On February 9, 2014, Director Emanuel Pastreich and Ambassador Kwon Byong Hyon (CEO of Future Forest) traveled to the Korean Minjok Leadership Academy (민족사관고등학교) for a two-hour seminar with a select group of students who have been involved in an intense two-day series of discussions about the response to climate change. The seminar was quite different from most lectures for high school students by experts in that the students had prepared in advance for the discussion and were writing their own concrete proposals for the human response to the threats of climate change facing humanity. It was not a lecture at all.

The twenty so so highly motivated students at KMLA have taken most coursework in English language and displayed a remarkable range of learning. Their instructor, and the organizer of this seminar, Alexander Ganse, holds them to a very high academic standard, demanding careful writing and clear analytic response. The students not only had many thoughtful questions for their guests at this Asia Institute seminar, several made detailed presentations of their own ideas concerning what humanity needs to do next.

A good part of the seminar consisted of a debate among students concerning the merits of varied responses–particularly the virtues and challenges of working with established institutions. Some felt a need to work with traditional organizations while others felt that institutions had to be radically modified.

 

Ambassador Kwon spoke about his work fighting against the spread of deserts in China in cooperation with youth in China and Korea. He placed emphasis on the central role of youth in the response to climate change.

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The most striking part of Ambassador Kwon’s talk was his decision to apologize directly to the students twice. He formally apologized for how he, and his generation had selfishly wasted natural resources and left the future generations with tremendous ecological burdens. He did it one more time at the end of the event, stressing his own sense of responsibility. Such a moment is rare, if unknown, at seminars on climate change, and clearly made a deep impression on those participating.

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Pastreich spoke about the challenge of climate change and the importance of being aware of one’s own role in the complex mechanisms that are damaging our environment. He explained the tragedy of Oedipus, the Greek King who forces himself to learn the ugly truth about his own actions and confronts a reality that shakes his world to the core. The tragedy of Oedipus, Pastreich suggested, is the tragedy of climate change. We are intimately wrapped up in the horrific process, but we are unaware of what we are doing. He also stressed that Korean youth, more than anyone else, can play a vital role because Korean culture is so frequently emulated in the developing world.

The students will submit final proposals to The Asia Institute based on their project.