How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

Last night we had some friends over for a slow food dinner of homemade salad, curried pumpkin soup, baked potatoes and yams, and apple pie with organic ice cream, most of the ingredients grown in the Pacific Northwest. Yum. We talked of food, we talked of local politics, of alternative transportation, of global warming and the social changes needed to weather the future. After dinner we crowded into the ‘entertainment room’, where we seclude our TV, to watch a documentary: “The Power of Community: How Cuba survived peak oil” (www.powerofcommunity.org). Alienated from world markets by its communist politics, Cuba relied heavily on trade with the Soviet Union for oil and oil-based goods. In 1990, as you may recall, the Soviet Union ‘collapsed’ and over a few weeks Cuba was essentially stranded.

If the crisis doesn’t seem that insurmountable to you, try to understand how much your food relies on fossil fuels – oil-based fertilizers and pesticides, diesel for the machines that harvest your food, and finally the many many miles of land over which it is typically transported. (See reports by Iowa State here and here). How would you eat without oil ?? That is the most impressive part of their story. I had heard from gardeners who had visited Cuba that every square inch of available urban land was claimed for agriculture. It was amazing to finally hear more of this story and to see its images. Something like 80% of the food needs of Havana is now supplied by urban agriculture.

It gives me hope but it also scares me. This country, inebriated by its consumption of the elixir of modern society (aka: oil), has no plan for dealing with Peak Oil. The US of A alternates between disbelief that its drug could ever actually dry up and belief that if it did, technology would come to the rescue. It is an irresponsibly infantile position. Cuba had already been working on plant-based fertilizer and pesticide programs before 1990. Cubans are also a much more community-based people which made it easy to work cooperatively on the acute problems they were facing. North Americans, not so. Point in case: I went to a community event this weekend – a small, informal mushroom picking outing at a local park. It was painful the way in which a group of people with a common interest could sit in a room and not talk amongst themselves. In a crisis I hope that we’d step up.

I recommend everyone see this video (we borrowed it from the library). I’d like to know what you think. Meantime, a challenge. Every time you are out of the house, smile or speak with a stranger (your cashier at the grocery store doesn’t count unless you ask her about herself!). It’ll make them feel good. It will make you feel good. It’s the start of community.

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