Manufacturing Sustainability in the Postindustrial Age

Image of Meiji-Jingu forest on the outskirts of Tokyo

 Ninety years ago, citizens of Tokyo, Japan, asked their government for permission to honor the passing of their imperial leaders by cultivating a sustainable, forest shrine on the outskirts of town. The result was Meiji-jingu, an “eternal forest” of 120,000 trees, planted on 700,000 square meters of previous “marshland, farms, and grassland.” Based upon the Shinto religious belief that natural deities, called Kami, reside within the wood of sacred forests, the shrine was designed to be a paragon of sustainability. But, while the model of Meiji-jingu proves to be sustainable, it is also anything but natural. An examination of literature in the sub-fields of environmental and urban history reinforces this relationship, suggesting that sustainable environments have indeed existed in the past, but that they have suffered as a consequence of failed stewardship during the industrial era.

It is no coincidence that the forest shrine of Meiji-jingu was planned on the outskirts of the most populated city in the world. While the historian David Owen lamented the analogous Central Park because he believed that it constituted an inaccessible border zone where human activity was generally absent, Patricia Garside has argued that sustainable, urban parks serve necessary functions in relation to their respective cities. In examining the Green Belt on the outskirts of London, Garside has claimed that the parks were “above all a strategic planning instrument to limit, or where necessary shape, the expansion of London at a regional scale.” In this sense, urban parks recreated the natural restraints that geography once placed upon island and coastal cities like Venice, Boston, Manhattan, or Miami. As the American historian Michael Rawson contends, scholars cannot understand the development of Boston without first understanding these initial, geographic limitations.

In their own ways, scholars like Owen, Garside, and Rawson have proven that modern, sustainable environments are possible, but only when humans recognize that they are no less manufactured than cities themselves. Perhaps no scholar has examined this relationship more than William Cronon, who has made a career of contesting the dichotomy between nature and civilization. As he argues in Nature’s Metropolis, most notably by referencing a diagram of the “isolated state” model, the city of Chicago was designed in mutual relation to its hinterland. Of course, Cronon is not alone in articulating these connections. Rawson, Alan Taylor, Andrew Hurley, Ronald Lewis and Matthew Klingle have all claimed that exurban environments and hinterlands cannot be properly understood without positioning them in relation to their respective cities, either as commoditized retreats for middle-class, urban elites or as designated areas of resource extraction.

As Cronon argues “there is nothing natural about the concept of wilderness,” so too is there nothing natural about Meiji-jingu, the sacred forest on the outskirts of Tokyo. Moreover, a longer historical view suggests that sustaining manufactured environments—whether exurban parks or hinterland areas—is anything but new. By studying peat bogs in the Bidasoa estuary of northern Spain, and recording the “same succession of vegetation” throughout the Holocene era, Maria Fernand Sánchez Goñí has produced evidence to support the claim that ancient Romans managed their forest resources on the Iberian frontier. Likewise, Mark Maltby has studied bone fragments in Dorchester and Winchester, coming to the conclusion that Romano-British towns used swine, cattle, sheep, and goats in varying degrees to manage their internal food supplies, rather than leeching strictly off rural communities.

In regards to the medieval era, the historian Karl Appuhn has examined how Venetians managed their deciduous forests by engaging in coppicing—the act of “cutting trees low to the ground and allowing many shoots to grow out of the stump.” Taken together, these sources suggest that ancient and medieval cultures were invested in sustainably managing their resources. As fuel was derived primarily from wood sources in both ancient and medieval Europe, these sustainable practices were likely motivated by economic interests rather than passions for biodiversity. Perhaps this logic explains the failures of stewardship that occurred during the industrial era, when new technologies succeeded in unshackling economic interests from geographic restraints.

The American industrial age represents the nadir of sustainable practice. The white pine forests of northern Michigan and the hardwood forests of the Alleghenies were completely denuded; the Buffalo prairies on the western frontier were conquered by cattle ranching and cereal crops; the Everglades were partially drained by canalization projects; and, although European fishermen originally crossed the Atlantic as a result of gradual depredations in European waters, the northwest Atlantic was exponentially depleted of marine life. In short, this period was defined by excessive, capitalist-driven exploitation of hinterland areas, facilitated by inventions like the train car, the steam locomotive and dredge, the otter trawl, and the meat-freezer.

To conclude, the scholarship suggests that ancient and medieval societies manufactured sustainable environments because their livelihoods depended upon the continued presence of local resources. Industrial technologies shattered this dependence; as Cronon states, they “annihilated time and space.” Since the industrial age, however, ancient and medieval models of sustainability have begun to resurface with a new logic. This is how historians should interpret the advent of modern, sustainable areas like the Green Belt, Central Park, and Meiji-jingu. They are not sustainable because they are natural—either integrated fluidly with the city as Owen would have them, or existing semi-wildly as the areas that were cannibalized during the industrial era. Rather, these regions are sustainable because they are unnatural. Like the coppiced forests of medieval Venice, they are designed in relation to the city for longstanding, human consumption. They are, as the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted has said, “displays of novelty, of fashion, of scientific or virtuoso inclinations and of decoration.” After all, we live in a world where “the wilds” are disappearing; what remains of nature will be something carefully manufactured by us; and, without our stewardship, it too will not survive.

What do you think?

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