7. Lessons From History
We learn about the sayings and deeds of the men of old in order to entrust ourselves to their wisdom and prevent selfishness. When we throw off our own bias, follow the sayings of the ancients, and confer with other people, matters should go well and without mishap.
-The HAGAKURE, Tokugawa-era Samurai manual
So why did Japan succeed, where other societies failed? Some point out the Japanese reverence for nature. As Ugo Bardi put it, "As far as I understand, the Japanese attitude at that time was as far as possible from that monstrosity that we have today; that of the golem we call "homo economicus" who seriously thinks that a tree is worth nothing unless it is felled." Jared Diamond dismisses this argument, pointing out that economic expansion existed in the early Edo period, and after the Edo period in the twentieth century. Diamond instead looks to other factors, such as:
1) The central government reasonably expected to be in power in the future, and so had an interest in good stewardship.
2) An ethnically and politically uniform society.
3) Internal peace and no outside enemies meant that resources did not need to be devoted to war making, such as horses and guns.
4) Japan's soils and climate allow for rapid tree regrowth.
5) Lack of sheep and goats which have deleterious effects on forests.
6) The abundance of seafood, reducing pressure on cropland, and
7) Generations lived on the same land and passed it down to their descendants, giving them an incentive to manage resources well.
To Diamond's points, I would add several of my own:
1) A monetary system not based around debt and interest repayments, hence no imperative to grow or crash.
2) A tightly regarded social order which minimized social climbing, wealth accumulation, selfishness and ostentatious displays of wealth which consume resources wastefully. Even the samurai, who lived in the equivalent of a gated community and employed a servant, maintained a substantial edible garden, used minimal heating, recycled paper and considered cushions for his tatami floors a needless extravagance.
3) A strong unified authority, able to regulate markets effectively and use a combination of carrot-and-stick approaches for top-down resource management.
5. Clear separation between the economic and political-decision-making spheres. The shogun and daimyo were hereditary positions, and not dependent on merchants for money or votes, allowing them to act independently rather than support commercial interests.
6. A highly literate culture able to catalogue and communicate knowledge in writing.
7) A Confucian ethic that held farmers and food producers in high regard, rather than the lowest rung of society.
8) Lack of slavery and absentee ownership (as opposed to the hacienda or plantation models employed elsewhere), giving the people who worked the land an incentive to manage it well and improve it.
9.) Villagers worked their own farmland but were taxed collectively, giving incentives to work hard individually and cooperate with their neighbors at the same time.
10) A culture with a sense of common purpose that valued social cohesion and cooperation, rather than conflict and naked ambition.
11) As described above, the development of agricultural practices that produced large amounts of food intensively without depleting the soil.
12) A culture that placed an emphasis on frugality and reuse as socially desirable, rather than as markers of low status.
13.) An economy built abound cottage industries and private land ownership, rather than rent seeking, wages and manufacturing. Items made by hand meant a large number of diverse producers rather than monopolies.
14.) Development of local community economies leading to a thriving internal trade without relying on outside imports.
16.) A high level of craftsmanship - buildings and durable goods were "built to last", rather than to be disposable.
17.) A healthy diet based around rice and seafood, and a lack of western diseases (if you expect a high infant mortality rate, you will have a lot more children).
17) Lack of intense wealth concentration and relative egalitarianism (compare to just about anywhere in Europe at this time). Japan's ruling classes were more interested in setting a moral example and ruling wisely than accumulating wealth. Due to the labor-intensive nature of rice farming, large land holdings were not viable, unlike with wheat farming, so land remained in the hands of small landholders who worked the land themselves. The relatively low status of merchants kept them from achieving too much power, and trade with cultures outside Japan was restricted. This situation started to unravel in the late Tokugawa period, however.
