Oliver Wendall Holmes quipped, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
What does this have to do with satoyama? It speaks directly to the nature of the change we’re facing as a humanity. And it suggests the value proposition offered by a satoyama socio-ecological production landscape. As we approach the limits of industrial society, constrained by the earth’s finite natural resource endowments, we are being pushed, and pulled, past our current way of thinking that falsely assumes many things, including the possibility of endless growth, the promise of endless technological progress, and that we are somehow separate from nature itself.
Satoyama culture offers a powerful alternative vision, a way of life that is in harmony with natural systems and supports a rich, diverse and resilient community ecosystem. Such a way of life would be markedly simpler, but not shallow. More concrete, but not rigid. More local, but not lonely. And this kind of relocalization is where we are headed as we move toward what some in the Transition Movement in the West refer to as ‘energy descent’ or a post-carbon society.
While the modern world floods us with more and more tangible objects to purchase and possess, more abstractions to further remove us from the natural world, more complexities to cogitate about, and endless avenues of distraction to ameliorate our emptiness, a well-established satoyama culture rests instead on such intangibles as integrity, meaning, and fulfillment that spontaneously flow from a profound engagement with the natural environment and one’s community. These qualities and characteristics are largely, if not completely, absent from most modern societies, and they leave humans bereft and searching.
Of course this vision is an ideal one. Ask any back-to-the-lander about the challenges of living closer to the land, over time, day-by-day, of being less dependent on money to purchase life’s contemporary conveniences, and more dependent on social connections, neighbors and friends, etc., and you will hear the realities, oftentimes hard-edged.
For now, we have the luxury to make such comparisons and choices, to evaluate trade-offs, and it is natural that unless and until viable satoyama-type destinations are available, people will continue to choose what they know. But in the meantime, it is important to be aware that such a way of life is not a pipe-dream. The success of the satoyama culture in Japan over many centuries is a proof-of-concept to Westerners that we can do this.