Long-term Sustainability through Place-Based, Small-scale Economies: Approaches from Historical Ecology

Born in Kawasaki City, Japan, Junko Habu received her BA (1982) and MA (1984) from Keio University in Tokyo and PhD (1996) from McGill University in Montreal. She is the project leader of the Small-Scale Economies Project and a Professor at RIHN, and also a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. As an environmental archaeologist, she has excavated a number of prehistoric Jomon sites and historic Edo period sites in Japan and conducted fieldwork in North America. Her books include Ancient Jomon of Japan (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Evaluating Multiple Narratives (Springer 2008, co-edited with Fawcett and Matsunaga). Go to original article.

Objectives and Background

Figure 1 Mechanisms of Long-term Culture Change

Figure 1 Mechanisms of Long-term Culture Change

This project examines the importance of place-based, small-scale and diversified economies for the long-term sustainability of human societies. Our working hypothesis is that a highly specialized subsistence strategy can support a larger community for a short period, but a decrease in subsistence and food diversity makes the production system and its associated community more vulnerable in the long-run. Archaeological, historical and paleoenvironmental studies are used to test this hypothesis (Longue-Durée Group). Ethnographic and ecological studies of contemporary small-scale food systems and communities link these studies to ongoing academic and popular discussion of the scale and methods of alternative food systems (Contemporary Society Group). In combination, studies of the past and present point to the future, as the research process also involves the development of implementation and public outreach programs that promote place-based, small-scale, and diversified food production (Implementation, Outreach and Policy Proposal Group).

We realize that there are many additional factors that affect the dynamics among subsistence/food diversity, the scale of a food production system, and its long-term sustainability (see Figure 1). Correlations among these factors will also be examined when testing the main hypothesis.


Small-scale economies and global environmental challenges

For the purposes of this project, a “small-scale economy” is not defined solely on the basis of the absolute size of the economic unit, but rather in terms of the relative scale of food production within a given socioeconomic context. Our definition of small-scale economy addresses the range of networks that enable food production, distribution, and consumption in a given locality without precluding links to the outside economy. We are particularly interested in relatively small-scale food production with the following characteristics: 1) goals not limited to the pursuit of shortterm efficiency and profits; 2) production for local markets rather than domination of the world market; and 3) readily available information about the producers.

Based on the premise that improved understanding of the operation of small-scale economies should inform contemporary approaches to global environmental challenges, our project conducts comparative and integrative field investigations at multiple present and past sites. In particular, this project aims to address vulnerability of food production systems caused by soil and water contamination, loss of food and biodiversity, and long-lasting damage to ecosystems. For example, the development of large-scale monoculture-based agriculture, which makes use of a large amount of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, has resulted in serious soil and water contamination and the destruction of ecosystems. The loss of biodiversity resulting from over-specialization has aroused concern about the vulnerability of global food production and other related environmental systems. We propose that smaller-scale and more place-based economies can provide an alternative model that reduces environmental damage and encourages food diversity, thereby improving the resilience of our food systems.

Geographic focus: North Pacific Rim

Figure 2 Main Research Areas

Figure 2 Main Research Areas

Northern Japan is the core research area because of its extensive archaeological record and its significance as a food-producing region in Japan. We draw key comparative case studies from the west coast of North America because of the abundance of ethnographic and ecological scholarship on the region, as well as the presence of active contemporary food / agriculture movements. The two regions share similar climates, vegetation, fauna, and levels of seismic activity. Historically, small-scale economies supported by marine food exploitation and intensive nut collecting thrived in both areas, and cultural ties between them date back to the migration of anatomically modern humans from Asia to the Americas after the late Pleistocene.

Research activities and findings

Figure 2 Main Research Areas

Photo1 Archaeological Excavation of a Middle Jomon Site in Aomori Prefecture

Photo 2 Urban Agriculture Initiative in California

Photo 2 Urban Agriculture Initiative in California

Longue-Durée Group: Results of our analyses of settlement patterns and food diversity in northern Japan are consistent with our hypothesis that over-specialization leads to the vulnerability of a socioeconomic system. These data also aid in the development of a new understanding of Early-Middle Jomon chronology and vegetation, which will be important in determining the role of climate change in the long-term shifts in Jomon subsistence patterns. Contrary to the Jomon data, comparative studies from the west coast of North America suggest that increased subsistence diversity correlates with long-term sustainability of complex hunter-gatherer societies. The role of social networks in system resilience is also being explored across multiple regions.

Contemporary Society Group: In northern Japan, interviews and participant observation are being conducted in order to understand the correlations between scale of economy, food diversity, and the resilience of food and environmental systems. These studies have revealed the importance of social networks in mitigating unexpected disruption and dislocation, including those caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident. In North America, our research focuses on Native American/Alaskan harvest and distribution of diverse food resources, as well as on the significance of small-scale urban farming for local food security. We are also conducting ethnographic research on the traditional environmental knowledge of rural groups in Japan and indigenous groups in North America.

Implementation, Outreach and Policy Proposal Group: Our implementation and outreach programs include: (1)an eco-literacy educational program focusing on cherry salmon in the Hei River Area of Iwate Prefecture, (2) an educational program about the traditional environmental knowledge of the Tlingit people of the Northwest Coast, (3) a TERM (Traditional Environmental and Resource Management) program in collaboration with the Amah Mutsun Tribe of California, (4) an urban agriculture initiative in collaboration with educational programs at UC Berkeley, and (5) a phytoremediation program using ferns to remediate soil contamination by arsenic.

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