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Synthesis/Regeneration 44   (Fall 2007)

Powerdown: Learning from Cuba

by Richard Heinberg

[This article is taken from portions of Richard Heinberg’s Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (2004), New Society Publishers, Chapter 3, The Path of Self-Limitation, Cooperation, and Sharing. — Editor]

If humankind is to avoid ruthless competition for dwindling energy resources, coordinated efforts toward cooperation and conservation will be needed. The ways cooperation and conservation could be achieved are probably limitless in detail, but the broad-scale options are likely few and easily surveyed. Industrialized societies would have to forgo further conventional economic growth in favor of a costly transition to alternative energy sources.

All nations would have to make efforts to limit per capita resource usage. To avoid competitive struggle, powerful countries would have to reduce disparities of wealth both among their own people, and also between themselves and poorer nations. Not only would oil, coal, and natural gas need to be conserved, but also fresh water, topsoil, and other basic and limited resources. Moreover, as energy available for industrial transportation declines, economies would have to be unlinked from the global market and re-localized. Everyone — especially those in rich, industrial nations — would have to undertake a change in lifestyle in the direction of more modest material goals more slowly achieved. And inevitably, with the conservation of resources would come the necessity to stabilize and reduce human populations.

Until now, most efforts toward the elimination of global conflict have centered on creating mechanisms for arms control and conflict resolution. In order to avoid resource wars we would need more such mechanisms; but in addition, we would need to address the ecological conditions for peace. If population pressure and resource depletion are predictable causes of antagonism between and within societies, then avoiding deadly competition would seem to require low population levels relative to the available resource base. Peacemaking would thus entail not only negotiation, but resource and population management on a global scale.

In short, Powerdown would mean a species-wide effort toward self-limitation. Powerdown is possible in principle. But we need more assurance than that. We need to see that industrial societies are capable of making the transition to sustainability. North Americans and Europeans need an example of a society that first industrialized — at least partially — and then had to deal with an energy crash.

Perhaps the most instructive example of this scenario is Cuba. Following its revolution in 1959, Cuba had become dependent on the Soviet Union for oil as well as grain. Agriculture was collectivized into huge state-owned farms. Factory production and overseas trade increased. Though the US, its powerful neighbor to the north, used both covert and overt means to attempt to overthrow its revolutionary government and ruin its economy, Cuba managed to thrive, producing remarkable achievements in the fields of education and medical care.

Its people enjoyed the longest life expectancy, lowest levels of infant mortality, and highest literacy rates in the hemisphere. In 1989, Cuba ranked 11th in the world in the Overseas Development Council’s Physical Quality of Life Index, while the US ranked 15th. While Cuba has only 2% of the Caribbean region’s population, it was producing 11% of the region’s scientists. Cuba exported trained doctors — 20,000 of them — to the rest of the world.

These feats carried a cost, which was largely subsidized by the Soviets. The latter bought Cuban sugar at over five times the market rate; they also sold oil to Cuba at a discount so steep that it permitted the Cubans to re-export the oil at a profit. From 1959 to 1989, 85% of Cuba’s trade was with the Soviet bloc.

Not everyone was happy in the Cuban paradise. Roughly 10% of the population left at the time of the revolution (including the Mafia and most members of the ruling and owning classes), and those that stayed endured an authoritarian regime and a planned economy that left little opportunity for individual entrepreneurial initiative. Still, the majority of the people were proud of their revolution and their national attainments.

… this episode in Cuba’s history saw the nation slide to the verge of collapse.

In 1989 and 1990, as the Soviet bloc disintegrated, oil and grain imports from Russia plummeted. Cuban trade dropped by over three quarters in a matter of months. Fertilizer and pesticide imports fell by 80%, making agricultural production difficult even as food imports vanished. Known officially by the Castro regime as the “Special Period in Time of Peace,” this episode in Cuba’s history saw the nation slide to the verge of collapse.

Because the Cuban economy was directly controlled by the state, and because there was little economic disparity in the country by this time, the shortages were shared more or less equally. Nearly everyone lost weight, tens of thousands of children were seriously malnourished, and the population adopted a mostly vegetarian diet out of necessity.

Meanwhile, the government responded to the agricultural crisis by distributing collectivized land for private cultivation. Within a few years, Cuban agriculture was transformed from consisting of 80% state-run farms to 80% employee-owned shareholder enterprises. With petrochemicals no longer available, Cuba went organic. Many Cuban scientists, influenced by the international ecology movement, had already developed a critique of Cuba’s chemical-intensive agricultural system. While their voices had been in the minority (and had often been actively stifled by the authorities), with the advent of the Special Period, these ecological agronomists were suddenly given free rein to experiment and to redesign the system.

