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Seoul Aerial
Seoul ginko
Chinese sandstorm satellite view
Sandstorm China
Angelus Novus, Klee, Benjamin
Toxic sandstorm over Seoul
Endangered monarch butterfly
Endangered bumblebee

I had learned something of Seoul from the fraught and migratory post-war childhood of my partner. And I was aware of its dense, chaotic urbanity.  But I wasn’t prepared for the impact of the city’s natural beauty.  Unlike Mount Fuji, that presides, like a distant god, over Tokyo, Namsan is a verdant, walkable mountain park that occupies the center of Seoul.  Jagged mountains surround the city intimately.  And the metropolis itself rises and falls with a gentle topographic music. The city’s labyrinthine close-packing makes it, with occasionally successful GPS, a most walkable experience, (albeit on sidewalks where one often dodges panicked charging or backing vehicles, and competes with workers or delivery men whose materials and debris stack defiantly across the sidewalks).


Most dramatic for me, as a native of Detroit, is the sister-city quality of insistent nature, even in the early winter - London plane trees, red and yellow maples, ginkos, stone pines, elms, willows, poplars, all grown up as dense and cheek-to-jowl as the architecture; the ground plane of bushes, reeds, and berries on fire in red, rust, wheat, yellow, lime, olive, black, and gold.

This had all happened since the near-total ecological national devastation of the Korean War in the middle of the last century.  And one has the sense that these urban forests - between and around buildings - were not planted neatly by developers and their  architects, but rather were an exuberant reaction of the whole populace to the flattened landscape after the war.

Like the rest of the post-war world, the best of Seoul displays what was once a deep public pride in the shared resources of the city, in a shared culture. 


Today, Korea, like the rest of the contemporary world - (despite its fleeting moment of progressive national government) -   is  ferociously divided between  the abundantly wealthy and those who can't quite make it no matter how hard they toil:

shop-owners, secretraries, service employees, taxi drivers, laborers who are not in the right union, professionals who are not in right party, youth who are not from the right family).  The tax system is yet more regressive than America's.  Super-rich kids populate what were once exclusively middle-aged fine-dining restaurants.  It seems as if Samsung owns much of the enterprise, treasure, and real estate in the country.  (Those we met in Seoul, who are on the right, defend this:  Without a global monopoly - no matter how much it sucks up the nation's wealth -  how can Korea compete on the world stage?  Corporate oligarchy has become a point of nationalist pride.) 


Mongolian sandstorms were recorded as early the 2nd Century BCE.  The exceptional and toxic severity of the November, 2018 event can be clearly attributed to human activity - the diversion of rivers, deforestation, desertification.  In this case, the sand combined with fossil fuel pollutants from vehicles and manufacturing.  The resultant atmospheric cocktail  was a bronchial nightmare for a good percentage of Asia's inhabitants.

The storm's affects preceded our arrival by a day, but each of the taxi drivers we rode with had what sounded like a respiratory infection.


"A Klee painting named 'Angelus Novus' shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

- Walter Benjamin

As it was at the beginning of the last horrific century, there seems to be no program adequate to connect the accelerating cataclysms of our time.  One comes to understand - in terms peculiar to one's own century - how the gathering snowball of blindered nationalism becomes an irresistible and nihilistic force that had been prepared, for decades - like a time bomb - in the hearts of people worldwide.  


Alongside nationalism, today, one can see clearly the chain of mindless political and economic benefits that accrue from a nation demurring on climate change.  (You can't blame him.  It's an increasingly ignorant nation that's failing to meet the crisis.)  These apparent benefits accrue to everyone:  coal-miners, processors, manufacturers, builders, building owners, truckers, car-makers, car-drivers, building owners.  In short, nearly the entirety of our economy as we know it.

The savaging of bio-diversity has been so spirited that one increasingly has a sense of the parenthetical when absorbing data like:

- The population of the Monarch butterfly has declined by 90% in the last 20 years*; or

-The patched bumble bee suffered a decline of 87% in the same period*; or

-The 25-year decline of flying insects in Germany was 75%*; or

-The across-species projected decline in wildlife is at 45%*.

International NY Times

 11 / 30 /  18

The impact on  pollination and world agriculture is only a few years behind.  Not everything can be achieved artifically.

The saddest thing about this worldwide moment is that the imminent and massive social investment for the escalating emergencies of ecological devastaton is going to pale in comparison to the costs that are being incurred for economic isolationism, state security, and the military adventures that seem increasingly inevitable in an age of nationalism.


There remains the vision that social investment could be collaborative - building a better national/international infrastructure, more equitable economic development, alternative energy systems, education, public culture.  This vision has been cast - by the oligarchy and their pandering media - as an idealistic joke whose reality would drive taxpayers and their nation to ruin.  That so many have been made to scoff along with them is the tragedy of our time. 


This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

- T. S. Eliot

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