Capitalism in its earliest incarnation dates back to the end of Europe’s medieval period. ‘Growth’, such as it was, first manifested itself in the innovation and creativity of the Renaissance, while economic expansion in the commonly understood sense was to come later. The commercial revolution of the 16th century, the scientific breakthroughs of the 17th century, and the more broadly based Industrial Revolution of the 18th-19th centuries, can be seen as the ascending curve of the ‘arc’ of capitalism.
Although capitalism has continued to spread across the planet, its arc is bound to descend because it depends upon borrowed capital (both literal and metaphorical) that can’t be repaid. The smoke-and-mirrors nature of international finance may postpone a reckoning on the debt-based money undergirding the system, but the natural world is not so easily fooled: the Earth cannot provide the endless resources capitalism needs for perpetual growth, nor can it absorb all the waste that the system produces. In other words, industrialization worldwide has overreached itself, creating a human ‘footprint’ that weighs ever more heavily on the planet – with climate change the most serious among the many symptoms of overreach. According to Global Footprint Network, 1970 (the year Limits to Growth was published, curiously) was probably the last year that the global economic system could survive on the resources and sinks of one planet. Individually, richer nations exceeded these constraints much earlier – the US as early as 1950.
Where does that leave us? From where we stand right now, one likely sequence of events would be as follows: Exacerbated by climate change and the spiraling costs of the devastation it wreaks on countries across the world, a tired and dysfunctional capitalist system reaches the end of the road, with such signposts as financial crashes and chronic political and economic instability (the financial debacle of 2008 was an early such sign, Donald Trump’s attempt to derail the US election in 2020 was another). As these and similar events begin to occur with greater frequency, they should provide impetus to the parallel systems of social and economic organization that are sprouting up all over the world. There will be even more interest in local food initiatives, domestic alternatives to fiat money, Transition towns, ecovillages, and similar experiments. The question is, how will all this evolve when fossil fuel energy – and all the forms of production that derive from it – finally dries up? What examples can we glean from history that would help us imagine alternative systems that are ecologically sustainable?
I believe there is much we can learn from Japan’s Edo period, which ran from roughly 1600 to the mid-1800s. Those who think of ultra-modern Tokyo and its gadget-obsessed denizens might be baffled by the notion that Japan can offer a post-capitalist model of any interest. But for 230 years during the Edo period, Japan was closed off to the outside world, meaning that resources were limited and had to be used sparingly. This they were able to do by means of ‘creative austerity’, the elimination of waste, and by recycling everything in a particularly resourceful manner (Edo city boasted no less than 4,000 old clothes dealers!) But, in spite of the absence of what we would consider material abundance, Japan enjoyed a vibrant economy of unequalled craftmanship and a pursuit of excellence that gave rise to a rich and distinct culture totally disproportionate to the resources at hand. Professor Azby Brown, in his book, Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan, tells us:
What is most impressive here is the constant drive to maximize the utility of everything – to produce more with less, to make better buildings with less material, tastier food with less fuel, better colors with less dye, sharper blades with less steel, to turn necessity into virtue. And it is always done with a cosmopolitan flair for design and presentation.”
Morris Berman in his book, Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan, adds these comments:
Edo culture in general was a flourishing entity; temple schools educated peasant children and the literacy rate was around 50 percent for men and 20 percent for women, possibly the highest of any country in the world at that time. A lively print culture developed; Japan’s three largest cities had over 1,500 bookstores. ‘Ukiyo-e’, Japanese woodblock printing, was stunning, and had a profound influence on Western artists such as Degas and Van Gogh. And then there was Ikebana, Kabuki, Bunraku and the superb architecture (which later influenced Frank Lloyd Wright).”
Farming was organic, forest resources were well-managed, the fishing industry thrived, and craft and cottage industries flourished. The results were that farmland became more productive, de-forestation was reversed, and living standards increased. The first American Consul General, Townsend Harris (1856) described there being “an equal absence of any appearance of wealth or of poverty… more like the golden age of simplicity and honesty than I have seen in any other country.” All this in the context of a ‘steady-state’, no-growth economy. It was also, by the way, a country that was at peace during the entire Edo period, a remarkable achievement in itself considering that conflict was the norm elsewhere, and has been ever since. It is also important to note that there is no indication that the Japanese were experiencing hard times, compared, say, with what many Americans went through during the Great Depression. All this is puzzling for westerners nourished on the belief that the economy is a one-way street of growth or death.
