July 29, 2018
Over the last 11 years, I have had several occasions to work directly with the Ministry of the Environment. It all started when I wrote a proposal for the future of the city of Daejeon (where I lived at the time) in 2008.
I teamed with a researcher from the Korea National Fusion Research Institute, Dr. Jung-Hoon Han, to draft “Daejeon: Environmental Capital of Asia,” which was published on Daedeok Net and Ohmynews in January, 2008.
That proposal called for cooperation between science experts in the Daedeok research cluster and the city of Daejeon and it led to the formation of the Daejeon Environmental Forum (later renamed “Daejeon Green Growth Forum”) that brought together citizens, government officials and scientific experts to discuss how Daejeon could be transformed into an ecological city.
But although that forum was mentioned in the media, it did not get much traction when it came to changing the city’s automobile-based culture. The officials from the Ministry of the Environment whom I met seemed to be trapped in an extremely painful position, forced to adapt to the pro-business Lee Myung-bak administration that shamelessly “greenwashed” (making policies and technologies look like they are good for the environment when they are not) the destructive actions of construction companies.
I also saw how Korean expected the Ministry of the Environment to serve as a protector, and discovered that its officials wanted to do good, but were not given funding and they were compelled to use what funding they were given to promote golf courses and concrete banks for natural rivers in accord with the infamous “Four Rivers Project that brought great wealth to real estate speculators and developers.
So it was quite a remarkable that I received an email on June 18 inviting me to speak to about 150 senior officials at the Ministry of the Environment about my proposal for a rethinking of the Korean economy, which I discussed in my Korean book “A Greater Korea which Koreans did not know about.”
Environment Minister Kim Eun-gyeong spent many years as an activist working on social and environmental issues, and she started her career in local government. I suspect she knew something of what it is like to fight for environmental justice in a Korean society obsessed with industrialization.
She read my recent book and thought that having a foreigner talk about larger environmental policy issues would be useful. I think it was one of the most meaningful talks I have given.
It was my first visit to the Ministry of the Environment in Sejong City. The trip itself reminded me of just how far we have to go to create an ecological Korea. After all, Sejong City does not have a train station.
We had to drive in an automobile across the countryside to get there, with the air conditioning cranked up, polluting the atmosphere and watching how the precious soil is being torn up, and the beautiful trees are being cut down, to make room for apartment complexes primarily aimed at promoting a wasteful lifestyle.
The Ministry of the Environment itself is sealed off in the snake-like government complex, a structure built with little concern for the long-term impact on the climate. The air conditioning was set so high that I felt very comfortable wearing a jacket and tie for my talk. The electricity most clearly was not generated by solar power.
But there were posters on the walls describing serious efforts to address environmental issues, even if the word “climate change” did not appear anywhere. I sensed that beneath the surface there were real stirrings for change among those who had suffered through years of half-baked environment policy.
I must confess that I felt a bit of trepidation about the event. My speech was extremely blunt and I suggested that there was profound danger in the industrialized society that had been held up as a primary symbol of success in Korea for so many years.
I proposed that we must eliminate imports of petroleum and coal, and also reduce imports of agricultural products (which goes against the entire free trade ideology that informs all government policy).
I proposed that corporations promoting fossil fuels should not be allowed to advertise on TV because their corporate support for broadcast had dangerously distorted reporting about climate change.
It was entirely possible that this speech would be highly controversial. But although there may have been real disagreement, I did not sense any hostility. I fact, I sensed a true enthusiasm about this honest dialog on climate change.
After my talk, an official asked me the question that is often posed at such events: “Why did you choose Korea when you could have lived in the United States or China or Japan?”
There are many ways I have answered this question. I suggested, humorously, that I did not come because I love K Pop, or kimchi or galbi, but rather that I was drawn to Korea’s traditions of good government and its emphasis on morality in politics and long-term sustainability in the economy in the past.
I have given this answer before, but as I spoke, a more accurate answer to the question came to mind.
The truth is that I would never be allowed to give this sort of a speech to the Ministry of the Environment in the Japan, or China, or especially in my own country’s Department of the Environment ― where even the discussion of climate change is forbidden.
The fact that my harsh, and even revolutionary, talk could be delivered in a highly formal manner to those actually engaged in policy, and not just to a marginal group of environmental activists, was nothing short of miraculous.
