Sunday, April 17, 2016

What is it like to live in a steady state economy? Miss Hokusai in Edo Japan

"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.


  1. Infanticide as a tool of population control used in the past is often misunderstood in this and other sites. They portray parents choking the neck or smashing the head of their creation. It might have happened, but rarely.
    I spent my earlier years in a small village in South India. Vaccination and antibiotics had not entered yet. From what I saw and from the stories told by older people, I can draw the following. About half of all babies born did not see their first birthday due to one of many infectious diseases. Parents took it philosophically. 'I knew from the horoscope that the baby has a short life.' Of the remaining, another 20 to 30% died before attanding school or even during teen years, mostly due to debilitating diseaes. Their loss is harder on the parents. Those who reached adulthood rarely saw a doctor and worked almost to the end. My maternal grand mother cooked meals on her last day in this world (she was nearing eighty) and my grand father performed Hindu rituals until the last year. When adults died, it was mostly due to starvation or unhealthy way of life. True, rich people had access to healthy foods and natural medicines, but they also lost infants regularly.
    I am sure such was the case in Europe before 1800.
    In the future, we may face a similar situation and look at the death of infants as the Nature's way of pruning.

    1. I tend to agree with you. I received a number of sneers at the Japanese because of the concept of "mabiki"; the "thinning", as if the Japanese were especially cruel and heartless. But I think it is completely wrong. Infanticide has been common in all societies of the world, but it was more like accepting the unavoidable fate of some children, rather than actively killing them.

    2. The active killing makes all the difference! It is called infanticide while what you described is infant mortality in general.

    3. Mortality rates in Europe pre-modern waste systems, clean municipal water, and antibiotics, etc, indicate 50% dead in 1st year of life, (and mothers not infrequently dying soon after child-bed); 50% of the remainder dying by 30 yrs, and the rest lasting until 50's-90's.

      It was much healthier to live in a good rural setting rather than town, with the further advantage of not being poisoned by the medical profession: a glance at a medical textbook of the 1600's is rather alarming!

  2. I am not a historian, like you, just an organic chemist. My knowledge of Tamil society (in deep South of India) comes from my extensive knowldge of Tamil literature that spans from the second century BCE to the present. The picture of Edo society you draw is similar to the life of Tamil people. Although small empires came and went, the life of a typical village hardly changed. The artisans had all the freedom they wanted so they wrote poetry, built temples and traveled across political lines. Small towns and occasionally one or two cities grew and declined, but most of the time village populations remained the same, thanks to viruses and bacteria.

  3. There must be a corresponding concept to the 'Noble Savage', but with regards to civilization.

  4. However, it is clear that a steady state economy is predicated on the following assumptions:
    1) the population does not grow;
    2) the general level of material wealth is considered "sufficient" by the population.

    The second point is obviously tricky, and yet it is unavoidable. After reaching the "sufficient" level of material wealth, all the resources of the society could be dedicated to pursuing different, non-material objectives. Growing knowledge, for instance. Although now that I'm thinking of it, I'm not so sure that even an everlasting growth in knowledge does not imply some sort of material growth as well. Maybe in the 17th century it was enough to let a rolling ball down an inclined plane to investigate the gravitational laws, but today we need ever more powerful synchrotrons and computers to penetrate the deepest secrets of the universe...

  5. the broad spectrum of discussion about infants dying, or infanticide---call it what you will, is all very well---until it's your child that's being culled to keep the herd safe.
    we cannot overlay the past on our future, and somehow make it ''work''

    in our past, there were diseases which thinned out our numbers and balanced the population.
    Some died, some recovered, some didn't become ill at all.
    God's will of course.
    This could be the only answer, and god wasn't inclined to answer questions.

    Now we know differently, and knowledge cannot be unlearned.

    In our future, we will know that diseases can be cured, but without a sophisticated medical system to back up our knowledge, nature will take its course.

    But god will not be blamed--only the "system" that brought about the crash that removed our civilised infrastructure.