What can we learn from this?
It is not by chance that wabi-sabi, the creative use and enjoyment of the ‘perfectly imperfect’ – including finding beauty in the old and used – is a Japanese aesthetic of long standing. In a post-capitalist world stripped of ostentation, waste and material abundance, wabi-sabi would instill respect for moderation, humility and simplicity. Due to its essentially simple and unpretentious nature, wabi-sabi is also an open, organic and inclusive way of living available to all. Echoing E.F. Schumacher’s comments on “amazingly small means leading to extraordinarily satisfactory results”, wabi-sabi is the philosophical outlook best adapted to a world of material austerity, one that can provide satisfaction and the enjoyment of whatever is at hand.
Is it possible for a western society to follow the Edo example? In one form or another, follow we must because ultimately we will have no choice. “Sustainable society will come because the alternative is no society at all,” Azby Brown soberly reminds us. But for societies bred on plenty, the challenge in embracing simplicity is quite substantial. Unlike the west, Japan was a highly cohesive society steeped in Buddhist values. The patience, forbearance and humility that are deeply etched in their historical experience is entirely antithetical to the spirit of the west. We are materialistic, non-contemplative, and have made lack of moderation a virtue. We place great store on ‘outer’ strength – our aggressive economic practices, our armed forces, our nuclear capabilities, even the muscularity of our bodies – at the expense of ‘inner’ strength, which is at the heart of the Japanese tradition. As a result, the idea of developing ‘inner’ resources – arguably the most under-valued qualities on the planet, and the ones most vitally necessary when it comes to making the kind of transition that will be forced upon us through climate change – are largely absent from western industrialized culture. Contrary to how we view ourselves, we are far weaker and more vulnerable where it matters most.
While the consumer culture does not encourage us to understand, let alone cultivate, inner resources, the likely loss of much of our material and technological infrastructure will oblige us to question the value we attach to these things. A shift of this nature would also chip away at the hugely overblown sense of our own importance. If one were to look for a single cause of our excesses and of the ecological harm inflicted on the planet, the overweening hubris of modern technological man/women would be it.
Environmentalist William Ophuls referred to such hubris as ‘immoderate greatness’ and blamed it for the fall of all prior civilizations. Shakespeare, too, had much to say about individual pride and its tragic consequences. We must acquire humility, have fewer expectations, let go of our sense of entitlement, and, like the Japanese of the Edo period, direct our ingenuity towards turning adverse circumstances to our advantage. If climate change can make us ‘put childish things aside’ (Corinthians 13:11) – put an end to our empty, unthinking and wasteful habits so as to gain in spiritual maturity – this should be viewed as a blessing. Without those qualities we are on the road to perdition, climate change or not.
So, yes, there is an enormous amount we can learn from the Japanese experience, not least of which is the understanding that adapting to a post-carbon world and an inevitable loss of consumer abundance will be, first and foremost, an inner process. It is not qualities such as grit, courage or determination that we need at such moments but a capacity for forbearance, steadfastness, humility and compassion.
In any case, the abundance of goods at our disposal is not having the effect we might expect. The more we have, in fact, the more we suffer psychological disorders like depression. The statistics on mental health, the consumption of anti-depressants, drug addiction and the high rates of suicide in rich societies all make this patently clear. The Edo paradox is actually no mystery at all.
In a post-carbon world ravaged by climate disasters, possible food shortages, energy scarcity and massive migration, we must urgently acquire spiritual maturity or risk being at each other’s throats in no time. Mad Max was a seminal film that remains imprinted on our minds because it starkly portrayed what a society cast adrift from its moral roots can become in a post-apocalyptic setting. Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road did so in an even more horrific way. In the years and decades ahead, we must make sure they don’t apply to us.
This post is excerpted from John Reed’s forthcoming book, Elegant Simplicity Part Two: Climate Change and the Path to a Sustainable Future.
Image: Woman Bucking Autumn Wind, by Gototei Kunisada (1786-1864), CC0 1.0 Universal