Saturday, April 30, 2011

Is Japan the Future? (part 7)

9. Emptying Our Cups

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring.

The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.

"It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted.

"You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup!"

The above story has two lessons. First, we must empty our minds of our preconceived ideas if we are to truly learn. If our minds are filled with notions of limitless growth, we are unable to even consider that there are others ways of organizing an economy.

The second stands as an apt analogy for an economy in general. A cup can only hold so much tea, because of the empty space within it that is waiting to be filled. You can keep pouring tea, but it will be of no benefit – you will not be able to drink more than the cup can hold. Pouring more tea into an already full cup will only waste the tea you have, causing it to spill and making a mess. It should also be noted that constantly filling the cup makes it impossible to drink the tea at all.

So, to return to our question, Is Japan the world's first post-growth society? My answer is, yes, it is. Though the Japanese got there first, we are almost certainly headed for the same place. Currently the world's largest economy is engaging in all the same activities that the world's second largest economy engaged in for the last twenty years to restart growth - tax cuts, stimulus spending, quantitative easing, zero interest rates policies, bank bailouts, all to no avail. Why do we think we will succeed where they failed? Are we somehow an exception? Do we arrogantly assume we are somehow smarter, more innovative or more important? And even if growth on paper restarts, will most of us benefit? Although the recession has “officially” ended, living standards are still falling and society is continuing to come apart at the seams.

The elites who are the beneficiaries of interest repayments will do everything in their power to try and restart growth at all costs. We are already oversupplied with too many goods, too many houses, and too much debt. We are straining the natural world to the breaking point. If authors like Richard Heinberg and Chris Martenson are right, we will not have the vast sums of energy available to keep growing year after year. It is clear that more growth hasn't made us any happier or enhanced our well-being. Our leaders will never voluntarily embrace Degrowth under any circumstances so it is up to us. If we are to build a sustainable society, we will have to build it from the ground up, rather than the top-down. Fortunately, even though our government is on the wrong track, we ourselves can learn valuable lessons from Japan's Edo period for how to arrange a better life:

1. Stop spending. Save your money. Keep your expenses minimal. Pay down debts. The Japanese have wisely concluded that the future will be one of reduced living standards, and have adjusted their behavior accordingly. They refuse to go into debt and buy big-ticket items they cannot afford. They are not impoverished, but rather choose to live frugally. They save their money for a rainy day, knowing that the future in uncertain. In the past, farmers, who lived with the vagaries of nature, behaved like the proverbial ant, not like the grasshopper. See the following article:

2. Think hard about having children. If you do, have no more than two. This is obviously a highly personal decision, and it depends on what your life circumstances are. Surveys show that couples without children are happier than couples with them. The more children you have, the less you can pass down to each one, and the more they must compete for jobs, education, resources, etc. in a shrinking economy. The Japanese are aware of this, and are voluntarily choosing to forego child-rearing as an act of economic survival. Do you really want your children to grow up in poverty or have to go though the trying times ahead?

3. Embrace voluntary simplicity. This movement, with roots in monasticism, advocates being satisfied with what we need rather than what we want. It recognizes that consumption is not a path to happiness, and that leisure, free time, hobbies and human relationships are far more conducive to enjoying life than the endless treadmill of work and consumption. Do not be afraid to reduce expenditure, income and possessions. No one ever spent their last days wishing they had spent more time at work.

4. Live in dense, walkable urban areas. In the days before cars, Japanese cities were full of shops and merchants in close proximity to the people who patronized them. Today, Japanese cities are much the same – with people living in close quarters and goods close at hand. As energy costs rise, this will allow you to get what you need without having to spend time and money running around. It will also allow you to get to know your neighbors. Japanese of the Edo period would eat communally in restaurants, the idea being that cooking for a large group was more efficient and less wasteful than an individual cooking a single meal for himself or herself.

3. Live in a small, compact house. Do not accumulate clutter. The book The Not So Big House started a movement to celebrate small spaces as more aesthetically pleasing than gargantuan houses. They utilize less resources in their construction, preserve open space, and require much less energy to heat and cool. Apartments are more energy-efficient than single-family houses. Books like The Very Small Home by Azby Brown demonstrate the modern Japanese use of small, efficient spaces to provide comfortable and elegant living arrangements.

4. Use public transportation and bicycle whenever possible. Only 50 percent of trips in Japan are taken by automobile, and Japanese automobiles are generally small and fuel-efficient (it is no coincidence that Japanese automakers introduced the gas-electric hybrid). Bicycling has also become much more popular in Japan since the earthquake. While we cannot force politicians to build a high-speed rail network like Japan has, we can use what public transportation is available, like buses and trains. If you can, carpool. If you must have a car, buy a fuel-efficient car like a Toyota Prius or Honda Insight.

5. Plant a garden. Edo (Tokyo) was full of urban gardens. Even city dwellers grew much of their own food. There are many systems to choose from. Japan's highly intensive growing methods have been recreated in the West by people like John Jeavons, whose methods of biointensive gardening produce large amounts of food on small plots of land. Community gardens using raised bed planters are springing up in communities all over the U.S. Systems like permaculture can also be done in urban areas and replenish the soil just like Asian farming methods. Places like rooftops and walls can be turned green through container gardening and espalier. Edible landscaping can turn lawns into food sources. The work of the late Masanobu Fukuoka has been a great inspiration to people all over the world.

