On 7 July 2020, a special guest lecture by a prominent scholar was held at the International Conference Hall of the National Intangible Heritage Center (NIHC) in Jeonju, North Jeolla Province. Entitled “An Ecological Turn in the Post-COVID-19 Era and the Future of Intangible Cultural Heritage,” this special lecture was prepared to further the public’s understanding and appreciation of “Humanity, Nature and Intangible Cultural Heritage,” which is the theme of the 2020 World Intangible Cultural Heritage Forum, scheduled to be held at the NIHC in September.
The guest lecturer for this event was Choe Jae-chun, a chair professor at Ewha Womans University, who addressed the importance of ecology and symbiosis with other lifeforms in nature, which is emerging as a major topic in the post-COVID-19 era. Following the lecture, Professor Choe examined the relationship between nature and intangible cultural heritage and engaged in an in-depth discussion about nature and the intangible cultural heritage of humanity through an hour-long conversation with Cheon Jin-gi, former director of the Jeonju National Museum.
* The following manuscript was revised and edited by the ICH Courier editorial board based on the aforementioned lecture and conversation.
In the aftermath of the recent global COVID-19 pandemic, biologists are increasingly being asked about connections between climate change and the threat of pandemics. Although there are multiple complex factors that link the two, I’ll explain the relationship using the example of tropical bats, which have been identified as a possible source of the novel coronavirus. Global warming has facilitated a wider regional distribution of tropical bats, bringing them in closer physical proximity with humans who reside in temperate regions. At the same time, in the course of the expansion of humanity’s living space resulting from population growth, human contact with animals infected by bats led to the recent
outbreak of COVID-19.
Transmission of viruses via wild animals is nothing new. What is different this time is the frequency and speed of transmission. Transmission through a vehicle such as humans or livestock is essential for the survival of viruses and bacteria. As mentioned, the rate of contact between viruses and humans has increased due to global warming and the expansion of human living spaces. Furthermore, the herd behavior of humans and livestock accelerates the spread of viruses within their population.
As a biologist, I have also been paying keen attention to today’s rapid climate change. Climate change is a major driver behind the decline of biodiversity. The recent case of mega bushfires in Australia led to the large-scale destruction of biodiversity and demonstrates the deep interrelation between climate change and biodiversity.
The future of humanity is dependent on the preservation of biodiversity and coexistence with nature. However, we are going in the opposite direction in terms of biodiversity conservation. The conservation of biodiversity or genetic diversity prevents, or at least limits, viral outbreaks. In contrast, selective livestock breeding and concentrated animal feeding operations have resulted in genetic uniformity. Farmed chicken and ducks that lack genetic diversity are vulnerable to viruses and can easily develop mass infection.
Evolution pursues greater diversity. The process of speciation, where one species subdivides into many more, has been repeated endlessly over time and led to an immense degree of biodiversity. Such diversity guarantees resistance and resilience. In other words, healthy ecosystems with robust species diversity are better at resisting and recovering from external shocks.
The distinguished English theoretical biologist Prof. William Donald Hamilton once said, “Nature abhors a pure stand.” A pure stand here refers to the state where genetic diversity has been eliminated. What we need in the twenty-first century is an ecological turn. We should no longer boast of ourselves as Homo sapiens, or “wise humans,” and instead evolve into “Homo symbious,” humans in coexistence.
This approach can be also applied to the cultural field. Cultural diversity increases the resistance and resilience of humanity’s cultural ecosystem. It is widely recognized that intangible cultural heritage plays a vital role in securing cultural diversity. Therefore, the protection and transmission of intangible cultural heritage as a cornerstone of a healthy cultural ecosystem of humanity will be a crucial challenge for future generations and, to this end, the international community must enhance its solidarity and cooperation.
Eco-vaccines and cultural diversity
The entire world is waiting in anticipation for the development of a vaccine to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic. While acknowledging the importance of developing a chemical vaccine, you also stressed the role of a “behavior vaccine” that prevents the spread of the virus by actions such as wearing masks or washing hands, and an “eco-vaccine” such as respecting nature and defending it against human invasion. An eco-vaccine may be defined as biodiversity and healthy functioning ecosystems. How do you see the connection between an eco-vaccine and culture?
Nature and culture are often seen as opposite domains. I have recently been writing a newspaper column, “Choe Jae-chun’s Nature and Culture,” which was so titled out of my intention to show that nature and culture are, in fact, not separate domains. We tend to assume that only humans produce and enjoy culture, but other animals have their own cultures. While scientists have largely used modern scientific methods to assess biodiversity, humans who have lived with nature since time immemorial have already accumulated the traditional knowledge and skills necessary for biodiversity conservation. I believe scientists should utilize these traditional assets in their research.
From the cultural point of view, intangible cultural heritage seems to serve as an eco-vaccine that ensures cultural diversity. On that note, I am looking forward to the World Intangible Cultural Heritage Forum scheduled this fall. Do you have any requests or suggestions for the event?
Natural environments in many countries around the globe have been severely deteriorating to the extent that one might call it a climate crisis instead of climate change. Nevertheless, I can sense that people are beginning to recognize the gravity of the current state of affairs through the COVID-19 pandemic and shift their attitudes toward nature. If this change is effectively linked to traditional cultural heritage, I believe that it might lead to positive results at the upcoming forum.
I think your lecture today carries great significance in that, whereas people used to interpret nature based on their self-interest, unity has become much more important since the outbreak of the pandemic. As an advocate of consilience, what is your perspective on intangible cultural heritage?
When the current crisis passes, greater emphasis will be placed on solidarity and communication, or in other words, consilience. With capitalism reaching its peak, individualism has intensified and the gap between rich and poor has grown, but the pandemic has forced the wealthy to confront the fact
that their affluence alone is not the sole priority. I believe it is time to look back on the traditional way of life from the past to fix the problems we face currently. Such efforts can become the first step to resolving the problems and malaise of today’s capitalist society and moving toward greater understanding and solidarity.
Diversity and health
I think the diversity and health of culture is just as important as ecological health. Could we explain cultural health by putting it into the context of ecological diversity and health?
Diversity is essential for a healthy society. When it comes to culture, I hope that people of all backgrounds will further respect cultural diversity and grow mutual understanding while adopting and sharing the traditional values and wisdoms that we need. The pursuit of diversity will guide us toward a better world.
Biodiversity ensures societal health, and this correlation could be also applied to culture. However, today’s cultural homogenization is a threat to cultural diversity.
Securing diversity brings two benefits—resistance and resilience. Healthy ecosystems with greater diversity are more resistant to external disturbances and can quickly recover even after suffering damage. This idea, which is often used to explain the health of ecosystems, can also be applied to cultural
diversity, as cultures with substantial diversity are likely to be more resistant and resilient.
As an ecologist, what would you have to say to the participants present here today as we live through the current crisis?
Using the shocking experience of this pandemic to generate momentum, I would like you to take the time to recognize, share, and study the gravity of this issue. It is necessary to properly study and understand the matter before we forget. This is the process of inoculating yourself with the eco-vaccine, which will ultimately change our world.
Prof. Choe Jae-chun
Prof. Choe Jae-chun, who delivered the lecture, is one of Korea’s leading biologists. He studied under Edward Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, and translated his book Consilience. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, Prof. Choe argued for the need for human society to maintain a distance from nature, and coined the terms “eco-vaccine” and “behavior vaccine.” He is a consultant for the 2020 World Intangible Cultural Heritage Forum. This special lecture was broadcast live on the official YouTube channel of Jeonju MBC.