"Miss Hokusai" is a delicate and beautiful movie set during the late Edo period in Japan. It may give us a feeling of what it is like to live in a steady-state economy. In the picture from the movie, you can see O-Ei (Miss Hokusai) together with her father, the painter Tetsuzo, better known by his pen name of Hokusai.
We owe to Kennet Boulding the concept that “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” And we call the end of this impossible growth a condition of "no growth", "zero growth" or "stable state." Many people argue that such a condition is not only necessary because of physical reasons, but it is also a good condition to be in.
In practice, we don't know what a true "zero-growth" society could be, simply because it has never existed in the modern Western World. The only hint we can find on how such a society could be is from history. Probably the best example of such a society, close in time and very well known, is Japan during the Edo Period, that historians place between 1603 and 1868.
We have no data about Edo Japan that we could compare to our modern concept of "Gross Domestic Product," which is at the basis of our idea of "economic growth". However, we have good data about the population of that time and there is no doubt that it remained nearly stable during the whole period. We also know that the extent of cultivated land in Japan didn't vary over almost one century and a half, from 1720 to 1874 (source). The large cities, such as Edo (the modern Tokyo) grew during this period, but that can only be the result of people moving away from smaller cities or from the countryside. Overall, I think we can say that, for some two centuries, Edo Japan was as close to a "zero-growth" society as we can imagine one.
So how was life in a zero-growth society? Clearly, Edo Japan very different than our society. The large majority of the people (around 90% of the population) were peasants living in country villages. On the other side of the social spectrum, there was the elite, the warrior class who ruled the country with an iron hand and meted harsh punishment to the smallest sign of disobedience. There was no such a thing as "democracy", to say nothing about concepts such as "personal freedom", "human rights," or "social security."
But it would be wrong to dismiss Edo Japan as a harsh dictatorship of no interest for us. In between the peasants and the warriors, there were people whom we could identify as close to our concept of "middle class:" craftsmen and merchants. These people were not rich, but they seem to have been reasonably free of worries about near-term survival. And they seem to have been thriving. Basically, as long as they didn't attempt to rebel against the ruling class, they were left in peace by the government. This sector of the Japanese society was lively and innovative. Edo Japan was a country of artists and of master craftsmen in all fields: the Japanese were very advanced in technologies from metallurgy to paper-making, and they created a culture that we still know and admire today: from poets such as Matsuo Basho to painters such as Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Today, we have a large number of fiction works, from Manga to Samurai movies, that try to convey something of a period that, evidently, modern Japanese still remember very well and, probably, with a certain degree of nostalgy. From all these works, we can have a visual impression of what it could have been to live in Edo Japan as a member of the craftsmen or merchant class. And the impression is that, yes, so many things were different but, maybe, not so much. Everywhere and at all times, people face the same troubles, challenges, and opportunities. So, the "middle class" of Edo Japan lived in a simple world, dressed in simple but elegant cotton kimonos, their only drink was sake, and wherever they wanted to go, they had to walk there on their own feet. But they seemed to be able to live a fulfilling life. They enjoyed nature, poetry, literature, music, and each other's company. Not even their oppressive government could take that away from them.
The movie "Miss Hokusai" is an especially good portrait of life in Edo Japan, showing a great attention to the details of everyday life. It is a delicate and beautiful movie, centered on the life of O-Ei, the daughter of the famous painter Hokusai. It has no great dramas nor scenes of battles or fights (although it does have quite a bit of supernatural hints). But it is an unforgettable portrait of human life that transcends its historical setting and tells us something of what it means to be human anywhere in the world.
We cannot say if in the future we will be able to attain a global "zero-growth" society as Japan did during the Edo Period. Maybe empires will continue to grow and fall as they have done during the past millennia. Or, maybe, we will be able to create a worldwide stable society that might look like ancient Japan. Will it have to be a harsh dictatorship as it was then? We cannot say for sure, although is at least possible that, in order to maintain stability, it is necessary to block social mobility and to suppress every attempt of rebellion. But, in any case, nothing can stop human beings from being human. The future remains open and it will be what we will want it to be.