Peak oil and the Cuban example

Thanks to the fantastic efforts of While You Were Sleeping, the Cape Town film collective, I’ve just come back from seeing the documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil at the Labia. I’d entirely forgotten about it, and had gone for some escapism, even though I’d announced it on the Ethical Co-op blog a few days ago.

The documentary, in brief, was about how, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (and with the US still applying sanctions), where previously Cuba had been dependent on them for oil, food and so on, within a very short space of time Cuba had to become self-sufficient.

It did so in a number of interesting ways, and is an interesting model for the rest of us to follow, with us likely to face similar pressures in our lifetimes.

Initially, there were rolling blackouts, malnutrition, all the hints of the apocalyptic scenarios so many doomsayers like to envision.

But, faced with the crisis, they responded in sensible ways. They switched to organic agriculture (80% of the country’s agriculture is now organic), urban farming (if I remember the figure correctly, 50% of the capital Havana’s food is produced within the municipal boundary), introduced mass transit and bicycles.

There are interesting issues to ponder in how well the scenario fits for the South African situation. Firstly, the government was a lot more cohesive and the social system more robust, so moving people rapidly to a new way of doing things was perhaps easier than it would be here. Government did help though by changing their motto from Socialism or Death to A Better World is Possible! As someone in the audience commented afterwards, they can’t imagine it working in the US, with the culture is more on of wanton waste and entitlement (I pay so why shouldn’t I waste more), and with a system that leaves most important decisions to institutions designed to make money.

I’m not so pessimistic, as I think necessity can change that quickly, but Cuba did perhaps have it easier. Similarly, they are an island nation, more aware of a sense of finite resources, so the mental shift to one of saving these resources was perhaps easier.

Very quickly, farming became one of the most prestigious, and well-paid, professions, and not the last refuge of the poor it still is seen as here.

It’s well-worth seeing if you get a chance. It’s not the greatest documentary in an artistic and creative sense, but it more than makes up for it with the thought-provoking content.

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  1. Thanks for coming to the screening, Ian – always nice to see Co-op people at While You Were Sleeping events.

    We’re quite happy that the film was a success. We had good crowds and stimulating discussions on all three nights.

    Another interesting point that audience members brought up after seeing the film was that in Zimbabwe a lot of people are apparently starting to grow their own food in the cities, only with much much much less support from government (one of us spoke to a Zimbabwean afterwards who’s family farm is being used to explore organic vegetable and fruit production by and for community members).

    I also found comments by two Cubans on two of the nights very interesting. They reiterated that Cuban society is much more unified than for example South African society and that people really do cooperate much more than most of us are used to.

  2. There is a new commercial sub-acre farming method called SPIN-Farming which is re-invigorating farming as a profession in the U.S. and Canada. SPIN requires minimal infrastructure and provides a specific process for generating significant income from land bases under an acre in size. It therefore integrates agriculture into the built environment in a commercially viable manner, and removes the two big barriers to entry for first generation farmers – they do not need much land or financial resources to do SPIN. Best of all, they can set up their farm operations right where they live. By re-casting farming as a small business in a city or town, SPIN , SPIN is making farming accessible and relevant again to a new generation, accelerating the shift to a more locally-based food system, and positions farming as an integral part of urban economies, rather than something a part from them.

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