  6. Hortense Michaud-LalanneApril 18, 2016 at 9:59 AM

    An essential addition required at the end of this text is "Within the limits of our one and only planet, Mother Earth." We are not Earth's Friends nor her Children, but her Embryos, and she has every right to abort if we keep on growing on the back of other species we don't even care to observe, list and understand.
    When we were introduced, in the nineties,I asked Pierre Dansereau who collated a list of 27 Ecology laws : "Are you the Moses or the Newton of Ecology?" .
    His answer: "Montesquieu, in L'esprit des Lois..."
    Each time we forget that logics, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology are not negociable, we show our impotence in the face of modern challenges like managing the nuclear age, and making sure civilization survives our fulfilled dreams.

    Hortense Michaud-Lalanne

  7. A readable book on the sustainability aspects of Edo period is "Just Enough" by Azby Brown.

  8. I've been re-reading a story about life in another steady state society--- Ernest Callenbach's 1975 "Ecotopia." The contrast between his description of post-succession San Francisco and today's bubble economy of million dollar shoe boxes, Facebook techies, and absentee Chinese money launderers couldn't be more striking. As is the naivete of his vision.

    The cultural values that make his Ecotopia possible do not grow up in a few years--- more like generations. And the 1975 collapse of the US Empire to the point where it would allow succession of it's most favored lands is laughable from the perspective of 2016. Indeed, we look back upon 1975 as the golden era of American Exceptionalism, where an abundance of cheap oil and a less unequal distribution of the spoils of world economic dominance allowed for a prosperous middle class motivated by the hope of an even more prosperous future.

    Callebach's Ecotopia might indeed be theoretically possible in the favorable geography and climate of the Pacific Northwest. (and I'd be the first to try to sneak across the mountains and join them) Provided of course that the population remaining after the Revolution was about half the 1975 level, and they developed a sustainable long term primary energy system. But the state of societal collapse that would inevitably have to proceed the breakup of the US nation state leaves little hope that the seeds of Ecotopia could grow from such parched soil.

  9. ehm... Am I missing something? The Edo Period could have been a steady-state socio-economic system, but as pointed in the post 90% of the population were peasants probably forced to follow the rules.
    Where they, by any means, asked if they wanted to live as peasants? Did they ever have the chance to become "middle class"?
    I think that the big issue at stake nowadays is to achieve a steady-state system for a majority of humans: any other solution, like a 10-90 division, is a distopia.

    1. I do not think you are "missing something" at all. In fact i think you hit the nail on the head. I suppose it is normal to try to look for some "nice" example in the past of what a "workable" or a "sustainable" or "steady state" or "no growth" future society could look like . Or one that could at least somehow inspire us. But it is all too easy to engage in one sort of revisionism or another and end up distorting what life for most people was really like. In any case even if life during Edo Japan was wonderful for everyone and "totally sustainable" I think we have zero chance of recreating it. Either in Japan alone or even less so for a very heterogenous world population of 7 or 8 billion . So I think it is better to look forward with creativity and with one's feet firmly planted in all real present conditions as the point of departure, instead of backwards with a kind of nostalgia, moreover also likely to be misplaced. . But stories and good films about the past are always interesting and also can be beautiful. But planners in particular should be careful of rose tinted glasses and no matter what direction they look in. And on a different issue I think catastrophist glasses also can lead to mistakes even when seemingly based on science. Moreover Science is a pretty big thing .. I like the saying "on a clear day I can see a thousand miles". But which days are clear? So that too is likely to be to be mistaken apart from being self aggrandizing.. Trial and error small incremental steps without "visions" then? Probably wont work either under present conditions. And besides visions and imagination are fun .

  10. As a woman who grows food, composts, wildcrafts edible herbs and mushrooms from the forest, and cooks family meals from locally grown and harvested foods, I feel there is much to recommend the peasant way of life. A city person who has not experienced living close to the land would have a difficult time understanding the contentment of the peasant village way of life. Many young people are looking for a simpler way of life, and some of them participate in a program called WWOOF, Willing Workers on Organic Farms, exchanging their labor for food, shelter, and knowledge of how to live close to the land. Check out

  11. 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.”

    a mad man, an economist or a Pope, 23 times stupid!



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)