Oceanic, the wind was gushing about the campus yesterday, hurling itself against doors and windows, tearing the last dry yellow leaves from the gingko trees and ripping up carpets of browning foliage from the earth. It was cold, too. Nothing to write home about (as though anyone writes home anymore), not even quite cold enough for snow, but cold enough to redden your nose and put some snot gleaming in that least-appreciated of human canyons, the philtrum.
But here in Korea at the wonderful provincial university in which I labor to teach the rudiments of English and logic, these flabbergasting gusts of wind tore up far more than mere leaves, for dignity, too, was swept away into the sky. The students outside were screaming. Wailing. Swearing. Looking intensely uncomfortable. Huddled and bundled together, despite having lived in this country for two decades, and experiencing twenty of these long cold dark gray snowless winters of cement and tar and automobile exhaust, they were acting as if they had been transported, at the snap of two fingers, to the antarctic wastelands.
And here the generalization machine got to work.
I remembered a story a British friend had told me in college. When he was in high school his appendix had burst, and, rather than going to a hospital, he had stuck around at home and put up with the intense pain without much in the way of complaint for three days before finally giving in. All of this sounded ludicrous and unbelievable to me (my mom had her appendectomy the first time the World Trade Center was bombed), so I asked him why he had done it. “Stiff upper lip,” was his reply.
This concept lives on in America, where there is some importance, I think, in working hard but not seeming to. If two people run a marathon, and tie for the win, and one is gasping and sputtering while the other looks fresh as a daisy, the latter racer is the real victor.
In Korea this concept would also seem to live on in the immense elderly population of Gyeongju—which is known not only as the world’s largest open-air museum but also the world’s largest senior citizens center—as I have never heard these people utter a peep about the cold, unless babies are concerned (in Korea, babies who are outside are always very cold (while kimchi is always healthy and very delicious)). At this moment there are old men and women pushing around carriages full of cardboard and selling vegetables out on the sidewalk. They’re keeping busy all day and most of the night, and I’ve never heard them screaming, wailing, or swearing, about the cold. For my part I try to enjoy it, always keeping in my mind the image of Legolas walking on the snow of Mount Caradhras in the same way Jesus walked on the water of Lake Galilee, their feet refusing to sink down into that pesky hydrogen dioxide. I also had a friend in college who wore nothing but jeans and a t-shirt outside in the middle of January in western Massachusetts because she liked the feeling of freezing her ass off. She is something of an inspiration, as is Victor of Aveyron and other wild children who, animal-like, had not really been conditioned to give a damn about the cold.
It is cold, but at the same time everyone seems to be convinced that it is warmer than usual. In my own experience I have never heard a Korean question the idea that the world is getting warmer and that humans are to blame, although there are conservative Christians here and there in the news who embrace man’s god-given right to plunder the universe, outwardly denying that climate change is a reality while inwardly embracing the very real possibility that rising temperatures herald the end of the world (which they do).
All of these Koreans live in a small, rich, crowded country, where the environmental depredations of vast organizations are not so easily swept under the rug as back in America. There one can drive for days in any direction through unbroken forests of pine, but here it is obvious that humans are destroying the planet, because they have already destroyed Korea several times over. Native-born Confucians did their very best to erase the nation’s Buddhist heritage in the Middle Ages, while various invaders (Mongols, Jurchens, Japanese) burned down the entire country several times over until the early 20th century, when the very idea of Korean-ness was nearly exterminated. Then the Korean War happened, and almost every city was reduced to a moonscape. Most of those old people wandering around in the cold probably remember it, so perhaps it doesn’t surprise them so much that the same thing is still occurring right now on a slower global scale.
Today, six decades after the war, Capitalism has carved the country up (while the communist legacy to the north would be just as awful if they had even a tenth as much money). Not an inch of Korea has been left untouched by tar or cement, the forests have been replaced by enormous factories, and it is almost impossible to see any wildlife outside of a television screen. At the same time everyone recycles. Everyone composts. Appliances come with easy-to-read stickers stating how harshly they impact the environment. Bidets are attached to toilet seats. Yesterday I saw a bus running on natural gas. Solar panels are not entirely uncommon. In these ways Korea is ahead of America, environmentally-speaking.
Yet everything is individually-wrapped. There are bags full of bags of cookies. Single apples and bananas can be bought in supermarkets, saran-wrapped. You’ll see people just throwing these wrappers away into the street, where garbage is everywhere, swirling about in the same winds that make the college students wail like banshees; and just try and convince your Korean mother-in-law to stop wiping your baby’s nose and your baby’s messes with reams of toilet paper. Furthermore, there are fifty million Koreans in this country, and therefore fifty million meat-eaters who, each day, devour fifty million animals. And at last, despite the excellent and cheap public transportation available and the high price of gas, everyone wants a gargantuan SUV, and once they use a credit card to get one they never travel more than fifty feet without it (and just today I passed a Porsche running, unlocked, passengerless, with the key in the ignition and the driver fumbling about inside a nearby hairshop (I could have taken the Porsche, but then what would I have done with it?)).
As for me, I try and do my best to not contribute to global warming. I don’t own a car (I spend about fifteen minutes a week inside taxis), I am a vegetarian (with rare exceptions), and in general I just try not to consume that much. I eat lots of food, but I don’t really buy anything else (except for diapers for my son and the occasional airline ticket to the far side of the world (a few new clothes come once or twice a year)). Regardless, as a person born and raised in the first world, I am primarily responsible for global warming, and I’m frustrated that there’s seemingly very little more I can do to halt the destruction of the planet. I don’t know how to come up with a viable alternative energy source, and I don’t know how to remove pollution from the atmosphere and restore some form of environmental equilibrium, but I do think that the Earth will eventually do the job for us: thousands or millions of years after civilization has been destroyed, the world will return to its primeval state—as it eventually did after an asteroid fried the dinosaurs. The sun will consume the planet, then the universe will tear itself apart—reduced to raveled skeins of spacetime flying through nothingness that is not even nothingness but something indescribably nonexistent—and the fact that I helped in my own various little ways to destroy or save the Earth will not really matter to anyone or anything.