[EDITORIALS]Progress vs. the environment

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[EDITORIALS]Progress vs. the environment

The entire nation is suffering bitter experiences due to environmental conflicts. Yesterday, a local administrative court ruled that the government should either scrap or modify the plans of the Saemangeum reclamation project. One day earlier, the tunnel construction at Mount Cheonseong for the bullet train connecting Seoul and Busan was halted as a result of Venerable Jiyul’s hunger strike. The projects will inevitably suffer long-term pauses and astronomical financial losses.
Environmental groups have hailed the decisions. The Blue House appears to be satisfied that it has avoided the extreme situations and embraced minority opinions. Is this situation really deserving of cheers?
Taxpayer money has been spent in vain until now. Environmental issues cannot be assessed alone ― they have to be considered in light of the economy and effectiveness.
Experts said the poor evaluation of environmental issues and the government’s incompetence, lukewarm handling and failure to achieve a social consensus are the cause of this situation. But that is too weak to explain the 15-year-long drift of the Saemangeum project, and the additional 2.5 trillion won ($2.43 billion) necessary to resolve the Mount Cheonseong issue.
Who will oppose environmental protection? The issue is how to coordinate the environment and our means of living. Who will trust a government that surrenders to unreasonable demands under the justification of “preserving the environment”?
Environmental issues and the national income reportedly have a reverse U-shape relation, called the Environmental Kuznets Curve. According to the theory, environmental damage grows rapidly at the early stage of economic development, but environmental damage goes down after national income grows between $10,000 and $20,000 because of investments in environmental technology.
Korean society today no longer tolerates the earlier reckless development. We have seen this change in the controversies over the planned construction of Donggang Dam in Yeongwol and the nuclear waste dump in Buan. Today, 58.2 percent of Koreans see the environmental damage from these state-driven development projects. That indicates that national projects will face more serious controversy.
Before we suffer any more losses, it is urgent to build a social consensus to prevent further environmental discord. Political, religious and environmental groups resolved the controversy over the construction of the tunnel at Mount Sapae last year, and that is an excellent model.
First, we should not accept unrealistic election pledges from politicians. The Saemangeum reclamation and the Mount Cheonseong tunnel projects are examples. The government should also stop exaggerating economic values of state-run development programs and underrating influences on the environment. Between 1993 and 1994, 33 large-scale development projects underwent environmental evaluations and only one was rejected. In contrast, regional airports have been idle despite the government’s boastful promises of profitability.
Environmental groups, which have been staging protests without presenting constructive alternatives, must come back to their original purposes. Some environmental groups have recently been caught distorting environmental issues for profit. It has been well known that criticism has mounted because of environmental groups abusing their powers.
We need environmental experts who can understand the reality rather than environmental activists with wrong agendas.
In Korea, it is impossible to meet the nation’s electricity demand without nuclear power plants. And yet, environmentalists are against building nuclear power plants and nuclear waste dumps. If we just follow the environmentalists, it is impossible to supply electricity to this nation.
It is time for the people to make a final decision. The government cannot be swayed by the few who will sacrifice the common good for some specific purposes.
Environmental conflicts have become too large a problem to be handled solely by the government. The people will have to act sensitively to find the balance between the economy and the environment. We need a social consensus to find that point of balance. This deserves serious attention in the next election.
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