Reevaluating Advantages of Small-Scale Economies: Finding Alternative Strategies to Overcome Vulnerability in Large-scale Economies

Objectives and Global Environmental Problems Addressed by This Project

The goal of this project is to examine the importance of small-scale and diversified economies, especially food production, for the "long-term" sustainability of human societies. Today, most research on food diversity and food self-sufficiency focuses on the discussion of short-term economic costs and benefits, in which the target of future sustainability rarely exceeds the year 2050. On the other hand, this project focuses on "long-term" sustainability in the order of hundreds to tens of thousands of years. This takes the subject of this project well into the realm of archaeology, history and ethnohistory. At the same time, to address contemporary critical issues, ethnographic and sociological studies are essential. Thus, this project will facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration of scholars in these fields. Based on our examination of past and present case studies, the project will explore future possibilities for incorporating diversified, community-based food production as an alternative strategy to mitigate vulnerabilities created by currently dominant, large-scale and homogenized food production.


The project consists of three components. First, archaeological, historical, ethnohistorical and paleoenvironmental studies from several locations on the Pacific Rim will be used to test our hypothesis that subsistence diversity (diversity in food production) was inseparably related to the scale of communities and their long-term sustainability. Second, ethnographic and sociological studies of small-scale communities and small-scale food production in northern Japan will be conducted to understand the complex interrelationships among cultural and natural factors in contemporary urban and rural settings. The results will be compared with studies of small-scale communities and economies in other parts of the Pacific Rim. Third, insights obtained from past and present case studies will be used to develop proposals for future plans and public outreach programs that will convey the importance of maintaining subsistence/food diversity and guide the actions of the next generations.

Research Methods

Three research groups that correspond to the three components of this project will be formed:

  1. Archaeology, Ethnohistory, History, and Paleoenvironment Group: This research group deals with the long-term change of past societies. The focus of this group is to understand the relationships between subsistence/food diversity and other key factors, including 1) mobility of people, goods, and information; 2) technological innovation; 3) social and political structure; 4) climate change; 5) environmental hazards, and 6) the degree of human impacts on the environment. The results will be used to model the vulnerability and resilience of past economic and social syste ms. We will start with an ethnographic model of the generalist/specialist dichotomy. According to the model, generalists focus on a wide variety of food and their systems tend to be more stable, though the size of the group (the social unit for food production) is usually small. On the other hand, specialists, who tend to have larger group size, rely on a limited type of food, making them more vulnerable if the particular food source fails. Archaeological case studies from northern Japan and the Pacific Rim indicate that overspecialization (i.e., loss of subsistence diversity) often resulted in an increase in the vulnerability of past subsistence-settlement systems. Scholars have also suggested that the development of social networks and technological innovation were the two key elements that functioned as risk-aversion strategies. In this project, results of archaeology, history, and ethnohistory from northern Japan, the Kurils, the Russian Far East, Alaska, the Northwest Coast of North America, and California will be discussed with scholars in environmental sciences and other related disciplines in order to use the lessons from the past to offer a range of alternatives for the present and future.
  2. Ethnography and Sociology Group: Although archaeological, paleoenvironmental, historical, and ethnohistorical studies can provide critical insights into the sustainability of human responses to natural and cultural changes, small-scale economies and communities in the world today face multiple obstacles and problems in the context of industrialization, corporatization, and globalization. Many of these problems resulted from the unique social, historic, and economic contexts of each community. These problems have not always prevented small-scale, diversified economies from finding alternative strategies to make their operations work. In many cases, active information networks, including those through the internet, have facilitated the promotion of these alternative strategies. Ethnographic and sociological studies of small-scale food production and consumption in northern Japan and the Pacific Rim will be conducted. An interdisciplinary team of scholars who work on similar themes will be invited to contribute to this inquiry.
  3. Policy Making and Education Group: This group uses insights from past and present case studies to develop proposals for future plans and public outreach programs which will explore ways to live responsibly with available resources. The goals of this group are twofold. The first goal is to make concrete suggestions about current policies based on our research. Secondly, we will disseminate the results of our research through outreach. By working with scholars in the fields of environmental science, policy, and management, the project will develop alternative strategies to overcome problems and vulnerability of currently dominant large-scale production. The target audience for the outreach is kindergarten through 12th grade in California and Japan. There will be multiple presentations and symposium targeted at the general public. The outreach program is to develop an educational program that emphasizes the importance of maintaining subsistence and food diversity in relation to the long-term sustainability of future generations.

View the project description in Japanese here.