18) Innovative and creative solutions were implemented to utilize resources more efficiently, rather than to increase consumption.
and finally, and most importantly, as we have seen:
19.) Population remained steady. This was no doubt partly to the relatively high status of women (compare to the patriarchal societies of the Middle East). While some may recoil at some of their methods of population control, is it really worse than the starvation of adults that accompanies an overshoot of resources? As antropolgist Marvin Harris, in his book Cows, Pigs Wars and Witches reminds us:
Anyone who finds my reasoning depraved or "uncivilized" should read about eighteenth-centruy England. Gin-soaked mothers by the tens of thousands regularly dropped their babies into the Thames or wrapped them in the clothing of smallpox victims, left them in trash barrels, rolled over on top of them during drunken stupors, and otherwise contrived to shorten their babies' lives by direct or indirect means. In our own times, only an incredible degree of self-righteous pigheadedness prevents us from admitting that infanticide is still being practiced on a cosmic scale in the underdeveloped nations, where first-year infant mortality rates of 250 per 1,000 births are commonplace.
Fortunately, we do not have to resort to such drastic measures today if we use contraception intelligently and empower women.
Despite Diamond’s dismissal, I would still acknowledge as well a difference in philosophy between East and West. Japan's native Shinto is a nature-based religion, while Buddhism emphasizes spiritual enlightenment and "right livelihood" rather than material wealth accumulation. It is worth noting that all during this time, Christianity was banned from Japan (Christians were often crucified), so the Biblical admonition to "Go Forth and multiply, conquer the earth and subdue it" was not a part of Japanese thought at is had been for the Western world since ancient Mesopotamia. Rather, as Azby Brown writes in his book about the Edo period, Just Enough, "The mentality of the time found meaning and satisfaction in a life in which the individual took just enough from the world, and no more," How we think about the world matters.
It is worth contrasting Japan's response to limited resources with what happened on another set of islands on the other side of the Eurasian continent at the exact same time.
England in the 1600's was also hitting severe wood shortages. Medieval England, too, was a proximate solar society, and its mighty forests were ruthlessly exploited since Roman times. Like Japan, England used wood for everything - heating, fuel, fodder, industry, construction. Unlike Japan, the English king did not have as much control over the country's feudal lords (by this time England had established a parliamentary system), and there was a well-defined series of legal property rights. Rather than rationing, apportioning wood was done through a price system in an open market. Deforestation of England's old-growth forests caused these prices to skyrocket, putting tremendous strains on England's domestic economy. England turned to the neighboring island of Ireland for trees in the 1600's, and by 1641, Ireland was nearly completely deforested, a condition that persists to this day (by contrast, modern Japan is still 70 percent forested). England then turned to importing wood from around the Baltic Sea region to procure the type of old-growth trees needed to make ships masts. England's rulers became alarmed at the massive amount of imported wood, fearing it would lead to dependency on other countries for this essential resource - if the wood needed to build warships were not there, England would be vulnerable to invasion (the preceding century had witnessed an invasion attempt by sea from Spain). If England were cut off from those imports it would be helpless. Also, importing wood was bad for the economy - it meant that gold was leaving the country causing trade imbalances and again weakening the country's national security.
England's response was the exact opposite of Japan's - rather than closing itself off from the wider world and turning inward, England embraced the philosophy of mercantilism and turned outward, sailing to every corner of the earth in search of markets and resources. What made this possible was the discovery of the North American continent by Europeans at the end of the 1400's. During the sixteenth century from 1492 - 1600, Spain ruthlessly exploited the American continents bringing back vast resources including gold and silver, making it the richest and most powerful kingdom in Europe. In 1588, it attempted its unsuccessful invasion of England, and after that, the momentum started to shift to northern Europe, who sent out their own seafaring expeditions to the New World. In 1607 and 1614, England established its first North American settlements at Jamestown, Virginia and Bermuda. North America's virgin forests and seemingly boundless natural resources allowed economic expansion to continue at exponential rates. With its fertile soils suitable for European-style farming, mineral resources and forests full of trees, the Americas provided a release valve for overpopulation and resource shortages. Suddenly, the limits to growth were removed, as if by providence.
