Understanding environment through culture, UEHIRO×WASEDA Seminar series

Final report – Song Hyun Mok


Human beings were able to increase their population and sustain different types of environmental surroundings due to utilizing their unique capabilities which distinguishes them from other animals, their intellectual ability. Through advancement of technology and culture, they have overcome their limitations given by the mother nature itself. Since the beginning of the agriculture, human society have changed and developed in various ways.

To begin with, the surrounding environment is a crucial deciding factor of how the human society goes through survival and their developments in cultural aspects. Those worldwide changes such as sunlight, temperature, volcanic activities, and ocean tides and current, or region-level changes of forest availability, land usage are some of examples which the surrounding environment of human society influenced the development of social, cultural, and technological aspects. These changes in natural environment has severe impact on the availability of food and natural resources to the adjacent society. Especially the abundance of water and energy resources were critical necessities for a civilization to prosper. Recall that all the major civilizations emerged near a river or a type of water resources, which enabled them to develop agriculture, which had direct impact on the human life-span for the near located society. Throughout the history, humans have developed their culture, social norms, and technology based on the needs generated from the surrounding environment.

In addition, environment and human society also are interdependent from time to time. For an example, if climate changes, the environment and natural resources of the affected area changes as well, where it changes the condition of living for human habitants, and for them to again bring impact to changes of the environment through technological advancements deriving from the needs stimulated by the environment change. The relationship is rather interdependent with all playing an active role, than independent, passive status.


Historical Evidence (1) – Rise of the civilization and improved metal usage

The most important development throughout human history would be the agricultural revolution. Through the improvement of agricultural technology, human society did not further have any needs to maintain their nomad-style life and was able to settle down in a place of abundance of natural resources. This was the starting-point for the development of all aspects of our society. Agricultural needs stimulated the advancement of use of fire, which led to the development of pottery and metal tools, irrigation farming, and further shaped their cultural development alongside with a massive population increase: an emergence of a civilization.

One of the major developments, increased usage and mastery of metal/steel products were crucial, since they now brought a significant change to the culture, which influenced the rise of nation-level war. During the dark ages and until the now, increased metal/steel usage have made it possible from manufacturing small agricultural tools to the atomic bomb. This was all due to the environmental surrounding which influenced the development of human culture.


Historical Evidence (2) – The industrial revolution

The industrial revolution provided an entirely different lifestyle for the human society and influenced greatly to the development of modern culture. After the 1760s where the revolution started in Great Britain, massive production of industrial goods and metal/steel products made human culture even more powerful than before. Previously, cultural aspects or way-of-living of human society did have direct affect to the surrounding environment. Civilizations merely used their natural resources provided but did not provoke direct influence. Yet, post-industrial revolution made it possible for human beings to directly affect the surrounding environment (either it is pollution, usage of energy, etc.).

From the improvement of capability of utilizing natural energy sources, human culture has developed in great speed as well. Increased communication methods, advancement of transportations now even speeded-up the growth of level of environmental influence of human culture.


Development and Modern Environmental Issue

As briefly discussed above, although human society and their culture began as a dependent variable to the changes of mother nature and its environment, the role for humans have changed dramatically through their advancements in cultural aspects, especially the development of technology. Human society now can be the decision-maker of environmental matters, leading how the climate, temperature, or natural resource allocations of the planet Earth should be. Albeit the improved cultural aspects, nowadays it is quite alarming to see that the development which gave us power and authority over the environment was very costly. Climate changes are irreversible from the mass-development since the industrial revolution, increased overall temperatures harming the natural resources. It is quite ironic, but now we are devoting our advanced technology which we obtained by taking it from the environment and utilizing it, to cure the environmental wounds made by ourselves. Sustainable growth, thus is the keyword for the 21st century, and will prolong as long as we keep on pace with our development.

The environmental issues of the 21st century is rather severe and wide-spread, which needs an in-depth approach. The massive usage of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution and the carbon dioxide released from it has brought a global climate change. Temperatures are rising, which led to melting icebergs, heightened sea-level, more active typhoon, and tsunami are only some of the backfires that nature has shown to us. Of course, our influence to the environment was not total zero from the very early stages of human civilization, but one thing is sure for the 21st century; that the speed of change and its effects on our cultural, social development is faster than any previous historical events of nature change.

Climate change brings direct impact to the natural ecosystem and brings crucial issues to the availability of natural resources for human society. Number of wild-life species are declining at a fast rate, due to extinction from climate changes, massive amount of forest destruction. This phenomenon of severe decrease of wild-life variety, ultimately means that the planet Earth and its natural environment is gradually losing its capability as a habitable planet.


Conditions for a Sustainable Growth

To begin with, it is now questionable whether human society were shipped the right way for advancement and growth. Throughout history, mankind always overcame the hardships from their surrounding natural environment and understood growth as a materialistic improvement, development of the market to trade those materialistic goods. However, we never had a chance before since the emergence of those four civilizations, to think about a growth “with” the nature, not a growth “from” the nature. As Ronald Wright argued in his writings, the concept of growth itself lies in a severe challenge nowadays. Mankind always realized nature as something to conquer, something that we should take advantage and its power from; which now we are, as mentioned above, facing an ironic situation, bound to use the technological advancement that we took from nature to cure nature.

As to derive conditions for a sustainable growth, we will need to consider a new-type of a rise of a civilization. Constructing a culture, or an ideological civilization based on the respect of the nature of the environment and understanding of its limitations could be one condition. Limits of technological usage on the environment, or regulations on those matters in a national-level should be implemented to prevent further damage and truly consider a sustainable growth alongside with nature.

Secondly, the rebirth of settle-down or colonization mind is necessary. In order to remain as a habitant of a geographical region, an understanding of the interdependency and coexistence was always considered the core value of the ancient civilization. If they utilize excessive amount of natural resources, with no capabilities of sustaining the backfiring force, ancient civilizations always respected the limitations of their surrounding resources and tried not to drown-out of them. Thus, a qualitative growth measurement is more required than the previous quantitative growth which was popular since the industrial era.

Finally, an improvement of eco-friendly technology is mandatory. Our pre-existent technology only focused on “how to utilize the environment in the most efficient, and economical way”. Now, the slogan should change to “how to promote growth in a way that could benefit both human society and the environment, providing a balanced growth”. Although the issue has been raised many years ago, and scientists, states are all diving into solve the environmental issues; however, the progress is insufficient. Although we may not imminently come up with an idea to turnaround the global environment issues and show improvement, at least we could all focus to slow-down the pace of the environment changes.



Mankind are now facing an ironic risk which I have continuously mentioned above; where we brought cultural, social, and technological advancement from utilizing the nature, and trying to heal the damaged nature back when those symptoms are now very visible. Environment and nature was, previously considered as a gift to those who used it, but those primitive days are over. As mankind now have the power to influence the nature, we no longer live in an independent-level with the environment. Since we brought harm to the environment, it is up to our responsibility to cure the eco-system and rehabilitate the capability as a habitable planet.

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