There had been zero effort made to vet my talk and zero hesitation about distributing copies of my talk to everyone present.
Equally amazing was the series of four talks for officers from all branches of the military that I gave over the last three weeks in a separate program. In that program as well I was free to speak about what I thought were the security issues of our age.
I discussed at length in front of lieutenants and colonels such emerging threats as climate change, the fragmentation of our society and the spread of an anti-intellectual culture.
This openness in Korea’s mainstream is the real reason that I have stayed here for 11 years. As wrong as Korean policies may be at times, there is always the potential for an honest debate at the highest levels.
But the struggle about climate change is just beginning in Korea. Awareness remains low even in the face of catastrophe.
The relationship between electricity and environment problems is unclear for most citizens. In the public mind, burning coal and oil for power is decoupled from the bizarre weather we encounter.
When I thought about the long struggle that lies before us, I was reminded of Buddhist philosopher Stephen Jenkinson’s comment about moral responsibility to respond to climate change. He said, “The question will not be so much how we succeed but rather how we will fail.” I felt at this talk at the Ministry of the Environment that at the minimum, I was no longer alone.
“A Ministry of the Environment that will lead the Republic of Korea”
I want to pose to you a question, a question intended to stimulate your imagination.
At first, the question may strike you as fantastic, even delusionary. Yet I am convinced that if we consider Korea’s future in accord with scientific principles if we assess Korea’s future needs in an objective and rational manner, the logic behind this question will be self-evident.
What would have to change in Korea in order for the Ministry of the Environment to become the most central and the largest of all government ministries?
Needless to say, we would need a literal revolution in our thinking. We would need to hold up scientific principles, over hype, feelings, advertisement and the other fuzzy and irresponsible approaches to the making of policy that have become so prevalent. We would have to embrace long-term planning and to demonstrate to ourselves, and to all citizens, that granted the catastrophic climatic scenarios that lie ahead, we have no choice but to invest the bulk of our efforts in the Ministry of the Environment, and to make it the ministry that coordinates with all others in the restructuring of the entire economy, and for that matter, the entire culture, in order to respond to the current crisis.
Along the way, we must face a few facts that are a bit difficult to face. First, we must recognize that the truth is not democratic in nature. We do not vote on the truth; it is determined by scientific investigation. Perhaps the public does not think climate change is all that important because industry-funded media has completely ignored this problem. That lack of interest on the part of the public is irrelevant to the Ministry of the Environment and is irrelevant to government. The government takes as its mandate the pursuit of the truth and the development and implementation of policies aimed at the betterment of our society. That will often require the bravery to stand up against mistaken ideas propagated by corrupt institutions. We must embrace that effort and we should see it as an honor, not something to be shirked.
Underlying this statement is an assumption that strong government, led by morally committed intellectuals, is absolutely essential to the health of the nation. Democracy is a powerful force for establishing accountable politics, but if we do not have a strong government that is capable of making sure that citizens are given meaningful educations and have access to truthful media reporting, then we will watch democracy collapse into instinctive populism fed with red meat by the media which will degenerate quickly into totalitarian government.
A strong government is a government that can regulate and tax corporations, that requires the full disclosure of all activities by businesses and wealthy individuals that impact our health and our environment. The government must have the moral authority, and the intellectual competence, to assess what is in the interests of the nation and to establish a long-term plan for addressing the issues of our age in a manner that includes ordinary citizens, experts, and government officials in a meaningful dialogue which has direct implications for policy.
Going forward, as we consider what the future of government in Korea can be, we must move away from the current dependency on Western models (especially American precedents) and spend more time considering Korea’s own tradition of excellence in governance. This point is most apposite in environmental policy as Korea had sophisticated laws, and more importantly, healthy habits and cultural norms, explicitly aimed at maintaining forests, preserving soil and assuring that the ecosystem would be preserved for the long-term. There was a time when Korean government officials were capable of making 100-year plans for the future that were based on ethical principles, and ecological concerns, and not influenced by the mass media or the profit of the stock market.
If such policy was carried out before, it can be done again.
It has become standard practice today to make short-term plans for profits for privately held corporations and to promote those plans through a corrupt media as if they were accepted facts. This practice would have shocked Korean government officials of the past. We have to shake off the delusions and distractions of the present day and realize just how unethical such an approach is.