With its wood shortages solved, the English built a vast navy and sailed all over the face of the earth, establishing colonies wherever it could overpower the locals by force of arms. In addition to colonizing North America and Australia, the English established outposts in the West Indies, southern Africa, the Pacific Islands, southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and managed to gain political control of the entire Indian subcontinent. Where it did not rule directly it established client states, as in China and Central Asia. In this way England was literally able to exploit the resources of literally every continent except Antarctica (there was not much need for ice).
The mercantilism on which the British empire was formed was based on colonialism and a positive balance of trade - raw materials from its colonies all over the world and shipped them back to England where they were manufactured into commodities and sold back to subjects in the colonies. Britain soon overtook Spain as the most powerful nation in Europe and established a global economic empire based on resource exploitation. For example, Britain's North American colonies were forbidden to use their own natural resources in domestic industries by force of law, and tariffs were put in place to subsidize British imports and penalize domestic producers. This system caused friction with the colonialists that eventually spilled out into the Revolutionary War and the birth of the United States. The cheap resources that had once fueled the British empire now gave rise to a new empire, one that also saw the world as a boundless sea of resources waiting to be exploited. These empires laid the foundations for the infinite growth debt-based industrial system that is the central organizing principle of the global economy today.
Mercantilism was only one half of the story. Due to the high price of wood, British industries turned to burning coal instead. It has always been known that coal could be burned as fuel, but it was avoided in favor of wood because coal is so much dirtier and more noxious. It's dirtiness also made it undesirable for industries like smelting and glassmaking where it imparts impurities into the finished product. The English had little choice, however, so they began to turn to coal and burn large quantities of it. Unlike the Japanese islands, the English mainland had vast quantities of high-quality bauxite coal, making it incredibly cheap (Japan had only low-quality seams near Kyushu that were difficult to mine and far from urban centers). A unique feature of English coal is that is located near the ocean, casing the mines to constantly flood with seawater. To fix this problem, the mines had to be constantly pumped to remove the excess water. To accomplish this constant pumping action, in 1714 Newcomen and Savery built pumps powered by a steam engine burning coal. It was realized that steam engines could do more than pump mines clear of water - they could be used to transport the coal by powering ships and railroads. Other inventors like James Watt improved Newcomen's engine and put it to work in all sort of applications. Steam engines could be harnessed to the newly formed factory system that was turning out vast amounts of textiles. When a method was found to smelt iron with coal, the Industrial Revolution took off. The next century saw developments like the internal combustion engine and the harnessing of electricity, all powered by nonrenewable fossil fuels. This combination of mercantilism and industrialism forms the basis of the global economy today (combining, in essence, to form Capitalism).
The contrast with Japan could not be more striking. It is this British history that formed the philosophical cornerstone for today's global economy, and it was against this backdrop of unlimited resource extraction and utilization that our economic and social systems were developed. All of modern economic "science" from Adam Smith onward began at this time, and its world view is still colored by it today. Rather than an environment of conservation and scarcity, it saw an environment of limitless growth, debt, and ruthless exploitation of natural resources, by violence if necessary, as the natural form of economics. Economists who saw the limitations of this, such as Thomas Malthus, were dismissed and ridiculed. Japan, unable to rely on the vast resources of the rest of the world until the twentieth century, was forced to pursue an alternative strategy, one which did not rely on growth, but rather ensuring a high quality of life and using resources sustainably. Unfortunately, those ideas did not form the cornerstone of modern economics. Once Japan adopted "Western" methods of economics and factory production, it too, became an imperial power.
The world of today is far different than the world of the 1600's. The limits of England's strategy are becoming apparent. What works for a country does not work for the planet as a whole. The planet as whole is more like Japan - an island in space with limited and finite resources. The earth cannot turn to "outside exports" to solve our problems this time - Mars has no oil or trees, and it takes four years just to get there. Maybe it's time to set the English strategy aside and take another look at the Edo period as our model for how to move forward with a new set of economics and values. After all, mass industrialization and its concomitant economic growth has only been around for a couple of centuries, about the same length of time as the Edo Period. There is no guarantee it will last forever, either.
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