As we confront the many environmental and demographic challenges that loom so threateningly over our future, we would all benefit by learning what the experience of the Edo period of Japan has to teach us. In fact I would argue that we could use it as a model of how to flip impending environmental collapse into sustainability, and for allowing a rich and insightful mindset rooted in centuries of experience and wisdom to guide decisions.

The Edo period began in 1603, at the close of 200 years of civil war, and lasted two and a half centuries, coming to an end in 1868. This was when the country opened to the world and was first exposed to the fruits of the industrial revolution. Most of what we think of as ‘traditional’ Japanese design comes from this era, when shoguns ruled and society was a strictly delineated hierarchical pyramid with samurai at the top, merchants at the bottom, and farmers and craftsmen – the bulk of society – in the middle. During this time the population rose to about 30 million, roughly comparable to Poland or Argentina today, and the city of Edo – renamed Tokyo in 1868 – was home to over 1.3 million residents.

At the beginning of the Edo period, the people found that, having deforested their mountains, they were suffering from a cascade of ill effects, such as damaged watersheds and decreasing agricultural productivity. Most resources, such as iron ore and potential fuel sources, were scarce; firewood itself was at a premium. Even more significantly, there was very little arable land, and by the mid-18th century all the land that could be used for farming was already cleared and under intensive cultivation.

The period began with shortages and famine, but after two or three generations of wise management, the large population was enjoying a high quality of life, arguably higher, in fact, than in any contemporary European country. The forests had been saved, agricultural production had increased manyfold, and culture and literacy were on the rise. Beyond this, creativity and innovation were flowering, and in most spheres of life the practical was inseparable from the aesthetic, even for those on the lower rungs of society, because beauty had become linked to both the optimum use of resources, and an avoidance of conspicuous consumption that went so far as to celebrate poverty.

Those familiar with environmental remediation will not be surprised to learn that reversing the slide into ecological catastrophe began here with regenerating the forests. Edo society was literate and informed, and one of the government’s major roles was the protection of the environment, which it did through forestry ordinances, waterworks, and promoting good agricultural practices by sponsoring how-to manuals and almanacs.

This was not through any sense of altruism or for the spiritual advancement of the rulers, but to ensure the safety and security of the realm and the longevity of the regime. Intriguingly, government policy was most effective when the goals and principles were laid out by the central bureaucracy but each region was encouraged to develop local solutions. In many ways, this local thinking and responsibility lay at the heart of the success of the programme to achieve self-sufficiency and sustainability on a national scale.

The culture as a whole was pervaded by a sense of time in which outcomes were measured in centuries, and in which it was nearly impossible to plan even simple tasks without a broader awareness of the chains of consequences that would emerge from one’s actions, or of the origins, destinations and connections among the people and things, which supported human life like a vast web of interconnected spirit. As is the case in so many pre-industrial societies, people were trained from an early age to be generalists, to be multi-competent, and to always be aware of the big picture.

The Edo culture specialist Yuko Tanaka has pointed out another important aspect underlying the success of Edo Japan: that after several centuries of economic and colonial expansion overseas, debilitating wars, and widespread environmental despoliation, the newly centralised government embarked on a conscious policy of de-growth and downsizing. Overseas trade was cut to a minimum, expansionist dreams abandoned, and the nation’s energy turned inward and applied to making the country self-sufficient, stable and prosperous.

The population continued to grow, and environmentally sound ways were found to increase food production accordingly. In the area of material culture, recycling, reuse and full utilisation of all resources was the expected norm, and this ethos evolved into pervasive ethical values that influenced decisions at all levels. This was in addition to the tremendous economic incentives against waste that such limited resources presented. So in many ways, this period provides a model of the benefits of planned economic localisation and downsizing – an ecological transition success story.

For me, learning about this side of Edo Japan triggered one ‘aha’ moment after another. I have lived in Japan for 28 years, first studying about traditional carpentry, where I was exposed to the deep environmental soundness that underlies all traditional crafts in Japan, and later turning my attention to the many successful approaches to living with limited resources that make contemporary Japan such a beacon for compact home design, energy-efficient appliances, vehicles and materials of every sort. But it was when I set out to describe, for my book, how the Japanese of the earlier eras had achieved their impressively enduring sustainable society that the biggest ‘aha’ hit me.

Explaining the parts would not suffice. I had to focus on the connections. What happens when the forests, the watershed, agricultural land and urban areas are allowed to develop into mutually supportive systems? What happens when decisions about fuel use take the side effects of transportation and waste products into account? Or when ways are found to use agricultural by-products (such as rice straw) as abundant, recyclable and nearly cost-free primary materials for a bewildering array of daily necessities?

Edo Japan was able to perfect its sustainable material economy because its people were led by necessity and sensibility to look for the interdependencies that surrounded them, both in Nature and as people. And this remains the most valuable lesson for me of all.

Azby Brown is the author of Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan.