Sustainability Transition and the Social Ecology of Environmentalism in South Korea

In this presentation at the Melbourne Metropolitan Korean Studies Seminar Series on Friday 12th October 2018, I gave a conceptual introduction to my ongoing research into environmentalism and sustainability transition in South Korea.  My objective with this research is to shift analysis of Korean environmentalism away from a two-dimensional focus on the conflict between environmental actors and the government-chaebol complex, by looking at environmentalism in South Korea as a three-dimensional social ecosystem.


South Korea is a fascinating case study for environmental politics.  The inertia of anthropocentric developmentalist logic, remnants of the authoritarian developmental state, strategic competition with the DPRK and the impacts of local and transnational environmental problems, interplay with a dynamic and broad-based democratisation movement to produce a unique assemblage of environmental movements.

Within that context, this paper explores the roles of relationships between key actors within South Korean environmentalisms, and further asks what this tell us about the sustainability transition process in South Korea.  The sustainability transition involves transformational processes across a number of inter-related domains—environment, ontology, economy, politics and governance, culture, and technology—shifting societies from unsustainable to sustainable modes of production, consumption and exchange.  This paper identifies the key actors operating in each domain in order to construct a networked map of sustainability transition in South Korea.

The paper finds that actors involved in the sustainability transition draw from across and beyond environmental movements to encompass government, corporate interests, academia and social entrepreneurs in a dynamic “social ecosystem,” in which each actor plays an important (though not necessarily linear) role in the progression of the overall transition process.  The role played by environmental movement actors within this ecosystem is an important one, providing the social networks and the political pressure that ensures sustainability transition is a participatory process rather than a series of siloed technical projects.

Photo courtesy of Adam Zulawnik.

Thank you to Dr Andy Jackson, Korean Studies Convenor in the School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University, for the invitation to present at this workshop.  Thank you also to workshop participants for their insightful questions and feedback.

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