Global environmentalism has led to the incorporation of Eastern traditions into the ecological movement, based on the belief that these traditions are viable alternative to the world views, values, and lifestyles of the Western industrial civilizations that are responsible for today’s ecological crises. This paper questions such a na??ve understanding by investigating the emergence in the 1980s of Korea’s Saeng-myung (“ life”) movement, based on Tonghak, an indigenous tradition. By analyzing the historical, political, and cultural background of this movement, this paper reveals that, although the movement has been hailed as an ecological one, it actually succeeded an agrarian movement of the 1970s. Being reinterpreted in an ecological sense, Tonghak reconciled agrarian with ecological concerns, thereby establishing the Saeng-myung movement as an ecological movement. In addition, with Tonghak, the movement could maintain the spirit of the Minjung (“common people”) movement, which was interested in folk traditions, and come to public attention.
These findings explain not only the characteristics of the Saeng-myung movement, but also its limitations. While the Saeng-myung movement has been confined to the imperatives of the previous agrarian movement, the discussions surrounding the movement have primarily examined the movement’s Tonghak foundation. This paper argues that such characteristics have led the movement to neglect the imperatives of the ecological movement. Indeed, the Saeng-myung movement has difficulties in taking a significant stand on major ecological issues or spreading an ecological consciousness among the public. Above all, without genuine dialogue with other ecological movements, the movement has made no new contribution to debates on ecological thoughts in global environmentalism.