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

Project Leader

HABU Junko

University of California, Berkeley
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Figure 1 Main Research Areas

Figure 1 Main Research Areas

Figure 2 Key Aspects in the Discussion of System Scale and Resilience

Figure 2 Key Aspects in the Discussion of System Scale and Resilience

Objectives and theoretical background

The purpose of this project was to examine the importance of place-based, small-scale food production. Geographically, our project focused on the North Pacific Rim: northern Japan as the core area of research, and the west coast of North America as comparative sites (Figure 1). Our working hypothesis was that highly specialized subsistence (food production) strategies can support a larger community for a short period but a decrease in subsistence and food diversity increases vulnerability in the long-run. Archaeological and paleoenvironmental studies were used to test this hypothesis. Ethnographic and ecological studies allowed comparative analysis of the scale and resilience of contemporary small-scale food systems and communities.

The theoretical genesis of this project is the approach of historical ecology, which examines long- and short-term cultural change while emphasizing the impact of human activities on the environment. In particular, this project proposed that high levels of diversity, networks and local autonomy (or sovereignty), all of which are strongly correlated with the scale and resilience of the system, are the keys to achieving the long-term sustainability of socioeconomic systems (Figure 2).


  1. Longue-Durée Group
  2. 1) Primary Focus: Early-Middle Jomon (ca. 3900–2300 BC) in Northern Japan: Using archaeological indicators of food/subsistence diversity, demography, ritual, climate change and other social/environmental factors, this team tested our main hypothesis with data from northern Japan. AMS 1C dating confirmed that changes in food/ subsistence diversity and settlement patterns occurred at around 3000 BC, 700 years before major climate cooling (the Bond 3 event). Contrary to previous interpretations, our results therefore indicate that the Bond 3 event was not the cause of the population decrease at the end of the Middle Jomon.

    2) Key Comparative Studies: Evidence from California and the Northwest Coast of North America, in contrast, indicate that wide food diversity allowed native communities in these regions to steadily increase in population through time until the European contact.

  3. Contemporary Society Group
  4. 1) Primary Focus: Rural Communities in Northern Japan: Our interviews in the Hei River Area, Miyako City, indicated that food/subsistence diversity supported by traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) has played a critical role in the resilience of food systems and communities, especially in times of flooding, typhoon, and earthquakes. At Joboji, Ninohe City, our interviews indicate that multiple backup plans supported by wide subsistence diversity and TEK have historically been at the core of local survival strategies. At Fukushima City and its vicinity, where environmental damage caused by the 2011 nuclear plant accident is serious, we found that TEK and local networks are critical for maintaining farmers and residents’ lifeways, identities and pride.

    2) Key Comparative Studies: We examined indigenous small-scale communities and alternative food producers as two other types of small-scale communities on both sides of the North Pacific Rim. This research revealed the importance of TEK and social networks in maintaining resilient socioeconomic systems within local land- and sea-scapes.

  5. Implementation, Outreach and Policy Proposal Group
  6. This group developed public outreach programs to instigate and promote the importance of food/subsistence diversity, TEK and local identity. Workshops with local residents were held in the Hei River Area, Hokkaido and California. Other notable outcomes include the Kyoto 2016 Agroecology Declaration, university courses on agroecology at the University of California and Seika Univeristy, a Resolution by the World Archaeological Congress related to resource overexploitation, and transdisciplinary research with Native American tribes. These research activities were conducted in consultations with members of the Integrated History and Futures of People on Earth (IHOPE) program, for which our project is featured as a regional case study.