Thursday, April 07, 2011

what we can learn from japan about sustainability


Video - Part (1/6) documentary history of the Edo period.

Cassandralegacy | what I would like to do today is to discuss what we can learn from Japan in terms of sustainability.

So, let me start with something about the history of Japan. You surely know of the early "Heian" or "Imperial" period that started long ago; it was the "classical" period of Japanese history. Then, the Heian age gave way to a period of civil wars; the sengoku jidai, the period of the Samurai. Many movies have shown it as a romantic age, but I am sure the people who lived in it didn't find it very romantic; it was a period of continuous wars and it must have been very hard for everyone. Anyway, that historical phase was over when Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged as the winner of the struggle and he became the shogun, the ruler of all Japan. That was around the year 1600 and it started the "Edo" period which was much quieter. The Edo period lasted until Commodore Perry arrived with his "black ships" in mid 19th century and that started the modern period.

Now, the two centuries and a half of the Edo Period are very interesting in terms of sustainability. It was not just a period of peace; it was also a period of stable economy and of stable population. Actually, that is not completely true, population increasing during the first part of the Edo period, but when it arrived to about 30 million, it stayed nearly constant for almost two centuries. I don't know of another society in history that managed such a period of stability. It was an example of what we call today "steady state" economy.

The reason why most societies can't manage to reach a steady state is because it is very easy to overexploit the environment. It is not something that has to do just with fossil fuels. It is typical of agricultural societies, too. Cut too many trees and the fertile soil will be washed away by rain. And then, without fertile soil to cultivate, people starve. The result is collapse - a common feature of most civilizations of the past. Jared Diamond wrote about that in a book of a few years ago; titled, indeed "Collapse".

Now, there is an interesting point that Diamond makes about islands. On islands, he says, people have limited resources - much more limited than on continents - and their options are limited. When you run out of resources, say, of fertile soil, you can't migrate and you can't attack your neighbors to get resources from them. So, you can only adapt or die. Diamond cites several cases of small islands in the Pacific Ocean where adaptation was very difficult and the results have been dramatic, such as in the case of Easter Island. In some really small islands, adaptation was so difficult that the human population simply disappeared. Everybody died and that was it.

And that brings us to the case of Japan; an island, of course, although a big one. But some of the problems with resources must have been the same as in all islands. Japan doesn't have much in terms of natural resources. A lot of rain; mostly, but little else and rain can do a lot of damage if forests are not managed well. And, of course, space is limited in Japan and that means that there is a limit to population; at least as long as they have to rely only on local resources. So, I think that at some point in history the Japanese had reached the limit of what they could do with the space they had. Of course, it took time; the cycle was much longer than for a small island such as Easter Island. But it may well be the civil wars were a consequence of the Japanese society having reached a limit. When there is not enough for everyone, people tend to fight but that, of course, is not the way to manage scant resources. So, at some point the Japanese had to stop fighting, they had to adapt or die - and they adapted to the resources they had. That was the start of the Edo period.

In order to attain steady state, the Japanese had to manage well their resources and avoid wasting them. One thing they did was to get rid of the armies of the warring period. War is just too expensive for a steady state society. Then, they made big effort to maintain and increase their forests. You can read something on this point in Diamond's book. Coal from Kyushu may have helped a little in saving trees, but coal alone would not have been enough - it was the management of forests that did the trick. Forests were managed to the level of single trees by the government; a remarkable feat. Finally, the Japanese managed to control population. That was possibly the hardest part in an age when there were no contraceptives. From what I read, I understand that the poor had to use mainly infanticide and that must have been very hard for the Japanese, as it would be for us today. But the consequences of letting population grow unchecked would have been terrible; so they had to.

We tend to see a steady state economy as something very similar to our society, only a bit quieter. But Edo Japan was very different. Surely it was not paradise on earth. It was a highly regulated and hierarchical society where it would have been hard to find - perhaps even to imagine - such things as "democracy" or "human rights". Nevertheless, the Edo period was a remarkable achievement; a highly refined and cultured society. A society of craftsmen, poets, artists and philosophers. It created some of the artistic treasures we still admire today; from the katana sword to Basho's poetry.

So, the Japanese succeeded in creating a a highly refined society that managed to exist in a steady state for more than two centuries. I think there is no comparable case in history. Why did Japan succeed where many other societies in history had failed? Well, I think that being an island was a major advantage. It shielded (mostly) Japan from the ambitions of their neighbors and also from the temptation that the Japanese might have had to invade their neighbors. And if you are not so terribly afraid of being invaded (and you have no intention of invading anyone) then you have no reason to have a big army and so no reason to increase population. You can concentrate on sustainability and on managing what you have. Then, of course, when Commodore Perry and his black ships arrived Japan was not an island any more; in the sense that it was not any longer isolated from the rest of the world. So growth restarted. But, as long as Japan remained isolated, the economy remained in steady state and, as I said, it was a remarkable achievement.

But I don't think that the fact of being an island explains everything about the Edo period. I think, that it would not have been possible without a certain degree of wisdom. Or, perhaps, a more correct term in this case is "sapience."

1 comments:

nanakwame said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSTG4Nap3vY&feature=related
The Blind Swordsman

the romantic love of the self-substained individual , still need a village to eat and bring justice

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