On Tuesday evening, locals gathered at the Museum to watch the most recent installment of our environmental film series, “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.”
The film tells a tale of trial and tribulation for the people of Cuba after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. With U.S. sanctions, a strict embargo and no Soviet aid Cuba was choked off from all imported resources. This saga should be a cautionary one for what we call the “developed” world and, if heeded, could save us from the kind of pain and suffering the Cuban people endured after the end of the Cold War.
Before the fall, Cuba’s entire economy was heavily invested in “The Green Revolution” – a method of conventional farming dependent on fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizers. Conventional farming and fertilizer use gave Cuban farmers high yields for years. But once access to fossil fuel ceased it all came crashing down.
After the fall the Cuban people were faced with massive blackouts and near starvation. Crude oil consumption dropped from 14 million barrels a year to 4 million. No oil means no transportation or power so even if you could get to work by bike or bus blackouts could last 14 to 16 hours a day so it was impossible to get anything done. Russian tractors ground to a halt in the fields and couldn’t be fixed. There were no spare parts.
Food production dropped. The economy ground to a halt. The average Cuban lost 22 lbs. by 1994.
In desperation, those in Havana turned to urban farming to fill their bellies. Vacant lots were cleared of garbage and orchards were planted.
Nearly every building sprouted a rooftop garden. Farmers markets and co-ops sprang up. The byproduct adversity was a de-facto urban renewal that strengthened communities.
Now more than 50 percent of food consumed in Havana (a city with a population of 2.2 million) is produced in and around the city. Eighty percent of Cuba’s entire agricultural production is now organic.
Because organic agriculture is more labor intensive, the population of farmers on this island nation exploded. But rather than drive wages down, farmers are now among the highest paid professionals in the nation.
The economic and social upheaval in Cuba serves as a good model for what could happen to the rest of the world. Because Cuba is an island, its people know better than most that ALL resources are finite.
The average American consumes 26 gallons of oil a day, 10 going to food production, nine being burned in autos and seven to heat and cool our homes. If we can curb and slow our consumption we may be able to transition into more sustainable lifestyles before we are forced to by the realities of nature.
If you’d like to watch the film, you can do it here: