they have to step over people that are starving, who are unemployed
and homeless – you know, it is crazy.
We started to think of how we stack all these up together so that we address homelessness, hunger, poor health and food security at the same time as we engage these people in ecosystem restoration.
Right now the society and the government doesn’t care and they are
willing to step over the bodies of the people at this time. What if these people become the
heroes who are protecting the state from fire and destruction of the beautiful forest in
California? They deserve to be honored and they deserve to be fed and they deserve to get
an income. These things started to emerge from me being trapped here. We can
communicate about it and we can start these projects. Feed the hungry and house the
homeless and employ the unemployed and create a community that is nurturing for the
people who are suffering from the psychological or substance abuse, addiction or loneliness
– and there are quite a lot of them. So that’s what I’m doing.
I believe that the government is a creation of the society and the civilization and that it
reflects human understanding.
We need to grow into a higher level of consciousness and reflect that in new governance and economic understanding. This means being aware that our lives depend on functional ecosystems. When we understand this we can change society and human civilization.
What is it that you care about in the work that you do?
What I noticed is that the society is organized in a way I would call the dominant political
economic thinking. It comes to us from Europe mainly – from the expansion of European
empires during the imperialist period and colonization. When we analyze what happened
during this period – even though it is hard to characterize directly – the “civilization” in Europe
was not as advanced as it thought it was. It’s basically hybris, it’s what Homer is telling us:
that the arrogance and pride of human beings knows no bound and so people walk around
and think that they are the smartest people in the world, the richest people in the world, the
most powerful people in the world, but they are going to die in a few years or decades so
they are perverting their own destinies to be this kind of selfish and materialistic - at the
worst case nihilistic.
These people pursue materialism throughout their lives and if they seek materialism, they
are going to get a lot of material. When they do, they are going to come to a conclusion: I am not satisfied, I am just having this stuff. Suddenly their world view isn’t true. And they either face
that and try to come up with some other philosophy for their life or they think: oh, I must get
more! Even though I have 3 cars and an airplane and four houses it is not enough. I want
even more. And they keep stepping over the bodies of all the people that is hungry and
homeless and will still try to get more for themselves but of course it won’t get them any
satisfaction – it will get even worse. It becomes a terrible endless thing and at the end of
that, they don’t believe in anything anymore and when they don’t believe in anything this
nihilistic point of view comes. At this point they are very dangerous and they can kill people
and who knows what can happen. If they don’t have any morality then they don’t have any
empathy and then they don’t have any passion – it is like they are not alive somehow.
I have been studying function and dysfunction in terrestrial ecosystems and what I am observing is that the natural ecological systems are based on certain principles - natural laws opposed to human laws.
These are not made up. Since I started studying function and
dysfunction in terrestrial ecosystems I realized that it is our duty to understand these
systems and to do our best to protect them. Where nature has been damaged it is our duty
to try to restore it because that is going to determine the future quality of life for all life in the
future: our children and all future generations of humans. Future generations of all life and
their quality of life is our decision. I have started to realize that I have an odd role in this
because of studying this when it was obscure. I have studied this for three decades and I
know a lot about it, but I don’t have power to make other people do something. I only have
agency over my own behavior.
But if I can work on designing a way forward where there is a role for lots of people and they choose that then I can fulfill the potential of the study that I have been following.
If I just study it, it is pointless. If I do it, it is a proof. Proof is in the doing and healing is in the doing.
There are a lot of people that are broken and all of this mental illness, selfishness, greed and ignorance is not a good way to live. It is better to work in the interest of everyone and all life rather than work in the interest of you or yourself or your tribe.
And when you think about what “the others” do – see that there are no others! There is just us! Us humans and other species.
That is the way it is.
How do you as civil citizen take action towards regeneration?
What is needed to get started?
It seems to me that I’m a very normal person but I have been able to catalyze some
extraordinary outcomes. Through observation, documentation, study, and communication
I’ve had some impact on public awareness and participation in restoration. This most
importantly actually transforms landscapes as well as peoples’ lives. Everyone should be
empowered to work together to restore the Earth. This should be the basis of the economy
and the central intention of human civilization.
This takes courage and determination because it means transformational change. Consciousness, determination, collaboration, patience, compassion, empathy and love are all needed to realize this change.
Learn more about Johns work here:
Interview and text by Ida Marie Andersen.
Ida is a writer for the Rewild Magazine. She is driven by the work with nature, aesthetics and the immersion in crafts and writing.
From the film "Hope in a Changing Climate” Courtesy: John D. Liu