Sustainability as Community Practice, Not Individual Effort

Even in 1877, most rural areas of Japan committed no more than 12 percent of their agricultural output to cash crops. That means 88 percent of what they were growing in their fields was for subsistence—that is, for feeding their large families composed of both blood relations and married relations as well as multigenerational servants and tenants. This information, from Thomas C. Smith’s The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan, is interesting not merely because it gives us a portrait of what “sustainability” looked like in communities before industrialization took hold but because it points to an oft-overlooked quality of sustainable agriculture: there is no such thing as food security unless the whole community is committed to it.

Over and over again, Smith’s research points to the mutual support offered by large family groups in order to survive. True, smaller branch families had to offer more labor to the head family in exchange for borrowing tools and resources (including water and fertilizer, both expensive commodities). But the head families also dedicated labor to the land of the branch families! This was especially true during planting season, Smith explains, when each field had to be planted in a window of a few hours, a day at most, so that the next field could be planted and the next and the next in quick succession, while the rice seedlings were in peak condition.

Today one can find all sorts of websites about sustainable farming, urban gardening, “bug-out” planning (in the event of a major crisis), and so on. After three years of working with these various resources and farming on my own quarter-acre lot for a family of four, I can tell you I am disturbed by one common and regular oversight that Smith’s research makes painfully clear: communities achieve sustainability, not individuals (or even, for that matter, nuclear families).

This is common sense. If I have a gorgeous garden and a field planted with crops and a pig, goat, and chickens when a true “bug-out” situation occurs, how long will I maintain those resources without violence? But what if I lived in a large complex of buildings and land with an extended family (loosely defined) upwards of 50 people? Even better, what if I live in a cluster of four or five such families, all of us managing land that has belonged to our collective families for a couple hundred years? How do the odds of survival look for each of these groups?

The struggle, then, is not so much in merely learning the physical skills of growing crops and raising animals and doing so consistently from season to season but also in learning how to coordinate these things across one’s family or chosen community. Among other things, ancient Japanese families dealt with these delicate social dynamics by employing the following strategies:

  • Selecting a clear leader who speaks for the family as a whole (but does not simply dictate decisions!)—often a leadership role that is inherited from parent to child
  • Consensus building in private before ever inviting public discussion, especially in front of outsiders
  • Correcting deviant and dangerous behaviors with successively harsher punishments: private warnings, public embarrassment e.g. by banging pots and pans outside the offending person or family’s house, all the way up to the harshest action of expelling a person or branch family from the community
  • Worshiping and carrying out shared religious rituals, in particular for a god associated with the family over many generations (that is, a god who was unique to the family and community, not a universal entity)
  • Trust graduated over generations of work on the land, so a latecomer family to a village might not be allowed to own land or place a statue of the family god in their home until the first arrivals were grandparents or even had already passed away

These practices reveal that sustainable lifestyles did not follow the trajectory of an individual human life or a single nuclear family’s life but rather it was a multi-generational and highly collaborative effort that required social skills, self-restraint, and the ability to take a long view of the impact of one’s actions on the land and the community.

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