Cuba, exemplar for the post-petro world?


For a world beginning the steep descent of the downside of the Hubbert Curve, the central question becomes “How do we survive without the fuel that powered global industrialization?”

For the corporateers, the answer is through massive research efforts, enabled by government support for alternative energy systems that will allow us to continue in our roles as consumers in the “democratic marketplace.”

Genetically engineered agrofuels, “clean” coal, and massive investments in nuclear power are the leading items on the Obama administration’s agenda, each posing a host of uncertainties and potential threats. [For a look at one program, the BP-funded agrofuel project at UC Berkeley, see here.]

While their social and environmental impacts remain open to question, each “solution“ would yield potentially gargantuan profits for the privatizing corporateers whose cash outlays fuel the American political process.

Is there another way, one which could restore our fragile sense of community and bring us together in a common project to restore the vanished sense of locality which was once so critical to our sense of identities as part of a grounded community?

Psychologist Tim Kasser, who specializes in the impact of consumer culture on our Post Modern sense of identity, explains:

I think that it’s quite possible that if things start to break down, if we have really good alternatives to key into people at that moment, and say, well rather than continuing that, let’s try this instead. I think there’s a good possibility (I don’t know if it’s better than fifty-fifty, but a good possibility) that at that critical juncture people will be able to reorganise in a healthier way.  I’ve written about this in a recent State of the World report   piece (in 2009) on how people respond to trauma. Most of the time after trauma people go back to baseline. Sometime after trauma they never recover, and sometimes they grow.

The way I look at it is if the trauma comes and we don’t have those alternative models in place then there’s no way that we’ll go towards those alternative models. So we need to have them in place so we can offer them to try.  All that said, I do think that it’s quite possible that we could change things before the

traumas occur. There are so many solutions that are quite possible.

One alternative model is already in place, created in response to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

[For the first part of the Kasser interview, see here.]

The Cuban example

A remarkable documentary describes the innovative response of Cubans to what the were to describe as the “Special Period,” the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had been the main support for the island nation.

Megan Quin, co-writer and producer of The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil , describes what happened, focusing on one key effort.

Since the early 1990s, an urban agriculture movement has swept through Cuba, putting this capital city of 2.2 million on a path toward sustainability.

A small group of Australians assisted in this grass-roots effort, coming to this Caribbean island nation in 1993 to teach permaculture, a system based on sustainable agriculture which uses far less energy.

This need to bring agriculture into the city began with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of more than 50 percent of Cuba’s oil imports, much of its food and 85 percent of its trade economy. Transportation halted, people went hungry and the average Cuban lost 30 pounds.

As the 2006 documentary reveals, the results of the effort have been astounding, and provide us with a model approach which could be implemented here, in a nation slowly being pauperized as public institutions are privatized.

The Power of Community [53:05]

An interview with Megan Qunn [27:37]:

[Two videos removed because Google Video is no more.]

Finally, Seeds in the City: The Greening of Havana, a 2003 documentary from Journeyman Pictures [23:38] is available here.


Fears for the future

Writing in Solutions Online, journalists Jack Fairweather and Christina Asquith share their concerns that the Cuban experiment may be endangered.

For a country that responded to severe energy crisis by switching to organic, localized agriculture, the fruits of the revolution must be protected from the coming peace.

For those trying to imagine life without oil, Cuba has proven the solitary example of a country successfully de-industrializing.

Confronted with the collapse of aid from the Soviet Union and ever-tighter U.S. sanctions in the early 1990s, the Castro regime was forced to scupper its centrally-planned, fossil-fuel-driven agriculture and rediscover sustainable and green farming practices.

The solutions developed by a young generation of farmers and agronomists – including urban farms in vacant lots in the capital, Havana, and a network of producers across the country – now provide 80% of the country with predominantly local, organic produce and helped turn Cuba into an unintentional leader of the green movement.

And yet, scarcely has this revolution been achieved, but it is under threat — not from the imperial machination of America (a popular theme in Communist circles) but from the promise of Cuba’s re-integration into the world economy, raised by President Barack Obama at the recent Summit of the Americas.

The problem, say the leaders of Cuba’s green movement, is that opening up trade will flood the country with cheap oil and with it a return to an industrialized food supply. Recent subsidized oil imports from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez have led to an increase in the use of fertilizers.

“Industrialized food production in Cuba means centralized planning and control. The government never wanted to give up control, and now with more oil, we may see the independence that localized, sustainable agriculture produces being undermined,” said Fernando Funes Monzote, a leading agronomist at the Indio Hatuey Experimental Station, University of Matanzas.

But for now, both in public health and in food supply, Cuba has much to teach us in the years ahead. [HT x to moussequetaire.]

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2 responses to “Cuba, exemplar for the post-petro world?

  1. Pingback: Cuba, exemplar for the post-petro world? « eats shoots 'n leaves | Cuba today

  2. Pingback: Cuba at the crossroads: The rise of the co-op | eats shoots 'n leaves

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