The Ecology of Functional Society
It’s not that often that we see a clear view of our surroundings in Beijing. The combination of gray buildings against the gray sky adds to the tensive and bustling city mood, which somehow makes us forget the beauty of nature.
When beijingkids arrived at the old house of John Denver Liu, just northeast of Beijing’s center, we were treated to a blissful and calm refuge with birds chirping and the wind playing with the branches.
The setting is very telling, as Liu himself is an ecologist. He shared that when he was young, his father had reminded him of the importance of nature and knowledge through the courtyard of their house in Beijing. “My father told me this as he made a circle, ‘Everything inside it is what you know. Everything outside is what you don’t know.’”
Born in the US, Liu moved to their family’s Beijing home in 1979 as a journalist for Columbia Broadcasting System. Just as Liu focused his beginnings mostly on political and social issues, the budding journalist began to notice the huge industrial development happening everywhere in China.
“There was a lot of pollution coming and the people didn’t know anything about it. It’s odd to have this information [and]somebody has to do something for the environment,” he said. In 1995, the World Bank asked Liu to go and make a film about the Loess Plateau, a massive stretch of plains that covers five provinces in northwestern China. Over centuries, deforestation and population increase have resulted in the gradual degeneration of the plateau, impacting communities and ecosystems there.
He called that experience a critical moment for him. “It was extraordinary because [the plateau]was so destroyed. Basically what we’re talking about there was a dysfunctional system.”
His observations prompted him to start studying to get an academic perspective of the changes in ecological systems. Two years after his Loess Plateau assignment, he started the Environmental Education Media Project (EEMP) in Beijing to tackle what he said as a “need for a collective movement and consciousness” for the environment.
The project grew soon after, with Liu saying that they have produced hundreds of books and films about ecological conservation. He said these media forms and images were just a tool that allowed for a “collaborative interpretation” of what was happening in the environment. “But the real issue is what you understand and it’s rather important that we have a change in consciousness,” Liu said.
He explained that the dysfunction he saw in the Loess Plateau and the widespread pollution in China made him want to know more about ecological function, that is, how every part of the ecosystem benefits each other.
He emphasized that people – individuals, families, and communities – play a big part in ecological systems. But he said one dynamic that underlies within society and the environment is the “economics of materialism.”
“So right now, with your throw-away society, overconsumption, waste, pollution, how do you get rid of them? How do you do something else? You can analyze why they are possible. So when you study them, you find out that the reason is people value materialism higher than life systems. But that suggests the answer: if people value the natural life systems higher than material things, it becomes impossible to pollute and impossible to degrade.”
That alone sounds a big task. We wondered how could we not pollute in the world we live in today.
“The acceptable level of pollution is zero,” Liu continued, “and pollution is something that we allow because we value materialism higher than ecology.” But he poses a challenge, telling everyone to understand and be conscious of their part in the ecosystem.
“The result of my research suggests that ecological function is the basis of wealth. When you increase ecological function, it benefits everybody, every family, every community, every individual, the entire country. The community becomes robust and resilient. If you go to functionality, you’re going to have joy and a better situation.”
In the middle of the interview, we were interrupted by a rather welcome guest – two woodpeckers that repeatedly struck trunks somewhere in the courtyard. We were once again reminded of the beauty of a functioning environment, despite being boxed in a megacity.
Outside his house, he said there’s a bigger home for everyone: the Earth where there’s no difference in the pollution in the air, in the water, in the soil, or in the food. A change in consciousness in today’s society, as he explained, would mean ensuring the future generations would enjoy a reality different from the degraded Loess Plateau or any other over-polluted cities elsewhere. “I think this is the great work of our time … so that the next generations will have water, air, and fertile soil, and that they won’t be just covered with toxic substances,” he said.
Photos: Uni You
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