By Jim Dator The University of Hawaii
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic provides a great opportunity for Korea to fundamentally rethink its future. No. It is more than an “opportunity”. It is a vital necessity.
For 50 years, Korea has diligently, single-mindedly, and very successfully followed a model of economic and social development laid out by W. W. Rostow in his 1960 book, The Stages of Economic Growth, as promoted by the United Nations which has been devoted to spreading the gospel of “development” and to the creation of policies and institutions that actualized the visions of that gospel on the Earth. The “economic miracle” of Korea is global Exhibit A of the fruits of this labor.
Of course, it really wasn’t that much of a miracle. The model was clear enough. People and institutions stood more than ready to provide advice, for a price, and the world in the 1950s and 60s was resource-rich, technologically-advancing, politically-dynamic, and population-scarce (barely 3 billion people vs. 8 billion now). Each of Korea’s governments was firmly focused on the primacy of economic growth and did everything necessary to see that Korea’s citizens were as well. Very importantly, Korea’s extremely capable political and academic leaders searched the world looking for the next big thing and improving it. They became extremely prolific in both aspects--finding and improving—and a bit lazy in discovering and leading. It was so much easier just to follow and perfect.
Globalization and Destabilizing Technological Change
From the 1980s onward, the world political economy entered into a new phase of globalization that proclaimed the withering of the state and the hollowing out of national industries. Except for military might, political power moved from the local or national to transnational corporations and elites. Continuous developments in communications even outstripped the impressive advances in transportation, which came to a halt after the production of the jumbo jet; as soon as you mastered one kind of hardware, a new one came along to replace it, and then another, and then another, with changes in software happening even faster and being more confusing.
Hidden to most and of concern to only a few people were massive, unintended assaults on the once-natural environment that provided the vital base and resources for all of this splendid technology. Some people began to worry about climate change and the profound social as well as environmental consequences of it. But the leaders of the political economy were unanimous in ridiculing and disclaiming the doomsayers. The only thing that mattered was to make money, not to increase production and sales. No, that was the old way. All that really mattered was to make money, not to make products. That required material, space, and worse of all, workers. They cost money.
Automation, robots, artificial intelligence rushed into every aspect of life, certainly into the production and distribution of goods and services. Many people were being kept employed not because their labor was needed, but because they were needed as consumers. And for that, they needed at least access to a credit card. Consumer debt was absolutely essential to keeping the economy growing, and consumer purchases were the bread and butter of the economy. Moreover, debt is a great way to keep people disciplined. As today’s Seven Dwarfs might sing, “We owe, we owe, so it’s off to work we go!”
Every once in a while the entire house of cards would collapse—locally, regionally, sometimes globally. But somehow, magically, money was found to bail out profligate corporations even though there had not been, and still seemed not to be, enough money for most ordinary folks.
Discontent with the unfairness of the system mounted. Globalism seemed to provoke the rebirth of beliefs and practices thought long-gone—anti-science, anti-expertise of any kind, anti-governors who seemed more interested in sucking up to transnational interests. Fundamentalism in religion, politics, economics, and social relations sprang to the fore. A wave of neonationalism, neotraditonalism, neotribalism swept the world. The old globalization teetered on the brink of collapse while new nationally-focused authoritarian-styled leaders won elections and took their nations in directions they had not headed for almost 100 years.
Confusion and Perplexity Reign as Countries Battle Coronavirus
And so, it was into this world that the coronavirus emerged. A world full of distrust for existing institutions and office-holders. A world where trust in government and governors was low and suspicion about a hidden “deep state” was great. Confusion reigned. Denial followed evidence and new denial followed new evidence. Who to believe? What to do? Where should we turn?
A few nations, such as Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, New Zealand, seemed to have responded successfully because they had functioning governments and trusting citizens. Other nations—most spectacularly the once-United States—were consumed with divisive internal battles that made rational, science-based coordination impossible. Many nations almost totally shut down their economies as the virus raged with uncertainties surrounding its future trajectory.
Will the virus die out with warm weather? Will it revive in reoccurring waves? Will it mutate quickly, or slowly enough that successful vaccines can be discovered, tested, produced, and distributed in time to stop more waves? Will immunity to the virus be life-long (like measles or polio) or seasonal (like the annual flu)? Will the coronavirus replace the viruses responsible for the common cold that mutates every year and sickens millions while killing few? Or will a coronavirus “cold” kill at it its current rates year after year?
A Return to Business as Usual
At this point no one knows. And no one will know for many months, perhaps years, to come. Yet nations and communities are “opening up” and restarting work because nothing is more important than continued economic growth. Who cares if more old people die? They will die anyway. Moreover, most deaths are members of the Boomer generation who are mainly responsible for global overpopulation, so the sooner they die off the better for the rest of us.
Trying to return to “business as usual” may be a huge experiment that will result in massive increases in horrible sickness and death.
Or, the virus may fade away as vaccines may appear and be distributed faster than we think.
But is it realistic to expect—to plan for—business as usual, given the fact the global economy is in shambles and people are afraid, angry, suspicious, desiring to have “money” but resistant to returning to the low-paying, back-breaking, spirit-numbing jobs they had before?
While I suppose it is possible to imagine we might all soon be able to pick up the pieces and restore the old system quickly and well, it is more than merely prudent that we also think about using this time of pause to imagine, invent, and test new ways of living.
Time to Rethink Future Strategies
And so I return to where I began. The model that brought Korea to this brink does not seem fit for the future to me. Korea might instead choose to become a “conserver society” (instead of a “consumer society”), in which consumption is reduced, more is done with less, and what is done is done better.
On the other hand, Korea might continue down the high tech path of robotics and AI, and become a dream society of “full unemployment”, where only a few people “work”—or where “everyone” works part time, or for some period of their life, otherwise having fair access to goods and services produced without their labor, manual or mental.
I have no interest in telling Koreans what their future should or should not be. My only interest is in encouraging Koreans to be something they have, as a nation, never been before but that I feel confidence they can and should become now, on the basis of my many years of learning from Koreans, in Korea and Hawaii: visionaries of a new future for Korea and the world that is fit for the Anthropocene Epoch into which we are all now plunging. This is a world in which humans are not primarily workers and consumers of products, but rather live lives of meaning, identity, playfulness, and peaceful cooperation on the evolvable planet Earth.
Jim Dator is a professor emeritus and director of the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies in the department of political science at the University of Hawaii.
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