We can rightly criticize traditional government officials for their failure to recognize the potential of women, for the narrowness of their perspective and for their inflexibility on issues of social status. But we must also recognize that if a Martian landed on Earth and compared their policies 200 years ago in Korea with our policies today, the Martians would not be impressed by the fact that we wear such trendy clothes and hang out at Starbucks. Martians would be shocked by our complete indifference for future generations.
Now we face the ultimate crisis with a complete collapse of the global economic system set up after the Second World War and the end of the free trade system that has been assumed by Koreans to have been established by God. We are facing an economic, cultural and political crisis in Korea today certainly on a scale equivalent to 1960. Most likely the situation is worse now. In 1960, many Koreans were constantly on the edge of starvation and there was tremendous fear of conflict with North Korea. But at the same time, there was meaningful intellectual debate as part of daily life and Korea was able to produce food domestically and a large part of the population was engaged in organic agriculture.
Where does change start?
The question is, where does change start for us?
Obviously change starts with a handful of intellectuals who come to the conclusion that their duty is not to fulfill the artificial goals established for them by the system, but rather to put their tremendous educations to good use formulating real long-term policies for the country and engaging both their peers, and ordinary citizens, in a meaningful discussion. I think that teachers (professors and high school teachers, and others) and government officials are the ones who must lead such an effort, and must do so in a sustainable manner that citizen’s protests cannot. If we look at Korea’s past, it has been precisely such efforts by government officials and intellectuals that supported the reforms of King Sejong, or of King Cheongjo, or many other such reforms.
I see the recognition of the importance of traditional Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist values, and traditional governance models in Korea, as an absolutely essential project for building a sustainable Korea, both in terms of ending a wasteful consumer culture, and also ending an anti-intellectual culture that appeals to the base instincts of appetite for food and sex. We must demand more of ourselves and of our children.
Traditional Korean culture has been reintroduced through the Hanok village. But these are primarily cultural products that offer novel products to a consumer society. Such efforts go against the fundamental assumption of traditional governance, which was that consumption should not be a driving element for an economy. Rather Koreans traditionally assumed that economics should have an essentially ethical nature. The importation of the Japanese interpretation of economics in the 20th century has profoundly undermined the concept of economics for Koreans, something made worse by a generation of dishonest free-market economic drivel from a morally bankrupt United States. Specifically, the term for “economics” used today, “gyeongjae” 經濟 was originally the term “gyeongjaejaemin” 經世濟民 (to administer society and to benefit the people). But the 19th-century Japanese interpretation (“keizai” in Japanese) held that economics was a realm separate from morality in which companies should be allowed to mechanically pursue profit through whatever means possible.
Such thinking remains dominant today in Korea. Corporations are allowed to pursue profits in whatever short-term manner they see appropriate and those profits are reflected in the stock market. If an individual makes an enormous amount of money in the stock market, that money can be donated to NGOs for environmental or social concerns, but the system by which the profits are made cannot be regulated so as to benefit the environment or modify the habits of citizens. In fact, the process cannot even be critically examined.
The truth is the truth even if only one person believes it. The current system promotes public opinion, which is often biased by commercial interests. If public opinion does represent the understanding of ordinary citizens (and often it does not), it represents only the distorted understanding of the world that the people are fed by a corrupt system of journalism. Such public opinion has nothing to do with democracy and if anything the promotion of the impression that there is a consensus in favor of the current order is employed as a means to suppress alternative opinions.
News should not talk about public opinion at all, but rather focus on using scientific principles to analyze recent developments and to present citizens with details about how the local government, the legislature, corporations and other institutions are actually run. The media does not serve this role.
Citizens should be encouraged to raise their intellectual engagement and to develop the focus necessary to be active citizens. The assumption that ordinary people lack the attention span necessary to engage in a debate on policy is a dishonest means of dismissing them and of creating a more authoritarian form of government.
In today’s universities, intellectuals have been transformed into slaves who produce articles for academic journals administered by for-profit corporations which are not accessible to the public even though they are paid for with public funds. Intellectuals are openly discouraged from working with ordinary citizens, or for that matter, with government officials, by the promotion system. They are not permitted to make their expertise accessible to society as a whole.
We have foolishly shut down local universities in the interests of rationality. The assumption about universities has been that they are factories for producing students qualified for working in corporations. But the down-sizing of universities means that there are no intellectuals around in the countryside capable of explaining to people the implications of complex geopolitical and technological changes. The consequences are catastrophic for society and the resulting anti-intellectual trend is feeding a vicious populism globally.
