I have been so deeply disturbed at the spectacle of civilized men and women walking by indifferent in the streets of Seoul, indifferent to the worsening air quality and to the rise in temperatures as a result of the acceleration of climate change. They are like their brothers and sisters around the world. I think that at some level they know something is wrong. But the respond by simply laughing and acting like they are enjoying themselves. No degree of logic can break through to them.
It seems to be a rule of thumb in Seoul that one mentions the unusually hot weather when meeting people, but does not say anything about climate change at all, as if it were a forbidden topic, something akin to incest or child abuse that must not be mentioned.
Even more disturbing is the drive in Seoul to build more big buildings and drive more cars, bigger cars, perhaps in the hope that such actions will help the economy, but they are rather a nail in our coffin: every single skyscraper, every single automobile.
The greatest sin is false monumentality, the frailty of humans to think that building something bigger than required will enhance our experiences and make life more significant, make our civilization more complete. But it is a treacherous lie; and now the truth is out.
I feel a pain every time I am given a disposable cup, every time I ride an automobile and every time I take an airplane. I am seriously thinking of declaring I will never fly again, but I lack the bravery, and fear the tremendous isolation that will result. I recently designed a new pin for the Asia Institute that will be available from next week. Do let me know if you would like one.
But there is no easy solution for this predicament. All I am sure of is that the solution must start with me. And of course Korea has in its past of frugality and respect for nature and for objects the solution to that problem. But in the blind rush into modernity, many Koreans have lost sight of that prize.
It is in this context that I started rereading E. F. Schumacher’s classic book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. I am even more deeply appreciative of the wisdom in this book, and even more deeply disgusted that we have not been able to do anything since it was first published in 1973. I was impressed by the following quote at the opening of Small is Beautiful which I think sums up the emptiness of our project and the need to find spiritual content, for material things can never fill the terrible chasm in our commercialized lives.
Few can contemplate with a sense of exhilaration the splendid achievements of practical energy and technical skill, which, from the latter part of the seventeenth century, were transforming the face of material civilization, and of which England was the daring, in not too scrupulous, pioneer. If, however, economic ambitions are good servants, they are bad masters.
The most obvious facts are the most easily forgotten. Both the existing economic order and too many of the projects advanced for reconstructing it break down through their neglect of the truism that, since even quite common men have souls, no increase in material wealth will compensate them for arrangements which insult their self-respect and impair their freedom. A reasonable estimate of economic organization must allow for the fact that, unless industry is to be paralyzed by recurrent revolts on the part of outraged human nature, it must satisfy criteria which are not purely economic.