The Asian Approach to Global Sustainability
"A Perspective from Economic History"

Submitted 2nd February 2014

The Asian Approach to Global Sustainability

A Perspective from Economic History


Kaoru Sugihara

National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies


   This essay outlines the evolution of economic development in monsoon Asia over the long run, and discusses its relevance to global environmental sustainability.

   In describing post-war economic development to c.1980, Harry T. Oshima stressed the common socio-ecological characteristics of monsoon Asia, stretching from East and Southeast Asia to South Asia, in terms of seasonal rainfall patterns induced by monsoon winds, the centrality of the large delta with a rich soil at the mouth of the river originating from the Himalayas for the growth of each region (there are at least seven major rivers across Asia), and the development of rice farming there leading to the unparalleled capacity to hold a large population.[1]

   The more recent research in global economic history elaborated the long-term path of economic development in each region for the past few centuries. In the lower Yangzi Delta, the core region of East Asia, the peasant family economy, centring on rice cultivation but combined with commercial crop production and proto-industry, developed labour-intensive technology and labour-absorbing institutions by the seventeenth century. Other developed parts of the region, including Japan, pushed these efforts further, as population grew and land became scarcer. Such an East Asian pattern of development was characterized as the “industrious revolution” path. Furthermore, this path provided the basis for labour-intensive industrialization, beginning in Japan after the late nineteenth century and diffused in other parts of East Asia in the first half of the twentieth century. In this phase, cheap labour of a good quality was fully exploited, while the use of capital was minimized, in implementing Western technology and institutions. After World War II, the labour-intensive path diffused beyond East Asia, slowly but steadily, making a decisive contribution to the global diffusion of industrialization. As many developing countries lacked capital and modern technology, but had access to local resources, this path also had a tendency for choosing and developing relatively less resource- and energy-intensive production methods, through the diffusion of reliable knowledge (in addition to scientific one). It is a fertile source of imagination for the study of human relationships with nature, especially those of densely populated regions’ livelihood strategies with their environs (such as forests, rivers and coasts).[2]

   If we reflect on the structure of the earth in general, it is obvious that its centre lies in the tropics. The tropics receive most of heat energy from the sun, and distribute it to other parts of the globe. Biota activities are greatest in the tropics. So is biodiversity by most measures. Furthermore, about a half of world population now live in the tropics, and this share is likely to increase.

   On the other hand, most modern technology and institutions were developed in Western (especially north-western) Europe, an environmental periphery. In institutional development the environment was usually represented by land, which was scarce. The idea of private property rights was established, assuming that a piece of land could be freely bought and sold. Likewise, it was assumed that certain working hours of a worker could be bought and sold as labour in exchange for the wage. These fictitious arrangements provided the institutional basis for capitalism. In economics notion of the scarcity of resources became the basis for price theory, while labour was often regarded as a factor cost.

   These ideas and institutional arrangements had to be modified, when applied to a much more diverse and dynamic landscape of global environment. For the price to be determined, uncertainty was often as important as scarcity itself: in monsoon Asia the three-dimensional movements of air and water circulation were just as important a resource as land: in tropics the fight against infectious diseases (for animals as well as humans) often affected the cultivability of land and profitability of pastoral activities, as well as the supply of labour. During the period of Western colonialism and domination, a number of “mismatches” between the tropical environment and the temperate-zone- inspired technology and institutions became apparent. But the depth of its problems has not been fully appreciated to this day. 

   Monsoon Asia is endowed with a unique history of technological and institutional transfer between the tropics and the temperate zones, because the eruption of the Himalayas created perhaps the biggest exception for the latitudinal divide. There have been rich interactions between South and Southeast Asia, located in tropics or semi-tropics, and East Asia, located in the temperate zone, because they were made easier by the common environmental characteristics of monsoon Asia. For example, the diffusion of rice farming techniques from the south to the north featured large in the ancient history of East Asia, while the labour-intensive technology and improved seed varieties have been brought back to the south in the twentieth century. Production of sugar, tea, silk and cotton, as well as circulation of silver, served for Asia’s regional integration. In the more recent period of labour-intensive industrialization, the availability of “unlimited supplies of labour” provided the conditions for the (labour-intensive) technological and managerial transfer from the north to the south. The hard-working ethic, the strength of family ties and awareness of the value of education were among the forces behind the rapid upgrading of the quality of “unskilled” labour in East (and Southeast) Asia. Some of these values, though not all, came to be shared across the latitudinal divide.

   Over the past twenty years, growth economies of Asia became the largest net importer of mineral resources and fossil fuels. Energy consumption increased not just in manufacturing and transport sectors (the shares of these sectors declined, partly as a result of the improvement in energy efficiency) but in the household sector, as air conditioners and refrigerators diffused among the ordinary people. Arrival of the ageing society would only reinforce the relative importance of energy consumption at home, care institutions and hospitals. At the same time, Japan developed resource- and energy-saving technology by responding to diversified needs. Other Asian countries also compete in the international markets of energy-saving and eco-friendly products. Today, Asia contributes significantly to the global trend towards energy efficiency and better resource use.[3]

   Monsoon Asia has been feeding a very large proportion of world population over the long run. Its institutional design tended to accommodate the careful and efficient use of limited natural resources rather than the increase of productivity through labour-saving, resource-intensive methods. While fully appreciating the contributions of modern technology and institutions, developed in the West, to the enhancement of economic welfare on a global scale, we also need to take advantage of the norms and institutions, engrained in monsoon Asia, in order to secure global environmental sustainability.

   Postscript: The above essay has been prepared for my presentation at the Second International Workshop on Future Earth in Asia, held in Kyoto on the 4th and the 5th of February 2014. It is a draft statement aimed at invoking thoughts on the role of Japan and Asia in the international efforts for global environmental sustainability.

[1] Harry T. Oshima, Economic Growth in Monsoon Asia: A Comparative Survey, Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1987. Emphasis on the large delta is not necessarily Ohima’s, but is broadly consistent with his thesis.

[2] See Kaoru Sugihara, “The East Asian path of Economic Development: A Long-term Perspective”, in Giovanni Arrighi, Takeshi Hamashita and Mark Selden eds, The Resurgence of East Asia: 500,100 and 50 year Perspectives, London: Routledge, 2003, pp.78-123; Gareth Austin and Kaoru Sugihara eds, Labour-intensive Industrialization in Global History, London: Routledge, 2013..

[3] See Kaoru Sugihara, Kohei Wakimura, Koichi Fujita and Akio Tanabe eds, Rekishi no nakano Nettai Seizon-ken: Ontai Paradaimu o Koete (The Tropical Humanosphere in Global History: Beyond the Temperate-zone Paradigm), Kyoto: Kyoto Daigaku Gakujutsu Shuppankai, 2012, Introduction and chapters 5 to 8.