By Kumsil Kang, Executive Director of People for Earth, lawyer
Two elder scholars from the United States visited Korea to attend the International Conference on Transition Cities hosted by Seoul on November 11, and the International Conference on Ecological Civilization held at Paju from December 12 to 14. They were John B. Cobb, Jr., Professor Emeritus of the Claremont School of Theology, and David Korten, former professor at Harvard Graduate School of Business and representative of The Living Economies Forum. They both advocate for ecological civilization discourse as an alternative to the current industrial civilization.
John Cobb specializes in process theology, which developed from Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of organism. It was in his 40s that Cobb began to develop his thoughts on ecological civilization; he claims that the inspiration came suddenly in the summer of 1969, he said. Until then, though Cobb was painfully aware of the United States’ responsibility for numerous injustices around the world, he still believed that the globalism that enabled the independence of many countries also benefited their economic development. Cobb believed that the responsibility of a developed country was to accelerate the process of development everywhere in the world, but his then-eighteen-year-old son, deeply aware of the problems of globalization, provided the opportunity to change his thinking. Cobb realized that the American societal structure and development pattern that he had taken for granted was leading humanity to global self-destruction. The way that ‘progress’ happened — the economic programs and development policies of the industrialized world — was part of a larger process that was destroying the foundation of human life on Earth. The overwhelmingly important issue of the survival of humanity had to become a priori.
In 1973, Cobb founded the Center for Process Studies in Claremont, and continued to develop his scholarship and thought with ecological theology by applying Whiteheadian philosophy. The theory of ecological civilization that he advocated became a subject of deep interaction with Chinese scholars as well, influencing the Chinese Communist Party to designate ecological civilization as a national task in its 2012 Constitution.
Meanwhile, David Korten was working as an economist when he became involved with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 1970, managing international development projects in Asia, Africa, and South America for about 20 years. He believed that the United States could solve the poverty in developing countries through development and humanitarian aid, but experienced deep doubt when he witnessed communities disintegrate and the quality of life worsen instead. After returning to the United States in 1992, Korten began to research and teach about economic structures, and developed the Living Economy framework for an ecological economy.
Through a joint interview with Mayor Park Won-soon of Seoul, Korten declared that civilization thus far has developed by destroying nature and people, and that a small minority of wealthy individuals enjoyed their opulent lifestyles while oppressing the masses, living beings, and the earth. Above all, he called the current economic model of production system a “suicide economy” that was created by destroying life.
Beyond the theory of ecological civilization that these scholars championed, what left a deep impression on me was the life trajectories of these two individuals. Both had transformed their lives through some experience or prescient introspection, and demonstrated the power of making a bold resolution and charging forth.
After receiving his Ph.D. in process theology in the 1950s, John Cobb has never once been shaken from his philosophical values for the rest of his life. He responded promptly to the issues of each epoch, developing his life deeper and wider. I feel that it must be a very rare case in which one continues to change themselves so readily while maintaining a core worldview throughout the course of their life — as Cobb did from process theology to ecotheology, then to the theory of ecological civilization that focuses on the relationality of existence. This may have been possible because of the anchor provided by Whitehead, but John Cobb is the person who turned that fortune into a truly happy life. Happiness cannot be left out when asking, what is the ultimate goal of life. What is happiness. I feel that happiness might be that state without worry nor dissatisfaction, because the mind and body are well placed in a pleasant and healthy spatio-temporal environment. I think that John Cobb is the model of a happy life, a life well lived through spiritual activity emanating from deep faith, maintaining good friendships, With a spiritual energy emanating from deep faith, John Cobb demonstrates the model of a full and happy life devoid of internal conflict, with good physical health, surrounded by good friendships.
David Korten always follows an introduction as a former Harvard Business School professor. The title pays homage to the fact that he has achieved the utmost scholarly achievement in the world. Nevertheless, Korten sought a different path, transforming his life in his mid-fifties. He says that while working in Asia, an Indian friend told him that “your role is to return to America and report on the problems of the mainstream economic system.” Korten embodies a classical and aesthetic way of life, facing problems squarely and pursuing solutions.
In the car returning from these two scholars’ talks, it occurred to me that while trees, flowers, and animals alike live without money, it is becoming harder and harder for people to live without it in this world. I do not know who is happier. If humans are happier, it would be because of the adventure of leaping far and blazing through to pioneer the boundaries of one’s life — because of the excitement of the future. However, ours is a world in which one increasingly cannot do anything without money. No matter how much you guard your self-esteem and respect, life becomes contemptible and destitute. Society does not easily provide an opportunity to create another life, or even to live a life that aligns with your conscience.
Nevertheless, we must repeat that we have to begin again. Life begins with the mind. Conflicted and agonized between hard realities and the desires coming deep from within us, we must hold onto the latter and push forward. These two scholars, whom it will not be easy to meet again, leave us the lesson to be true to these internally given conflicts and tasks. Do not give up, do not stop, if you keep going, there will be a way.