[OUTLOOK]Resolve issues, don’t forget themMost issues do not last for long. Most issues fade away when a new issue surfaces. The new issue also vanishes when another issue appears. Most people do not pay attention to a specific issue for a long period of time.
This is even more so in our society where people are very emotional and fluctuate in their concern from one incident to another.
Let’s look at this year. People’s attention has moved from the fabrication of data by the disgraced Dr. Hwang Woo-suk, through the May 31 local elections and the FIFA World Cup to North Korea’s missile launchings and the season’s heavy downpours.
There is a theory about the cycle of an issue. In the 1970s, American scholars studied the process in which an environmental issue surfaces and disappears. They divided this process into five phases.
The first phase is before an issue surfaces. Only a small number of experts and interest groups know about the issue then, while the majority of people are unaware of it.
Second, the issue appears and people react fervently. Through a certain event or incident, most people come to realize the gravity of the issue. Third, most people realize the cost that society needs to pay to fix the problem. An understanding of the high cost or sacrifices needed spreads among the public.
Fourth, people’s interest in the issue fades. Then the final phase is after the issue disappears. Although most people forget the issue, experts and other people involved debate and present a system and a program to resolve the problems.
In Korean society, the second phase when people react vigorously is overly developed. The final phase is very weak, however.
Let’s look at monsoon rains. In 2001, 66 people died due to heavy downpours that hit the Seoul metropolitan area. Problems were revealed. Plumbing systems were poor. There was the danger of dying from electric shock. Subways flooded.
In 2002, when Typhoon Rusa hit the peninsula, other problems surfaced. Reservoirs and dams were poorly managed and an automatic warning system to indicate the amount of rain was inadequate.
In 2003, Typhoon Maemi revealed problems in the system that prevents or warns of natural disasters. Poor measures against such disasters were widely criticized.
But have systems improved since then? Whenever there is a disaster, many issues and topics come pouring in, but they do not proceed to become concrete results.
It has been the same this year. As more than 50 people died due to heavy rain, measures against such disasters have again become talking points.
People talk about building large-scale dams ― which has not been done for a decade ― and of the environmental costs of tourism and high-altitude farming, constructing too many roads and poor handling of embankments by the roadside.
But as the rain slowly subsides, these issues are disappearing from the main pages of newspapers, television news and the memories of politicians, government officials and ordinary people.
As in past instances, these issues will soon be forgotten. Can we assume that any desperate feelings and pain over the issue will be left only in the hearts of people who have lost their families or homes.
Why has the final phase of an issue not come about? Probably because the third phase, where people perceive the high cost of repair, has not settled yet.
For instance, due to the rains this year, the necessity of dams came into the spotlight.
But just raising an issue is not enough to build even one multi-purpose dam. We need to think about the costs and effects. Different interests of different people and groups should be resolved.
Our society has grown so big that complexity and uncertainty have become natural characteristics in it. To take it even one step further, we need to approach an issue from social and engineering perspectives.
Serious debate should continue for a good while in order to resolve a problem once it is revealed, even after the public’s attention has already moved to another issue.
We need to see clearly that resolving a problem requires social costs and entails side effects and sacrifices. Serious thinking and debate ―rather than arguments ― are vital in a situation like this one.
* The writer is the investigative news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Kyu-youn