Historical analogies can help us contextualize new technical developments with social, cultural, and political forces at work. The late Joseon Dynasty period of Korea (1639–1910), a closed economy with detailed written records, provides a rare opportunity to examine a social-ecological system (SES) responding to drivers of change over a long period of time. Based on historical records and reconstructed data, we aim to: (1) characterize how the expansion of human technology, Ondol
(traditional underfloor heating system), affected different subsystems and their interactions within the SES over time, (2) examine the role of the government in promoting the technology and regulating its impacts, and (3) summarize the pertinent lessons learned from old Korea for governing a modern-day bioeconomy. Ondol
allows various forest biomass to be utilized as household fuel, including fuelwood, forest litter, and grass scraped from forest floor. Continuous biomass harvesting over 250 years to feed Ondol
contributed to forest degradation and the forest ecosystem condition trapped in the early successional stage in the Korean Peninsula. The ecological changes were exacerbated by the Pine Policy with a singular focus on reserving Korean red pine (Pinus densiflora
Siebold and Zucc.) for government uses. The policy failed to recognize basic needs of the public while countenancing an expansion of Ondol
and a cultural preference for heated floors that propagated an increased use of biomass fuel. This case illustrates the importance of recognizing potential technology traps where a human innovation opened opportunities for more resource use. The lessons learned from old Korea show that bioeconomy transitions would require multifaceted governance responses while being cautious about being too closely tied to the dominant national agenda. Environmental history has much to offer for understanding the social and ecological systemic risks of the current technical developments. We call for more historical analogs from different parts of the world to “move forward by looking back”.
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