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The rivers flowing from the highland forests inundate the wetlands in the lower lands below on their paths to the sea. During the rainy seasons these wetland systems absorb huge amounts of water and during the dry seasons they slowly release it so that the land is never dry. At various times in the year the sky is darkened by enormous migratory flocks of birds. Various species compete in seeking nesting grounds in a riot of birdsong and the beating of wings. In the coastal zones where the land and the sea meet are vast mangrove forests, the interface between the land and the sea and the breeding grounds for much of the sea’s life. Where there is little rainfall one finds seemingly endless grasslands interspersed with trees and plants specially adapted to the exact rainfall patterns of each specific ecological habitat. In the grasslands and savannah regions vast herds of migratory animals abound.
“Witnessing the incredible potential of restoration
has helped me to understand that degradation is
not inevitable and that there is a path forward for
humanity that leads to a sustainable future.”
In visiting these places and studying how they function I found that three evolutionary trends have been continuously at work. The first trend is toward total colonization of the Earth by biological life. The second trend is toward the constant accumulation of organic material as each generation of life gives up its body in death. The third trend is toward continuous differentiation through speciation leading to the potential of infinite variety in genetics or biodiversity. These trends over evolutionary time transformed a lifeless rock surrounded by poisonous gases into a wonderful garden. The basic engine for this change is photosynthesis, which takes sunlight, water and geologic minerals and converts them to living biomass. The photosynthesizing biomass has, through gas exchange over prodigious time, created and maintained the oxygenated atmosphere that we now breathe. The enormous quantities of biomass and accumulated organic material also infiltrate and retain rainfall, releasing the moisture in respiration, creating, constantly filtering and continuously renewing the hydrological cycle that provides the water we drink and use in so many ways. The decay of organic matter over evolutionary time has built and renewed the fertility of the soil from which our food emerges. Even the fossil energy that we are so blithely using is derived from ancient photosynthesis and organic matter that decayed under specific pressurized conditions. These processes and functions of nature are the physical basis of life.
Into this natural world our human ancestors were born and, as many great cultural cosmologies state, we emerged in paradise. Through ingenuity and courage, we humans have become the latest dominant animal species. Our elevation to this lofty position has taken place in the relatively short time since the last ice age receded, approximately 10,000 years ago. Yet we do not exist separately from other parts of the living earth, we are part of this system. As human power has grown we have cut down vast forests, converted natural systems to agriculture, relentlessly grazed our livestock, and built great cities and industrial zones. Throughout the last 10,000 years various civilizations have risen, but they have also fallen. Human history shows numerous examples of civilizations that failed to conserve and protect the natural diversity of life, the fertility of the soil and the hydrological cycle and collapsed. Currently, as we experience biodiversity loss, extreme weather events, desertification, food insecurity, human-induced climate changes, financial crisis, poverty, disparity, war and all our other problems, we are facing the same fate as those civilizations that went before us. But our dilemma is somewhat more dangerous because while in the past the centers of power and affluence just shifted, we are now altering planetary ecosystems. We urgently need to understand what is happening and what to do to ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Our ancestors took great pride in their accomplishment as magnificent structures and complex institutions grew in the same way that we are now sure that our accomplishments are significant and enduring. But this can also be seen as hubris that focuses our attention on the transient and blinds us to the enduring and profound. Seeing how the early Chinese had destroyed the very systems needed for life has helped me to understand the process of ecological degradation and the relationship between human activity and degradation. Witnessing the incredible potential of restoration has helped me to understand that degradation is not inevitable and that there is a path forward for humanity that leads to a sustainable future.
What we know about the ancient civilizations of our human ancestors we glean from the ruins we unearth of once magnificent palaces and temples. The broken statues that stare at us across time suggest how seriously each generation takes their own existence. But finally the people who built these palaces die and if we don’t keep pulling the weeds up by the roots, biological life will swallow the infrastructure whole, and it is again up to generations far in the future to ‘discover’ the ruins and try to make sense of it all. But while the exploits and lives of our ancestors may be vague, we do receive a record of what their lives did to the natural systems. We are left with the consequences of their understanding and decisions concerning the infiltration, retention and regulation of water, the respect or lack of respect for biodiversity and their understanding of fertility in the soils. The geographical records documenting this are quite clear. Virtually every past civilization degraded their ecosystem and many were driven to collapse when the system could no longer support them with food or water. That so many different civilizations in different parts of the world all suffered the same fate makes me consider humanity as a species and not a collection of different races. We may have cultural differences but our similarities are too great to ignore, not to mention the genetic evidence that we are all related.
All the great civilizations include a great respect for the wisdom and contributions of those who have lived and died in the many generations that have gone before. Within the rise and fall of the great ancient civilizations on earth are profound lessons that our ancestors are sharing with us. The lessons of the Loess Plateau show that soil is not simply a medium for our agricultural crops to stand in, and that fertility is not simply nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium to stimulate growth. Organic matter is required to recycle nutrients from one generation of life to the next and microbiologic communities that live in organic soils are required not only to assist in recycling but also to release nutrients from geologic materials and to infiltrate and retain moisture. Understanding that these same organic soils are the second largest carbon sink on Earth after the oceans is to recognize their role in mitigating and adapting to human-induced climate changes and how they are of vital importance for our survival and sustainability.
The people of the Loess Plateau had interrupted the three great evolutionary trends that created the living system and that regulate the ecological functions on the plateau. The long destructive patterns of behavior on the plateau had left a nearly completely dysfunctional system. The cycle of poverty and ecological destruction was manifest in the cycle of flooding, drought and famine. Erosion of the loose sedimentary soils meant that huge sediment loads were deposited into the Yellow River, increasing the risk that the river would flood its banks. Without vegetation cover or soil moisture, the natural evaporation rates and temperatures were artificially elevated, causing the plateau to be hotter and drier than necessary.
All this can be briefly stated as a reduction of biodiversity, leading to a reduction of biomass, that necessarily causes a reduction in the accumulation of organic matter, all of which causes reduction in gas exchange through reduced photosynthesis, a massive reduction in nutrient cycling through the loss of decaying organic material and a reduction in infiltration and retention of rainfall leading to the loss of natural regulation of the hydrological cycle, the weather and the climate. This is a very concise description of the developmental trajectory that has led to the ecological collapse and the failure of numerous human civilizations.