South Korea, like many other developed nations, has centralized its economy, culture and education in just one global city, with 49.6% of the national population living and working in Seoul metropolitan area (2018). Around this island of prosperity, much of its countryside is aging and depopulated, with too many homes and people neglected. The government policies for decentralization have yet to succeed, and the imbalance in equity, education and culture between urban and rural areas continues. This has been
the world-wide pandemic since the defeat of physiocracy by Adam Smith (1723-1790) and other economists, when industrialization was chosen over agriculture as the source of the nation’s wealth.
Yet it is the rural that spawned ecological and sustainable life spaces, like the Osan School in 1920s that established associations of cooperative farming in Korea. Its principle of consent and equality was based on the reciprocity in production and consumption of goods and services. The rural movements for self-sustaining and independent communities were then carried on by YMCA, Presbyterian Church, and Ch’ŏndogyo who spread literacy and built Danish-style Folk Schools throughout the country, attracting over 100,000 peasants each year from 1925 to 1937. They helped peasants who were confronting difficult challenges from the arrival market capitalism, while exploited under the Japanese colonial regime.
These precedents inspired the creation of Chŏngnonghoe (Associations of “Righteous Farmers”) in 1976, a self-help community built around organic farming and rural autonomy. Founded by dissident intellectuals and activists against then military government, they sought to combine the eco-philosophy of Western Schools with Eastern traditions and began the Life Movement to aid agrarian and labor protests. They were followed by Pulmu School, who started from middle and high school education in rural areas, later expanding its activities to help to create a vibrant community of organic farms and cooperative-based enterprises in the village of Hongdong.4 They form a history of localism in South Korea, perhaps all be attributal to the Donghak peasant rebellion, and its quest to build self-sufficient and autonomous rural communities (1894-95).
Moreover, there is a growing kwinong (return-to-farm) movement from 1996, as people are beginning to escape from capitalist, mainstream and urban life. Searching for ecological and more amicable life, 10,000-12,000 households per year have gone and begun to farm between 2011-2015. Combined with Kwichon (return-to-village) migration, more 300,000 households have joined this reverse movement annually between 2013-2015.
These are rising signs of disappointment with modernity and city life. The industrial and developmental policies that promised the life of prosperity and liberation have not materialized for everyone. Instead, it has brought existential crisis with the environmentalism. While the global economy grown more than 5 times since middle of the last century, about “60 per cent of the world’s ecosystem services have been degraded or overused.” With the global emission risen by 40 per cent since 1990,5 rising GDP is taking us to extinction instead to the promised land. Economic inequality not just between developed and undeveloped nations, but also rising sharply within the advanced economies.
Even younger generations are now becoming skeptical to the myth of forever growth. Despite the statistical proof of economic growths, birth rate in advanced countries isplummeting because people cannot afford to have children, nor have the time for. All around the world, disenchantment with the modern and global life is growing, not just on environmental crisis but also with cultural and political systems. A host of de facto dictators are rising from the roots of divisive politics, ultra-nationalism and racism across the globe, and liberal democracy is struggling, ineffective or corrupt.
Living in the age of irresponsibility, we comfort ourselves with self-love (Hobbes), caged, if not excluded, by property (Locke), and fragmenting for self-interests (Montesquieu). We are atomized, as oversized ego (Charles Taylor), now even less than a commodity in Gessellschaft (Tonnies), to become no more than a point of sale
(Bezos). Disciplined and repressed by institutions (Foucault), it’s no wonder we want to break out, and go somewhere where we could rediscover ourselves and reboot. Shall we discard cognito (Descarte) and return to be Ingan (Confucian), and realize that humanity can only be attained in relations with others.6 COVID-19, the first of many environmental crises to come, is proving that individual rights can be disastrous and communal culture may be more ecological and sustainable.
Project CiViChon wants to bring together historical trajectories and current reality to speculate social, physical, and cultural processes that could narrate a future form of ecosophy, or “Earth household” in which the relationships between human, and with nature, are respectful, reciprocal and just. To begin, the project is first creating a fictive future village, CiViChon, where these global, national and local issues could be brought together in a small, intimate and tangible space, “City in a Village.” In an attempt to bridge rural and urban divides, human and nature, and individualism and communalism, the project is a spatial and participatory experiment that seek your involvement.