How to save the planet, Edo Japan style


JUST ENOUGH: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan, by Azby Brown. Kodansha International, 2009, 232 pp., $24.95 (hardcover)

Azby Brown is fascinated by Edo Japan because it once faced dire environmental degradation and yet did not collapse. Through a combination of ingenious technological advances, government direction and a pervading ethos of having “just enough,” Edo society (1603-1867) transformed itself into a thriving population that lived sustainably and graciously. Brown is convinced that the Edo way of life holds powerful and scalable keys to our own lurch back from the brink of environmental disaster. As he writes soberly, “Sustainable society will come, because the alternative is no society at all.”

Reading “Just Enough” is like taking a walk with an endearing but slightly obsessive-compulsive neighbor, the type compelled to point out absolutely everything: Look, a beam! A genkan! A stepping stone! A rich and meandering look at what Edo Japan looked, smelled, and felt like, the book is a sensory delight. The fictional narrator takes us on a leisurely turn around three distinct locales: a typical farmhouse and its surrounding community, a craftsman’s home and shop in Edo (Tokyo), and the home and grounds of a low-ranking samurai. After each visit, Brown briefly describes the lessons learned, ranging from large-scale imperatives (“strive for closed-loop agricultural systems”) to more humble initiatives (“redesign kitchens to use less fuel”).

The juxtaposition of big and small, communal and private, is one of the central concerns of the book, and also what makes it so intricate and sometimes impenetrable. It is a tightly woven web of fascinated investigation, detailed line drawings, painstaking description and suggestions. This is consistent with Brown’s insistence that entry points to change are anywhere and everywhere.

At the crux of Edo ingenuity was its understanding of natural systems and their multiform solutions. Brown bemoans the modern approach of attacking different problems in isolation: “Crucially, our failure to understand this connectedness — how stretching the ecosystem in one area can cause it to break in others — has led to [ecological breakdown].”

This recalls the Dr. Seuss characters who clean pink spots off of a bathtub with a dress, only to then have to clean the dress on a wall, and so on, until finally only the magic powder Voom can eradicate the stains. One shudders to think, in environmental terms, what our “Voom” might be.

As we see how natural cycles were protected and maintained in Edo society — water, food, waste, forests — it becomes clear that our current cycles are not just unsustainable but actually broken.

Brown doesn’t go so far as to spell out how Edo methods might work in our current metropolises. Instead, he dives into the details of how it once did work, and this is what makes this book so powerful. It is not a theoretical prescription, but a description of actual success. Some of the processes seem frustratingly outdated: for example, the cycle of grass to straw and straw sandal to mulch is delightful, but not immediately transferable. Others, however, are stunningly simple and almost immediately achievable: turning vacant urban lots into gardens would transform a visual and social blight into nourishment, with additional benefits of cleaner air, beautification, atmospheric cooling and self-sufficiency.

Brown beats a careful retreat from examining certain moral or ethical ramifications of the systems’ connectedness. For instance, he mentions but does not address such crude forms of population control as infanticide. Nor does he critique the starkly hierarchical class structure or extreme taxation that defined Edo society. Nonetheless, his point is Edo’s environmental successes, so perhaps this is appropriate.

The hardheaded practicality and the immense optimism of this book are forces to be reckoned with. As Brown examines how necessity was turned into opportunity, he lays out his hope that the urgency of our current ecological crisis will spur similarly focused change and ingenuity. He writes, “If the lives of [Edo Japanese] seem to be circumscribed in many ways, it is largely because this country is also circumscribed, set off from the rest of the world by beaches, rocky shores, and vast expanses of ocean. Japan in the Edo Period is like a ship with no possibility of visiting port in order to reprovision. It all has to be grown and made on board, in a way that can be continued indefinitely.”

As the globe gets smaller and we find ourselves finally having to relinquish the illusion of an earth that can sustain our current lifestyles indefinitely, it seems that Brown has found the perfect example of how it might be done: with frugality and restraint, certainly, but also with grace, purpose, and beauty.