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Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 463-478

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The Concept of the Sustainable Economy and the Promise of Japan's Transformation

Niccolo Caldararo
San Francisco State University

In recent years the concept of a sustainable economy has become a popular theme. Lester Brown's 1981 book, Building a Sustainable Society, called for a sustainable society based on conservation and population stability. While in the present economic situation this may seem absurd to some, the present dilemma is actually an appropriate context in which to discuss the concept. Human environmental exploitation has considerable effects on the ecology of the planet, thus the idea of sustainable human economies is appealing to many environmentalists. Some economists (e.g., Kennedy, 1993) have been skeptical of sustainability scenarios, but current trends in a few locales indicate potential avenues to sustainable economic adaptations. Paradigms of economic development lined to socio-cultural orientation and religious perspective have been used recently to explain social phenomenon like "fundamentalism" (see Armstrong, 2000). The basic concept in this argument is that a "conservative spirit" infuses nations historically Muslim which has impeded economic progress. Reference to Japan in this context should shed light on this argument.

The present interest in sustainability may seem strange to applied anthropologists who questioned the development models of the post-W.W.II period, especially that of W.W. Rostow (1960). The debate at that time centered on the [End Page 463] idea of underdevelopment as an index of cultural "vigor," with sustainable economies classified as "traditionalist." This attitude was expressed by Schaedel (1964) in the context of the period as, "The degree of utilization that a given society makes of its natural resources, given a certain basic technology, is presumably an index of cultural vigor, ingenuity, efficiency, or whatever concept one cares to employ." Carl Sauer proposed the idea that human society can achieve a positive level of economic adaptation which he called ecological climax (1941). Sir Joseph Hutchinson advanced this idea and described how such a society could maintain its vigor and stability, opposing still current theories by economists that stable societies must degrade (1966). In the 1970s a number of geographers and ecologists defined in opposition to this idea, one of a preferred goal of a "climax economy", one in which a society had become adapted to its environment at a level below its carrying capacity and recognizing the benefits of diversity in animal and plant populations and the value of wilderness (e.g., Fisher and Sargent, 1974). Little consideration, however, was made to studies of complexity which demonstrated that with increasing complexity and density of population societies undergo declining marginal productivity (even factoring for innovation), declining marginal returns on investment, and increased costliness per unit of energy extraction (Tainter, 1988).

Consumption by humans, and the social consequences of consumer society, were noted by John Maynard Keynes in his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, written in 1930. Keynes suggested potential adaptations to economic structure of societies which might lead to a world of slow or zero growth but maintain post industrial lifestyles and health. Failures in planned economies and the disparity between rich and poor in even some of the most developed Western economies have made Keynesian ideas seem idealistic to most. However, some trends exist today which may prove that sustainable modern economies are possible. Bogin (2001) reviewed the evolution of human population and its growth and showed that popular notions of a demographic transition are based on incomplete data on European populations in the 19th century presented as simple models in the works of Davis (1945) and Thompson (1929). These demographers assumed a natural progression from a preindustrial to an industrial stage in all societies. Anthropologists have demonstrated, however, that different societies experience a variety of population responses to industrialization; population "surges" are not uniform in relation to improved sanitation and health or in food production and distribution. Scientific definitions of sustainability often encompass the idea that sustainability is not a fixed condition, but a balance between rates of depletion and recovery [End Page 464] (Redman, 1999; Haggett, 1979; Goudie...


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