It’s time for humanity to learn how to co-exist with nature | By Tak-hwan Kim (Fall 2020 issue)
The raindrops had started falling again. In front of the crosswalk, the couple opened their lone umbrella. Both sporting yellow masks as if part of a “couple look,” they had been staring into each other’s eyes and did not start walking right away. It was just after 9 p.m. The franchise coffee shop they frequented had closed early; their favorite bars were not accepting customers. Restaurants, eateries, bakeries —- all indoor dining prohibited until 5 a.m. The couple turned around and headed down into the subway station. After that, there were no more passersby. I had been visiting the parking garage road in front of Hongik University for over 30 years, but this was the first time it had ever felt so empty.
In contrast with farming villages where people work when the sun comes up and retire early when the sun goes down, this road gets famously brighter, hotter, and noisier when the sun goes down —- a “white night avenue” where people dine and chatter and sing and love to their hearts’ content. As it has swept through the world for all of 2020, the COVID-19 virus has shown that nighttime, tranquility, and solitude exist even in places like this.
Perhaps it is the same as seeing a ruined city coming into frame in an extreme long shot in some dystopian movie. Alone, I walked along a street of darkened storefronts; at any moment I expected zombies to come leaping out of them. Droplets of rain stuck to my face just below my eyes, flowing down to my mask like tears.
Are we in the middle of a mass extinction?
Some scientists have claimed that the sixth mass extinction in geological history is already underway. The first five were all the results of natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and asteroid collisions —- but the cause of the sixth extinction lies with humankind. Humans are destroying the earth to such an extent that species diversity has plummeted rapidly in a vast range of places. The human and livestock population has skyrocketed, while wild flora and fauna have declined sharply. Many of the large predatory mammals that American science writer David Quammen referred to as the “monsters of god” are either extinct or on the verge of extinction. American naturalist Edward Wilson has gone so far as to suggest that we designate half the earth as a preservation zone to prevent humans from touching it and thereby avert the coming extinction. The idea is that we should be preserving a habitat for life.
The climate change phenomena resulting from human activities are a concrete harbinger of that extinction. According to the book Blue Sky, Red Earth by atmospheric scientist Cheon-ho Cho, the earth’s temperature had risen by four degrees over a period of 10,000 years; in the mere 100 years since industrialization, it has climbed by one degree owing to rising carbon dioxide emissions. The change since World War II has been large and swift enough to be termed the “great acceleration.” All over the world, we are seeing enormous environmental catastrophes that are beyond our human limits to cope with.
Albatross, a documentary directed by Chris Jordan, provides a glimpse into how human activity has negatively impacted the earth. The bodies of dead albatrosses are sliced open to reveal countless fragments of plastic. Vast quantities of marine garbage have been found in the North Pacific; over half consists of non-biodegradable plastic. The albatrosses suffered the dire consequences of consuming plastic that they mistook for prey floating on the ocean surface.
The earth has changed —- transformed into a planet for humans alone! Simply to benefit human beings, cities have been expanded, roads built, rivers blocked, and forests cleared. Only humans have been unaware of this serious global crisis amid their reckless runaway practices. Some have been aware but pretended not to notice, or insisted that it’s all an illusion. Even when they have been forced to acknowledge mass extinction and climate change, they have insisted that the recklessness is all “unavoidable.” It cannot stop and should not stop, they argue, for the sake of sustaining modern civilization. The desire to win the rat race and make things bigger and faster has been posited not simply as a matter of survival, but as something tied to human faith —- or even a matter of human nature.
As of September 3, the global COVID-19 status report showed over 25.7 million infections. Over 850,000 people have lost their lives. In South Korea, the cumulative toll has exceeded 20,000, with 333 dead so far (as of September 5). From August 30 to September 6, the Seoul Capital Area (SCA) has been implementing an intensified Level 2 social distancing regimen. The government is going all out in a last-ditch effort to avoid a Level 3 upgrade.
Stricken with the “corona blues” and forced to spend time to think
Within just a few days of the Level 2.5 measures being implemented, I began hearing people complaining, not just of the inconvenience and frustration, but of the so-called “corona blues.” Without a doubt, it is unfamiliar and difficult to not be able to do the things you used to do, to no longer go the places you used to go or meet the people you used to meet. Forced to stop in our scattered tracks, though, we have ironically found ourselves with “time to think” forced upon us for the first time in post-industrial Korea.
On August 20, an event titled Extinction: Emergency Declara-tion by the Animals of the Disease X Era was held in front of the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Seoul. “Disease X” was an as-yet unknown virus that had caused a pandemic. Participants each took on the role of an animal that gave a statement as it faced its final days. I chose the camel, an animal that had been tested for MERS at Seoul Grand Park back in 2015. Seen from the eyes of the dying camel sprawled on the stairs, the sky over Seoul was blue. It could only be seen and heard after I had come to a stop.
