[Outlook]Ecology can no longer be ignored

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[Outlook]Ecology can no longer be ignored

Twenty years ago, I met a woman named Won Jin-hee. I studied Korean Buddhist canons with her at Bongseon Temple in Gwangneung, Gyeonggi province.
When I met her again recently, we found out we have lived separate lives during our time apart. I was a graduate student back then and now work as history professor. Ms. Won used to be an ordinary homemaker, but now she has become an environmental activist.
When I asked her about her work, she asked me back, “Do you know why so much inland water has disappeared?” I said, “Is it because many dams have been built?”
She said that was not the main reason. Underground water has dried up, she said. Subterranean water has dried up because roads have been paved and water can no longer be absorbed into the ground. Instead, it runs off the surface. As subways, railways, stations and buildings have been built, the ground where water can be absorbed is reduced in size. And underground water is continuously being pumped to the surface, she said.
In nature, underground and above-ground water is connected. We are using up the enormous reserves of water that have been waiting underground for long periods. The fact that rivers and streams are drying up is a message from nature that warns of the bankruptcy of water.
Rivers and streams are like nature’s blood vessels connecting mountains and oceans. Arteries are passages that deliver nutrients and oxygen to all parts and corners of our body. Just as blocked arteries lead to arteriosclerosis, disappearing rivers and streams indicate problems in nature’s circulation system.
Like blood vessels reaching every corner of the body, rivers and streams are supposed to wind about. When a river runs straight, many problems occur in the ecosystem. If a river runs faster than it should, pollutants in the upper reaches are not filtered but sent directly to river’s base, and food for fish is swept away along with water.
Rivers and streams also function in the same way as sweat. Just as sweat prevents body temperatures from going up, rivers and streams cool down the air. One of the reasons for tropical nights is that rivers and streams have either dried up or have been covered and turned into sewers. Rivers are not conduits to carry waste but power plants to generate life.
The World Economic Forum annual meeting was held last month in Davos, Switzerland. After the final meeting, participants answered a survey consisting of 11 questions. In response to the first question ― what factor they believed would have the biggest influence on the world in the future ― 38 percent of respondents answered climate change.
To the question of what factor the global village was least prepared for, 55.1 percent answered climate change. Some 12 percent answered widening inequality, followed by non-government organizations (11.1 percent) and changes in populations (5.7 percent).
Many scientists give humankind just 10 years to make changes that will avoid the catastrophes brought by climate change. The primary issue of the last century was economic development. The task of this century must be restoration of the ecosystem. The era of covering streams and building dams should come to an end and a post-development era of uncovering streams and maintaining green resources should arrive.
The restoration of Cheonggye Stream was a historic event that symbolizes the transformation from development-oriented modernization into a new type of modernization focusing on repairing problems caused by the former.
In order to realize that development does not always lead to future progress but might bring catastrophes, resolving environmental problems should be the primary task in politics. For that to happen, we need political awareness that goes beyond liberal democracy, where rights to use environmental resources are decided by a majority of the people who are living at the time.
Society is not only a community of people who are living at this moment, but also of people who have died and who will be born. When we have ecological and social awareness, we can make a democratic decision in the truest sense on how available environmental resources should be consumed.
I hope to see a presidential candidate with willpower and vision to make ecological politics an issue for debate in the presidential campaigns this year.

*The writer is a professor of history at Kyonggi University.Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Kim Gi-bong
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