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The Lessons of the Loess Plateau

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villagers work to shape the land beneath them with sticks. large plateaus can be seen behind them.
Screen capture from The Lesson of the Loess Plateau showing villagers working together to
reshape and renovate their land.




Reviewed by Anita Peters

The Lessons of the Loess Plateau was produced, written, and directed by John Liu, an American and former CBS cameraman, who has been living in China for the past twenty-five years. It tells the amazing story of how scientists, working in collaboration with local farmers in one of the most eroded places on the planet, reversed thousands of years of environmental degradation perpetrated by the combined actions of humans and nature.

Each year, Beijing residents choke on the dust swept in by winds from the Loess Plateau, an arid region in north central China, and millions of tons of fertile silt wash into the Yellow River, destroying natural fisheries and contributing to flooding. Here is a grim visual portrait of a collapsed ecosystem entrapping its human inhabitants in a fight for survival and an existence of extreme poverty. This is a problem for science to solve and science students and teachers will appreciate the emphasis on using the scientific method to tackle the problems of biological sustainability. A central question raised in the film is—if the loess is one of the most fertile soils, why is there so little arable land available to farmers? “That is why I became a soil scientist,” answers the filmmaker John Liu.

a line of children are seen in front of large plateaus
Screen capture from The Lesson of the Loess Plateau showing the barren hills and valley
near the village where these children live.

The story of the Loess Plateau is a cautionary tale of how ignorance, benign neglect, apathy, population growth, and nature can conspire together over millennia to cause the collapse of ecosystems, thereby altering the physical and cultural geography of an entire region, continent, and planet.

As the film opens, John Liu narrates as the camera pans over the arid dusty landscape, covering an area the size of France and spanning seven provinces, running from as far west as the Plateau of Tibet in Qinghai and east to Shaanxi. It seems hard to imagine that this barren land was once covered by forests and grassland and is considered by some historians to be “second only to ancient Mesopotamia in its importance to the spontaneous development of agriculture” as recounted in the film. To help the viewer imagine what the land was once like, the film employs time-lapse photography of the Loess Plateau and cinematography of nearby similar, but less-degraded, ecological zones. Nevertheless, to gain the most from the film, students will be well-served by first acquiring grounding in Chinese agrarian civilization and traditional Chinese farming practices.

The film documents the ten-year journey of trial and error by a team of Chinese and foreign scientists participating in the Loess Watershed Rehabilitation Project. During the project’s first two years, scientists met with local farmers throughout the region to determine whether they could learn anything from their “best” practices, which turn out to be, surprisingly, nothing. Local farmers and herders have been eking out a living anyway they can irrespective of the impact on the environment and their future. This is Lesson One.

the same hills from the prior image are here, but more lush and covered in a thick mist that suggests more life than the previous photo.
the same hills and valley ten years later.

The scientists next turn their attention to the physical environment to find answers—applying their knowledge of biology, soil conservation, geology, and watershed preservation—using all the available technology of today to assist them in their research. One year later, equipped with answers, they soon realize that returning balance to the physical environment will require the cooperation of its inhabitants, hence Lesson Two. Through interviews and profiles of local residents and scientists, we learn how they gain villagers’ cooperation. This is what makes Lessons such a compelling and engaging documentary. Even though we know from the outset there is going to be a positive outcome, i.e., the Loess region will be rescued, the result is nevertheless mindboggling. The film stands as visual proof that lasting change depends upon changing human behavior.

Please direct purchase requests to Patrick Augenstein at