Government officials form an equally important corps of intellectuals capable of leading real change in society. The government has lost its ability to formulate and to enact policy. Whereas the constitution describes a process for governance and policy formulation in which the citizens elect representatives and then the bureaucracy responds to the challenges of enacting that policy, policy today does not emerge from a dialog between citizens and their elected representatives, with insights from experts.
Rather policy is formulated in think tanks, in law firms and in consulting companies which are not transparent, and which are controlled (directly or indirectly) by for-profit corporations. One could interpret this process of formulating policy outside of government as a direct violation of the Korean constitution because that constitution spells out clearly a process for making policy within the government itself. One could say that same about the current function of political parties. Policy is no longer formulated in the National Assembly, as is required by the constitution, but rather is formulated in the back rooms of political parties in a non-transparent manner.
The government must have its own internal expertise and government officials should have the opportunity to develop intellectually so that they can become themselves the experts that our country needs. The government cannot take on international investment banks until it has within itself the ability to make long-term (30-year) plans and implement them. This move is something that corporations addicted to the stock market are incapable of.
Let us imagine what a real Ministry of the Environment would look like, one that is empowered to fine corporations, to tax petroleum and coal heavily, to give 30-50 year loans that will make wind and solar more affordable than coal and petroleum, and that will actively encourage a culture that returned to the frugality of the past, to the spiritual depth of traditional culture and did away with the dangerous assumption that growth is tied to consumption and that it is appropriate for so many well-educated Koreans to spend their lives working in advertising to encourage people to buy things that they do not need and which are damaging to the environment, and to their own health.
The High Growth model: light and shadow
I attended a conference about the 1960 revolution at which men in their 70s spoke about their experiences back at the beginning of South Korea’s modernization. They spoke proudly about how Korea had achieved so much in terms of democracy and in terms of industrialization over the last fifty years.
But has Korea been going in the right direction on these two fronts? We certainly have fairer elections than we did before, but political parties are not participatory and local communities have essentially collapsed. Today few people know who their neighbors are and there are fewer opportunities to come together as a local community to discuss issues. We have enormous factories, wasteful malls and highways, and completely unnecessary complexes of apartments that are constructed regardless of real demand to meet the needs of investment banks, not of citizens. We are facing an industrial policy which has spun out of control.
There were some positive aspects of high growth policy back in the 1960s and 1970s that need to be recognized. The grounds were set for a rapid transformation of all of society in an integrated manner and in a manner that brought citizens into the process.
Individual corruption or pressure from the wealthy and the powerful was not allowed to derail the push within government to create a new society wherein the priority was more on ordinary citizens than the elite.
Moreover, raising the overall level of education for citizens was made a critical part of the process of transformation.
Equally importantly, the government realized that unless Korea controlled foreign capital strictly, and developed its own domestic capital, it would be at risk of becoming a pawn in the economic games of the United States and Japan. Capital was controlled by nationalized banks and government institutions in such a manner as to keep the government focused on long-term goals. It was not possible for citizens to send their money abroad and national systems for savings were enforced that created domestic capital.
Many see such Korean policies as highly repressive and undemocratic, but I think we had better start following exactly such policies again as soon as possible in light of the soon-to-come global financial collapse and the ecological disaster taking place right now.
Korea in the 1960s and 1970s could focus capital on specific industries and do so for the long-term without a concern for immediate profits. Experts were brought into that process and they saw their role as identifying national priorities, and acting on them, not just publishing academic articles.
But there were profound misunderstandings at the heart of the high growth strategy that has returned to haunt us.
First and foremost, it was assumed that free trade would last forever and that embracing a wasteful consumer culture (completely contrary to traditional Korean values) was positive for Korea’s future. It was assumed that Korea could import petroleum, coal, and steel and then export finished products to the United States forever and that its dependence on imports, and on exports, would never become a liability to the economy. It was not understood how the development of a consumer society would destroy the environment and would tear society apart, creating profound alienation and encouraging obsessive behavior that makes intellectual debate nearly impossible.
