From the standpoint of economic development, South Korea is the miracle of miracles. In 1955, it was one of the poorest countries in the entire world. Poorer than almost anywhere than Africa, it was utterly devastated by 50 years of brutal Japanese colonialism and war. Fifty years later, it is, by many indices, part of the "first world" - or even ahead of most. And unlike other postwar miracle economies such as Japan or Germany after the war, it didn't have the same kind of Marshall plan for rebuilding, nor did it have solid prewar economic/cultural habits to build on.
Even compared to 15 years ago, when I was here while stationed in the Army, the country has changed so much. In 1991, Korea reminded me a great deal of Mexico in many ways, when thinking about the level of economic development and the patterns of economic behavior. Yet now, such a short time later, though there are still traces of that older Korea, the country has seemingly levitated directly into the post-industrial condition, with the proliferation of consumerism and electronics and bourgeois lifestyle.
So the dark side: we read a great deal, these days, about the fact that if all the world lived at "first world" levels of consumption, it would be utterly unsustainable with respect to what the would can support. And I think, well, it's great that Korea has managed to leap into the developed world the way that it has, but is this the right path? Is this the way China and India are trying to go? Wouldn't the world be better off, ecologically, if Korea, China, and India were more Mexican? Meaning, of course: if these countries were more notably incompetent when it comes questions of development? For that matter, wouldn't Mexicanizing (or better yet, Congoizing?) the US or Europe or Japan ultimately help the planetary environment? What about the human costs?
Robinson Jeffers, way back in the 1930's, commented on apparent conflict between respect for the natural environment, on the one hand, and respect for human dignity, on the other. That there was somehow a kind of "either/or" proposition. And he propounded and extolled what he called "inhumanism" - meaning he voted against human dignity, in favor of "god" and the natural world. His poem, "Carmel Point."
But I think about a comment, I think it was McLuhan (or maybe David Brin?!), on the other hand, who said something to the effect that ours was the first "adolescent" civilization. And I would add that adolescence is a time for making mistakes - e.g. vast wars of genocide, irresponsible arms races, environmental holocaust. Not all adolescents survive to adulthood. Especially orphans, which our "adolescent" civilization would best be characterized as, since, but for god - our imaginary father who art in heaven - we are indeed quite alone.
Or are we? "Mother Earth" is right there, all along, but, like adolescents throughout history, we choose to pretend we're an orphan because it's more exciting, more romantic, makes for a more compelling narrative?
The absent, uninterested, fictionalized father... the never-acknowledged-because-neurotic mother - we keep her locked in a closet, denying she might offer wisdom. Or...
OK... maybe all this consumerism/consumptionism is a variety of adolescent "acting out" - a passing phase on the road to a responsible adulthood. Certainly it has always struck me that it is only societies that reach a certain very high level of wasteful consumption that are capable of beginning to become conscious of environmental issues. Suddenly South Koreans "care" about the environment - good luck finding Mexicans (aside from the small middle class) who feel that way. What translates this "caring" into responsible social action, and transforms that into sustainability?
I'm optimistic. Weirdly. I think of someone learning a new skill... say, a martial art that, when practiced maturely is graceful and beautiful but, for the beginner, is a jumble of unlikely motions and clumsy flinging about. Our global civilization is still a clumsy adolescent. Making mistakes and being unacceptably selfish. But it's a passing phase. Perhaps it will grow into a stunningly beautiful young adult.