Living Earth

Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration

A Breakthough of Worldwide Importance

In 1995, as the Chinese government and people were beginning an ambitious effort to restore the cradle of Chinese civilization, I was asked by the World Bank to document the “Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project.” Originally the Loess Plateau had been fully vegetated with massive forests and grasslands. Resources extracted from the giant forests, rushing rivers, and abundance of the earth in this place blossomed into the magnificence of the Han, the Qin and the Tang dynasties. The accomplishments of the early Chinese dynasties, based in this area, rank among the greatest human scientific and artistic achievements of any age. The Loess Plateau gave birth to the Han race, the largest ethnic group on the planet, and the plateau is generally considered by historians and geographers to be the second place on Earth where human beings began to use settled agriculture.

Before Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabiliation Project, China
Before Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabiliation Project, China

As bright as the beginning was, over time the area suffered and eventually was almost completely denuded of vegetation. By 1000 years ago the Loess Plateau had been abandoned by the wealthy and powerful and by the mid-1990s was famous mainly for a continuous cycle of flooding, drought and famine known as “China’s Sorrow.” Over the years, since beginning this inquiry in 1995, I have witnessed an extraordinary transformation on the Loess Plateau. The changes have been brought about by differentiating and designating ecological and economic land, infiltrating rainfall, terracing and consciously increasing biomass and organic material through massive planting of trees in the ecological land and using better agriculture methods in the economic lands. A measure of ecological function has been returned to the region and the general direction of development is now positive and accumulative with the functionality continuing to improve. The changes on the Loess Plateau have been transformational and are contributing to a growing movement to restore all degraded land on the Earth. As my understanding has grown I have presented the Loess Plateau restoration efforts and results of the restoration worldwide through public speaking and in several films including: “The Lessons of the Loess Plateau” and “Hope in a Changing Climate.” (Links to these films are listed at the end of the article.)

After Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabiliation Project, China
After Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabiliation Project, China

I have been on a very long journey of inquiry since beginning to study China’s Loess Plateau. This article contains much of the journey, the wonder and beauty I have seen along the way and the conclusions that I have come to. My experiences have made me realize that while we live in interesting times, we are not helpless in the face of the many challenges we are grappling with. Biodiversity loss, human-induced climate changes, increasing incidence of extreme weather, pollution, food insecurity, desertification, human population growth, financial crisis, racism, war, violence and migration are just some of the concerns that we have. What exactly is happening? Why do we seem to be on a downward spiral, leading seemingly toward an eventual catastrophic collapse? Are all these negative outcomes inevitable? Is it ‘God’s Wrath’ directed at us because we have sinned and because of this we have been cast out from paradise? Should we take that literally or could this be a poetic metaphor intended to lead us to understanding? 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 historical, evolutionary and geologic time. My focus in the beginning was to gain a better understanding of the biophysical aspects of Earth Systems but has more recently turned to how this is related to human activity, work and economy. Surprising implications are emerging. What was at first distant from current events is now suggesting a new development paradigm that could address the most serious problems we face with profound implications for the present and the future.

Studying the Loess Plateau has proven to be broadly analogous to studying other cradles of civilization on the planet. By reducing biodiversity, biomass and accumulated organic matter, the people of the Loess Plateau destroyed the ability to infiltrate and retain rainfall in biomass and organic soils, causing an area the size of France to dry out. Without the constant nutrient recycling from decaying organic matter, the fertility was eroded away by wind and water and the place was left barren and subject to intense flooding, drought and famine. There is evidence throughout the world of this phenomenon. This outcome is similar in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, the Sahel region of North Africa and elsewhere. What is different about the Loess Plateau is that there was a conscious decision to try to reverse the degradation at scale and restore ecological function to a vast area. The work on the Loess Plateau is helping prove that it is possible to rehabilitate large-scale damaged ecosystems and that this is the best way we have to mitigate and adapt to human induced climate changes as well as to address numerous other problems.

Background: Natural Systems Global Research

The historical degradation and the contemporary restoration of China’s Loess Plateau is a complex story but it can be analyzed and understood. To really understand this, some background information is necessary. For me this has meant traveling to degraded lands all over the world but also to the remaining pristine ecosystems in Africa, Asia, and the Americas to see what systems that have not been altered by human beings are like and what has been lost when we have changed the systems.

This has made me rather philosophical. With a good imagination it is possible to think back to a time before human beings had massively altered natural systems on the Earth. When we leave the environment that we humans have constructed even now we find great forests rich with oxygen, moisture, the scent of orchids and other flowers. These great remnants of the Earth’s natural systems can be found on all continents. In these great primary forests epiphytes cling to every surface, making it seem that the trees have beards hanging from their limbs and fur on their bark. Even the rocks are covered in moss or mottled with lichens. The forest floor is covered with decaying organic matter, the remains of former generations of plants, from which spring giant ferns and colorful fungi. Animal droppings on the pathways, paw-prints, birdsong and animal cries provide evidence that the forest is not just for plants.

Within these forests are ancient trees that live for thousands of years—giant trees anchoring vast diverse ecosystems, coexisting with their descendents and symbiotically with myriad forms of life. When it rains, the raindrops hit the towering ancient canopy and then drizzle down, nurturing each level of the multi-story environment. Water drops bead on the tips of the leaves, slowly forming, and when fat and heavy they drop to the next lower level, the process beginning again. The air is dense with humidity that bathes everything in the forest. Water springs spontaneously from rock formations and flows joyously in clear streams growing stronger and stronger until eventually forming great rivers.