6. Compost. While we may not have night soil merchants like Japan had, we can do similar things for ourselves by using composting toilets. Our food and lawn waste can all be composted and returned to the soil instead of thrown away, just as the Japanese did hundreds of years ago. You can also learn to grow green fertilizer as the Japanese did.

7. Conserve water. Edo-period Japanese would often use the sun to heat bath water, and use the same water to make tea and water their garden. Even today in Japan it is not uncommon for bath water to be pumped to washing machines for later use. You can take such measures as using low-flow fixtures and collecting rainwater for gardening.

8. Redefine status. The “He who dies with the most toys wins” ethic so common in America was unknown in Edo period Japan. Rather, the most admired members of society were those who behaved “honorably” and set a good example according to Confucian and Buddhist principles. Waste was considered unseemly. People rose to high status because of their character, not because of their wealth. They did not feel a need to “show off” to impress the neighbors.

6. Eat a healthy diet. The Japanese of the Edo period ate only natural, healthy foods that they could grow themselves. Imported foods were luxuries. Processed foods were unknown, and seafood, vegetables and rice formed the better part of the diet. While you do not have to eat a Japanese diet, you can patronize local farmers and food producers, and eat fresh, whole, unprocessed foods instead of junk food. Local farmers markets and CSAs can connect you with the people producing food locally and responsibly, and keep money in your local community.

7. Celebrate nature. The Japanese love of nature is renowned. Nature was valuable for its own sake, not just for what it could provide by way of products. The Japanese would compose poems about nature, or make lovely ink-brush paintings and woodcuts of natural scenes. The Japanese felt like a part of nature, not apart from it. Anyone visiting a traditional Japanese garden cannot help but be moved by the harmony of its arrangement. Farmers were respected for their contribution to society and farming was a respected way of life.

8. Reuse, repurpose, recycle. The Japanese did not have a word for recycling – it was just a part of daily life. Every item was repaired or reused in some way. For example, the yukata (a light cotton kimono) - was a hand-me down-item, then it was made into diapers, used as floor cloths, and finally, burned for fuel. Find new uses for “end-of-life goods Our own grandparents lived this way not so long ago.

9. Use energy sparingly. Hang wash on the line. Insulate your house and use passive solar energy. Turn off lights and use candles. Burn wood in energy efficient fireplaces. Use space heating. The Edo period Japanese managed to live entirely within their solar budget while maintaining a high standard of living by getting the maximum use from the energy sources they had at hand.

9. Take up crafts. Be as self-sufficient as possible. Japanese of the Edo period often made their own products. If a kimono did not fit, they would rework the fabric themselves. Villagers would often take up a craft like basket weaving or woodworking and trade with their neighbors who also practiced various crafts. The DIY movement celebrates and encourages this behavior in the present day.

10. Buy for durability rather than cheapness. Consider the long-term costs of what you buy, not just the immediate costs. Many items from the Edo period are still treasured and passed down today. Katana swords are as sharp today as they were hundreds of years ago. Buildings from the period are historical monuments while more modern buildings fade away. Getting many years of use from our belongings saves more money in the long run than buying cheaply-made disposable commodities, and is better for the environment.

11. Support local economies. Patronize local producers. Support regionalism. Know who you do business with. Edo period Japan had a rich "cultural ecology" of local and regional specialties and producers. Today in America, corporations has done their best to wipe out distinct regional character and substitute a homgenous centrally planned culture shaped by advertising. It is up to us us to reactivate our local cutures and economies, whcih existed once and are just hanging on, waiting for a renaissance. Patronize local food producers and encourage regional specialties, whether it be lobsters in Maine, cheese in Wisconsin or wine in California. By patronizing local suppliers, you keep money in your community and increase resilience. The “buy local” movement is an example of this.

12. Engage in your local community. Villages of the Edo period were highly communal affairs. Everyone knew everyone else, and they worked together for the common good. Any number of local organizations need volunteers and support. You can make your “village” wherever you happen to be with likeminded people. the spirit of helping one's neighbor begins with you.

13. Cultivate yourself. Build your character. Make art. The Edo period was a time of intense artistic flowering. People found satisfaction in contemplating nature and acts of creation. Religious practices such as Zen Buddhism sought enlightenment among the art of everyday living. This is a much more effective way to attain satisfaction with life than material aquisition or career climbing. Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo, intended his discipline to encompass self-defense, physical culture, and moral behavior. In 1934 he said the following:

Recently in our country, there has been a steadily increasing number of people who dislike work and pursue leisure and extravagance. Almost everywhere individuals and organizations are fighting with resultant loss of energy that is needed for positive action. In order to save them from this situation, a principle of judo, based on the maximum efficiency concept should be applied as one aspect of modern society and as a natural result of the application of the principle of maximum efficiency, a mutual welfare and prosperity is believed to be the only effective way to ease and neutralize the forces among these individuals and organizations.

Other Judo principles include "The most for the least effort," maximum efficiency," and "Overcome by yielding, " all principles that will serve us well in the years ahead.

We are never going to find any lasting solutions to the world’s problems unless we can finally get to “enough.” Our constant need for more will outdo even the most clever solution to our problems. Ultimately, the root of our problem is not having enough. If we had the knowledge and resources we have today with the population we had in 1800, there really wouldn’t be very many problems at all. In other words, so long as we must eternally grow, in industry, consumption, population, we will outrun any solution, no matter how clever or innovative. Only If we discover the value of enough, will we have any attempt at solving our problems, otherwise it is for naught.

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