Democracy turns into totalitarianism quickly if a society does not have a class of intellectuals with the bravery and the moral commitment to address real issues and to help citizens to understand the world. Today universities have turned intellectuals into slaves who produce irrelevant articles for for-profit journals and who are discouraged from working with citizens, or for that matter, with government officials. We have foolishly shut down local universities in the interests of a dishonest rationality, forgetting that without regional universities, there will be no intellectuals in local regions to help citizens understand complex issues. Already, professors are discouraged from playing their primary role of helping citizens-getting no credit for such worked and being forced to write for corrupt and impractical SSCI journals.
The government must have its own internal expertise and be able to make long-term (30-year plans) on its own without the need for outside help. Obviously, scholars or NGOs can play a critical role in criticizing corruption, and mistaken policy, but only if they are not funded by corporations, or by wealthy individuals who depend on the profits of corporations for their financing.
Imagining a real Ministry of the Environment
Let us imagine a future Ministry of the Environment that is capable of playing its proper role, unimpeded, and which does not serve as a cat’s paw for dishonest business interests. Let us imagine a Ministry of the Environment that is empowered to order corporations to conform to a five-year plan to eliminate the use of petroleum and coal, that can tax petroleum and coal heavily and use that money to finance renewable energy, that can draft and implement a 50-year energy and development plan, that can order banks to provide 30-50 year low-interest loans that will make wind and solar power affordable.
But the ultimate issue is not technology or energy, but rather culture. We must actively rediscover the culture of frugality and modesty that was at the core of traditional Korea, we must create a Korea in which youth are ashamed to use throw-away cups and are aware of how their every decision impacts our entire ecosystem.
Just imagine what the plan for Korean economic development would look like if the government first brought together a group of highly ethical and informed scholars to assess what the impact over the next fifty years on society and on the environment would be of current policies, and that group then suggested policies for the next hundred years.
What if those experts saw climate change, the concentration of wealth, and the need to create sustainable jobs for ordinary citizens, as the highest priority for the country?
Today, most experts simply assume that we are obliged to spend many billions of dollars to subsidize a petroleum-based economy and to fund the development of electronic devices whose impact on the health of our society is quite questionable. The truly important issues like creating a sustainable environment free from fossil fuels and establishing greater economic equality are thought of as matters that can only be addressed with what little money is left over after those big projects are funded.
We must strategically control the flow of corporate capital into Korea and reestablish a government capable of working with intellectuals to put forth policies based on ethical principles, not on profits. At present, Korea has no long-term policies at all. The scientifically demonstrated catastrophe of climate change has been easily ignored by think tanks and politicians because they have no commitment to the truth or to ethics.
Instead, our media is full of blatant justifications for the current economic pyramid that demands the import of petroleum, iron, coal and other raw materials and assumes that the protection of the environment or the promotion of domestic agriculture is of minimal importance, and often a barrier to free trade. Article after article suggests that somehow the sales of automobiles, ships, semiconductors, smartphones and other electronic products must be propped up artificially, including taxpayer-funded efforts and a wasteful and indulgent culture of mindless consumption must be encouraged.
The Korean government is entirely capable of ruling that corporations that import and sell petroleum should not be allowed to sponsor TV or radio broadcasts because of a conflict of interest that will keep citizens from getting accurate information about climate change. It is entirely legitimate for the government to prohibit the advertising of automobiles because these dangerous and wasteful devices are destroying our environment and crippling and killing thousands of people (not to mention the incredible waste resulting from highway construction). For that matter, the government is entirely capable of proposing a ban on the use of throw-away plastics and a ban on the sales of products that are not immediately biodegradable, or that cannot be taken apart for easy recycling.
Today such a vision for the government seems like an unrealistic fantasy. But I am here to tell you that there are many cases in history in which a small number of people came together and made up their mind on such a revolutionary shift in policy with success. Such a shift requires ethical commitment, it requires bravery, and it must start with government officials and intellectuals with specialized knowledge.
The function of government has been weakened to the point of crisis in the Republic of Korea, to the point at which our children are being bombarded with near-pornographic images in posters on the street, with images on television of people mindlessly eating food, of wealthy people living selfish and indulgent lives without any concern for the poor, or for society.
What Korea needs now is not more elections in which politicians take “selfies” pictures with voters, or pay people to dance in stupid costumes on street corners. What Korea needs now a real civil service system that empowers a group of ethically motivated young people, who have a commitment to Korea’s future, so that they play a real role in the policy process, a role that their elders have abrogated. If we move forward in that direction and demand that intellectuals play their proper role again, we can get beyond this crisis and reach a point at which elections become meaningful.