Saturday, March 10, 2007

"How Cuba Survived Peak Oil"

Left I at the Movies: "How Cuba Survived Peak Oil"

In the early 1990's, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc nations dealt what could have been a fatal blow to the Cuban economy. From 1989 to 1992, Cuba experienced a 34% decline in its GDP. Its exports and imports dropped by 80%, and its oil imports dropped by more than half, as the Soviet Union unilaterally voided existing agreements. Thus began the "Special Period in Peacetime" in Cuba.

In "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil," the filmmakers combine footage of life in Cuba with interviews with a variety of Cubans and others to explore how Cuba dealt with a situation which, while not a "real" "peak oil" situation, effectively became one for Cubans, as they adjusted to life with fewer energy resources than they were used to.

The scope of the Cuban response, and the film's coverage of the response, covers a wide swath: agriculture, education, health, transportation, housing, and energy alternatives. Agriculture gets the most focus, as the film discusses how Cuba shifted almost completely (80%) to organic farming, with its use of pesticides dropping from 21,000 tons in the 80's to less than 1,000 tons now. A massive campaign to use every available plot of land for urban gardening lead to today's Cuba, where more than 50% of the total vegetable needs for the 2.2 million Havana residents is supplied by urban agriculture, with smaller cities and towns reaching 80-100%, thus removing the need to transport food over long distances and cutting fuel usage.

In every area, Cuba worked to reduce its consumption of non-renewable fuels - more solar panels, more public transportation, widespread installation of energy efficient appliances and fluorescent lightbulbs (those last two items aren't actually in the film), and on and on. Scientists brought their energies to bear on every aspect of the problem. In this, Cuba was aided by its previous decades of emphasis on education - Cuba has only 2% of the population of Latin America, but 11% of its scientists.

But above all, the changes were made possible by a new attitude towards consumption, epitomized by this quote from Roberto Pérez, one of many Cubans who appear in the film: "If we don't take care of the earth, earth will take care of us...and get rid of us." The film does a remarkable, and inspiring, job, of showing why and how this is possible.

The film's weakness is indicated by the title of the film - "The Power of Community." The Cuba Program Manager of the organization (The Community Solution) which made the film, Pat Murphy, is quoted in the film describing the goal of the film as answering this question, "What is it in the Cuban people and the Cuban culture that allowed them to go through this very difficult time?," and the website of the organization tells us that "small communities offer the best solution to "Peak Oil," the end of fossil fuels." And, while this is certainly part of the answer, and one which is shown by the film, its only a partial answer. Because it wasn't just "the Cuban people and the Cuban culture" which was responsible for organizing and implementing the response to the crisis, but the Cuban government, quite likely the only government in the world which could have done so.

Although the role of the Cuban government does occasionally come up in the movie (e.g., "the government imported 1.3 million bicycles from China"), a viewer who isn't familiar with Cuba might get the impression, for example, that communities all over Cuba just spontaneously decided to take similar steps towards solving the energy shortage problem. In fact, programs such as the urban gardening program, while implemented on a local scale, were initiated and organized and motivated on a national scale by the government, as was everything else the film shows. All of the experts shown describing how they created and implemented solutions to the problems work for government agencies and companies, but again that's totally unclear to the uninformed viewer, who might assume that "Cuba Solar" is some kind of private company. It's not.

The word "Socialism" is never mentioned in this film. The "Community Solution" people don't seem to realize that at the heart of "Socialism" is the word "social" - Socialism is the ultimate "community solution." That the solutions shown in the film will never happen under capitalism is actually encapsulated in this quote from Bruno Enriquez, an energy analyst for Cuba Solar:

"If I'm in Cuba, I say, 'people we have problems, we must turn off all the lights that we are not using,' and everybody said, 'ok, we are going to turn off.' But if I say, in United States, 'people we must turn off all the lights, because we need...,' everybody say, 'Why? If I pay?'"

Enriquez is right about what happens in the United States, but he leaves out one aspect of the not-so-hypothetical answer (one that came up explicitly during recent debates over banning the sale of incandescent lightbulbs) - "freedom." The anti-social(ist) American would also say, "Nothing should infringe on my 'freedom' to leave the lights on (or use an incandescent lightbulb or drive a Hummer) if I want." And here's what I think about that: everyone knows the classic definition of the limits of freedom - you don't have the freedom to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But here's the thing - we live in the equivalent of a crowded theater, and leaving the lights on (or whatever other behavior you choose) is the equivalent of shouting "Fire!" The metaphorical stampede might not trample the people who are alive today, but it may well kill their children, or their children's children, just as surely as if they were right there in the theater.
Socialism is the only possible future for humanity that can deal with these problems, a "social" or "community" solution in which we recognize that we are all in the same crowded theater (or the same boat, to use a more standard metaphor), and we have to work together for the good of all. Capitalist solutions cannot solve the fundamental problem - the Tragedy of the Commons. Cuba has been showing the way to that future for nearly 50 years, but even more so during the last 15 as they adapted to a situation that will face the entire planet before too long.

"How Cuba Survived Peak Oil" is a must-see film. You can purchase your own copy here.