Soon Cuba boasted a quarter of a million trained organic gardeners using techniques such as integrated pest management, intercropping, and composting. Agricultural production was moved closer to the cities to reduce transportation, refrigeration, and storage costs. By 1998, there were over 8,000 officially recognized organic urban gardens in Havana, cultivated by over 30,000 people and covering nearly a third of the available land.

Transportation was also devastated by the cut-off of Soviet oil. Today there are few cars on Cuban roads, but nearly every vehicle is filled with passengers due to an official policy that systematically encourages hitchhiking. Bicycles are common, and animals (especially oxen) are often used both for human transport and for traction in agriculture.

Since human labor is plentiful and energy resources are scarce, the government adjusts salaries to encourage full employment. In many instances, laborers are paid more than managers. Building materials are in short supply, and so people live in small houses and apartments, most of which are in need of repair. There is little new construction.

By 1998, there were over 8,000 officially recognized organic urban gardens in Havana …

US pressure on the Cuban regime has not abated; indeed, it was significantly intensified by the 1992 “Cuba Democracy Act,” which tightened the existing trade embargo, and by the 1996 cynically-titled “Cuba Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act” (also known as the “Helms-Burton Act”), which deters foreign investment.

Nevertheless, Cuba is today able to buy oil at market prices with foreign currency earned through tourism and the export of sugar cane, cobalt, and nickel. One-third of Cuba’s oil now comes from Venezuela, whose president, Hugo Chavez, has adopted a friendly stance toward the Castro regime. However, oil imports are still only a fraction of what they were before the Soviet collapse.

Cuba’s population of over 11 million is growing, but more slowly than is the case elsewhere in the region. The government has put its emphasis on the development of social capital — the arts, sports, science, and intellectual pursuits — as opposed to the production of material goods, which is necessarily limited. A friend of mine who heads an organization that promotes small communities throughout the US, upon his return from a recent visit to Cuba remarked, “My organization talks about community, but these people are living it.”

Of course, the situation is complex: Cuba still keeps political prisoners, suppresses dissent, and engages in capital punishment; some kinds of food are scarce and the people subsist on a fairly minimal diet; the Cuban economy is largely dependent on tourism; and the nation still imports most of its energy resources.

Nevertheless, Cuba offers us a vision of what our own energy-constrained future might look like — given a fairly optimistic scenario. Cuba managed to power down dramatically and quickly, relocalizing its economy with little increase in internal violence, and with relatively little sacrifice in terms of many basic measures of social welfare.

Cuba managed to power down dramatically and quickly … with relatively little sacrifice…

Assessing the prospects

What lessons can we learn from all of this? In a positive vein, we might conclude that, when the need arises, change can happen quickly. Apparent cultural blocks to self-limiting behaviors can fall away, and people learn to conserve and do things differently.

Today, in the industrialized countries, efforts toward Powerdown are occurring at a snail’s pace despite available evidence that the world’s fossil energy reserves are depleting rapidly. This lack of movement is frustrating to those of us who understand what is at stake, but perhaps the apparent complacency will dissipate quickly when actual shortages appear. Current blocks to energy conservation and to a vigorous transition to renewables might vanish virtually overnight if energy prices were to skyrocket, imperiling the economy.

A lesson we might take away from the example of Cuba is that people can do extraordinary things if motivated by a strong and clear appeal to a developed sense of ethics. Most people (though certainly not all) are ethically motivated; they want to believe that what they are doing is good. Ethical systems appear to be an evolutionary mechanism for coordinating human behavior for collective survival, and it is through ethical systems that traditional societies internalize imperatives toward self-limitation. If people feel that a particular behavior is right, and are offered cultural support for that behavior, they will do the thing even if it is highly inconvenient or uncomfortable and involves considerable self-sacrifice.

In Cuba, efforts toward Powerdown were ethically mandated from top down, and the process was facilitated by the fact that, in that country, the Communist party is regarded by most people as the seat of moral authority (it may be difficult for Americans to grasp this, but those who visit Cuba report it as a fact). Most Cubans had confidence that their efforts were not merely enriching a small group of powerful people, and that those making decisions were acting selflessly in service to the whole of society.