The eyes of the impoverished, weak, and disease-stricken. The landscapes of the provinces and farming villages and rice farming and communities that were being ignored as they faced the brink of annihilation. The voices of minorities standing up against the tyranny of the majority. Unless we can reflect on human methods of production and consumption to date, there will be other global pandemics even after COVID-19. What can we do to prevent the earth’s further destruction and bring it back to life?
Humanity’s disconnect from wildlife and nature
The reason we have seen so many contagions raging —- from SARS and MERS to the COVID-19 virus today —- is because humankind has failed to keep an appropriate distance from wild animals. The primate ecologist San-ha Kim has stressed that when we think of the word “wild animal,” we must also consider their habitat. By continually destroying and infringing upon their habitats, human activity has driven wild animals into a predicament.
Distances between people are another issue. Overcrowding is a fundamental characteristic of metropolises like Seoul. From the moment you step outside of your house, it is impossible to do anything without encountering another person. It’s common for thousands of people to use the same elevator, or for tens of thousands to gather at the same stadium. With so many people living in such a small space, every setting has been carefully managed to center around human beings. Even places that are crucial for preservation of the natural ecosystem, such as the puddles in our fields and the wetlands by our rivers, have disappeared as humans have treated them as “land for recreation.”
We have also seen a fierce competition to move more people and things farther and faster. The greatest invention spawned by this approach has been the airplane —- which also served as a tool for spreading the virus around the world in the shortest period of time. As the virus has forced us to spend our days without being in contact with others, mobile-based interaction has been drawing attention. Online bookshops have boasted about delivering orders on the same day. Yet these express services depend upon the sacrifices of others, which remain invisible to the consumer. Same-day shipments require workers to constantly sort, package, and deliver products with no rest. Rest is not an option.
Living at hyper-speeds in a hyper-crowded environment, we do not have the leisure of considering others besides ourselves. As long as we are safe, comfortable, and enjoying life, we are not interested in other people’s plight or other people’s survival.
A chance to get away from the chaos and live in harmony with nature
Amid the COVID-19 chaos of this past spring, I had the opportunity to walk along the Seomjin River. I spent two straight hours strolling along its banks and did not see a single person coming from the opposite direction. I stopped several times as I walked. I listened to the sounds of birds. I took pictures of the rising green of the willow habitat, I smelled the manure of cattle as they flicked their long tongues and I climbed up briefly into a rice paddy footpath to feel the tender shoots.
These are things you encounter every day in a farming village, but also things that are incompatible with a city. I had the sense that the neighbors we live with in a village do not include people alone, but also livestock and trees and even stalks of grain. Over the more than two years I spent writing one book, I met often with a farmer who referred to rice stalks as “field people” and trees as “forest people.” Belatedly realizing the reason why, I found the villages along the river all the more beautiful.
When the levees along the Seomjin River broke amid this summer’s flooding, I felt concerned and sad for the welfare of the lives I had met last spring. I wanted my sentences to capture not only the suffering of all people, but of all things. My heart went out to the factory-farmed chickens and swine —- creatures that have never been allowed a peaceful habitat for even a moment, that have been treated as food from the time they are born until they die.
The excuse that people offer —- that this is an inevitable outcome of the systems of modern civilization —- stems from a sense of resignation, a despairing belief that we cannot change the present. It is this sense of resignation that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic and hastened the great extinction.
What to do after the COVID crisis passes?
As the new daily patient caseload drops, Level 2.5 social distancing will end and the restrictions will go away. What will become of our daily routines after that? Will we go back to the same familiar routines of overcrowding and hyper-speed? Or will we take the realizations we gained from being forced to stop and attempt a different, voluntary kind of pause?
The convenience of high-speed KTX trains and air travel are no substitute for the joys of walking or the warmth of bicycle riding. We can only encounter different forms of beauty when we move forward in different ways and at different speeds. To sustain a suitable balance while considering the welfare of our neighbors, to share our anguish and seek our happiness together with them —- even when we could be going faster, we could be acquiring more, and we could be making things bigger —- represents the spirit of generosity that began with environmental activist Il-soon Jang and continued on to poet Jong-cheol Kim, the idea of “being good to people and living things.” We’re seeing a lot of grand prophetic pronouncements about the changes to come in the post-COVID era, but I wish to envision a new form of village community rooted in this warm attitude of equality and symbiosis.
Walking along the darkened side streets near Hongik University, I arrived at the Gyeongui Line Forest Park in the neighborhood of Yeonnam. Here, too, most of the restaurants had closed; there were no young people sitting on benches basking in the night air. The raindrops were getting larger. Standing beneath a wet and blinking streetlight, I prayerfully recited the words of Item 13 from Laudato Si, an ecologically themed encyclical letter shared by Pope Francis in 2015: “Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”
This essay originally appeared in Hankyoreh
Tak-hwan Kim is a novelist living in Korea