In the US, decision makers have squandered much of their moral authority. Polls confirm that most Americans distrust politicians and corporate leaders, and it is easy to see why: CEOs enrich themselves shamelessly at stockholders’ (and ultimately the public’s) expense, while national and state politicians go begging for money from corporate donors every few years in order to get reelected. Anyone who pays attention to balance sheets, budgets, and quality news outlets (forget about what passes for news on US television) cannot help but view the American government and economy as suffering from thievery on a colossal scale. And this is occurring in the context of a national ethical system that glorifies competition, regards the accumulation of personal wealth as the foremost goal in life, and assumes that self-sacrifice is for losers.

Even many religious leaders in the US (and America is by any measure the most religious of the industrialized nations) promote an ethic that excludes the need for self-limitation from any arena other than that of sex. Thus in order to motivate self-sacrifice and self-limitation on the part of the American people, US governmental, business, and religious leaders would first have to regain the moral standing that they have squandered during the past decades, and then use this standing to fundamentally alter the national mythology and ethic. This could be done, but it is a tall order.

… perhaps the apparent complacency will dissipate quickly when actual shortages appear.

There’s another major difference between conditions in the US and in Cuba: while the people of the latter nation have worked a half-century at building communal solidarity, America is an individualist society. Where Cuba has fostered a cooperative spirit among its populace, Americans are proudly competitive. Yes, when the crunch came Cubans pulled together and carried their nation through a painful economic transformation. But would another country have responded to similar circumstances so successfully? It is relatively easy to think of ones that have met economic challenges with cultural disintegration, deepening corruption or authoritarianism, or internal violence. Recall Germany in the 1920s, or Zimbabwe in recent years.

Finally, it is important to recognize the unique role of the US and China in any potential global effort toward Powerdown. Either country could single-handedly undermine such an effort — China, because of its population and its current drive toward industrialization; the US, because of its immense destructive weaponry, its impact on the global economy, and its belligerent foreign policy.

The US is also uniquely positioned to lead the global energy transition. While it is the world’s foremost energy user, the US also possesses advanced renewable energy research facilities. And China, if it were to forgo attempting to shift its economy in the direction of greater energy resource dependency, could be a beacon to the less-industrialized nations of the world.

The US is uniquely positioned to lead the global energy transition.

However, currently neither nation is on the path to lead a global Powerdown. Indeed, present trends suggest that the US and China are on a collision course, as the energy appetites of both nations continue to grow in the context of deepening energy resource depletion.

For the sake of American readers, I will put the matter as bluntly as possible: A peaceful global Powerdown is possible only if the US leads the way. If current American domestic and foreign polices continue, Powerdown efforts on the part of other nations may result in improved survival options for the people of those nations, but for the world as a whole by far the most likely outcome will be devastating resource wars continuing until the resources themselves are exhausted, the human species is extinct, or the fabric of modern societies has been shredded to the point that anarchy — in the worst sense of the word — prevails nearly everywhere.

While a global Powerdown process, in terms of total effort over time, would be extraordinarily difficult and costly, its first stages could be undertaken easily and with minimal sacrifice, merely by mandating increased energy efficiency requirements for US automobiles and electrical power generating facilities, and by offering incentives for the deployment of renewable energy options such as wind, solar, and biomass. Then, as dependency on oil imports was reduced, the military aspects of US foreign policy could be de-emphasized, with a hefty saving of funds that could then be invested in the accelerating transition to a renewable energy infrastructure. Once such policies were in place, the inevitable impact of fossil-fuel depletion might serve to propel the efforts forward, enabling even deeper systemic changes (such as the transformation of the monetary system and population stabilization and reduction) that now appear politically unthinkable.

It is in this light that we can appreciate the true dimensions of the tragedy of current US political corruption and disintegration. Investments in the status quo on the part of corporations and governmental bureaucracies are preventing efforts that are advocated by everyone who is familiar with the facts. Meanwhile those with the will even to begin to change the system are excluded from decision-making positions.

This is a discouraging situation. Nevertheless, it is important that the options and their consequences be clearly outlined and put forward, so that opportunities are not missed simply for lack of awareness.

Richard Heinberg is also author of The party’s over: Oil, war and the fate of industrial societies, 2003 and The oil depletion protocol: A plan to avert oil wars, terrorism and economic collapse, 2006, both with New Society Publishers.

See also: ISIS: Organic Cuba without Fossil Fuels

[25 jan 08]

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