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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.

Reprinted from Left I on the News

Originally posted to Left I on the News on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 01:27 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

  •  "If I pay." (7+ / 0-)

    But if I say, in United States, 'people we must turn off all the lights, because we need...,' everybody say, 'Why? If I pay?'"

    IMO the anti-social(ist) American does have the right to leave the lights on, use an incandescent bulb, or drive a Hummer, if he is willing to pay the full price.  The problem isn't that leaving the lights on is wrong at any price, it's that our environmentally harmful choices are subsidized by the fact that our economic system doesn't capture externalities very well.  Almost no one would be willing to do any of those things if they really had to pay full price to do them.  Capture the externalities completely, and there's no reason for free market solutions not to work.

    Of course, "capture the externalities completely" is a tall order...

    •  Excellent comment. n/t (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      -4.25, -4.87 "If the truth were self-evident, there would be no need for eloquence." -- Cicero

      by HeyMikey on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 04:46:40 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Crowded theater (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      So it's ok to shout "fire" in a crowded theater as long as you're willing to pay the medical bills of everyone who's injured?

      And just what is the price of the "externalities" when the future of mankind's existence on the planet is at stake?

      •  Re: crowded theatre (0+ / 0-)

        I don't think the crowded theatre is a good analogy here.  Shouting fire in a crowded theatre is something that happens rarely, and is a big problem each time it happens.  Leaving the lights on is something that happens often, and is an infinitesimally small problem each time it happens.

        At some level, it's an issue of scale.  One person leaving the lights on is not a problem.  Three hundred million people all leaving the lights on is.  But if each of those three hundred million people had to pay the cost of carbon sequestration, Pigovian tax on resource depletion, etc. on all their use of fossil-fuel-derived power, you can bet that very few of them would leave their lights on (or drive SUVs, or use incandescent lights, or....); almost certainly not enough to threaten "the future of mankind's existence on the planet."

        The capitalist economy as we know it subsidizes ecologically dangerous behaviour.  But there's no reason that a free market economy based on full-cost accounting would.  Economies are just a part of ecology; our economy is out of whack because it doesn't take ecological costs into account the way it's supposed to.  

  •  But don't you get it? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    American Zapatista

    Castro is evil, and the only thing that we should import from Cuba is defecting Base Ball players.

    6/24/05: Charlie the Tuna Creator Dies En lieu of flowers, please bring mayonnaise, chopped celery and paprika.

    by LunkHead on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 01:56:39 PM PDT

  •  A great review .. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kd texan

    truly ... but the third one in a week ... Should at least link to the others ...

    Do you agree / disagree with their descriptions, lessons to be taken, etc ???

    Blogging regularly at Ecotality Blog for a Sustainable Future.

    by A Siegel on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 01:59:26 PM PDT

  •  Heh (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Magnifico, jfm

    I posted a review of this film yesterday here, and I'm glad to see other people offering their thoughts as well.

    I'm a socialist, and one of my criticisms of the film was also that it left out the politics. My sense is that this was a very deliberate decision by the filmmakers to avoid that question so as to get a wide audience for the film (and possibly to secure the permission to shoot it in Cuba). I think they wanted to put American people in touch with Cuban people, an admirable goal, though ultimately I agreed with you that the political question is essential.

    I also agree that this coming crisis is fundamentally about capitalism, and that capitalism itself will not be able to provide a response. Some form of socialism will be necessary. I think Americans have the desire to do that - our adherence to a consumer society can be overestimated, it's not innate - but our government will fight us virtually every step of the way.

    In my review I also pointed out some of the problems with the film; I think that the community ag solutions haven't provided a consistent standard of living or adequate supplies, although the blame there is most likely with the US embargo.

    I agree that it's a film worth seeing. Thanks for this review.

    I'm not part of a redneck agenda - Green Day

    by eugene on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 02:03:12 PM PDT

    •  Speaking of Consumer Societies? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      N in Seattle, jfm

      Doesn't Cuba make a lot of money from selling sunburns to Canadians and Europeans in Varadero?

      Does the film mention that?

      I'm guessing that Iberostar, Melia et al shareholders want dividends; not socialist solidarity.

      •  It did not (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        That tied into one of my criticisms - there is a lot of resentment among some Cubans at what they call "tourist apartheid." Because of the US embargo, Cuba is short of hard currency, and those tourists provide it, but there are questions about whether the amenities they get are available to all Cubans. The Cuban government argues that the tourists are necessary to keep the country afloat, and they might well be right, but it's a complex and contentious issue.

        I'm not part of a redneck agenda - Green Day

        by eugene on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 02:15:19 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Off-topic (0+ / 0-)

        What on earth does the fact that Cuba (like every other country on Earth) makes money from tourism have to do with the question at hand, i.e., surviving peak oil? Are you suggesting that the world should forgo tourism because of all that wasted oil burned up by airplanes?

    •  Hmmm.. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      If the filmmakers were partially trying to sell the idea that a society can, if it collectively chooses to, deal with a Peak Oil situation, and that at least one has done so, it's probably more effective to an American audience if you downplay the socialistic/Communistic aspects of it and all of the negative connotations that have tended to accompany discussions of Castro and/or Cuba.

      It had not occurred to me before that Cuba had to transition to an era where there was no USSR around to provide it with a subsidy of cheap oil, in the context of a US embargo, and that this transition might resemble the one the US itself would need to make if petroleum suddenly became either scarce or extremely expensive.  


      Check out Answer Guy Online. Thoughts from a bottomless pool of useless information.

      by Answer Guy on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 02:15:30 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Probably. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        And I am sympathetic to this diarist's point that by ignoring the central and crucial role a socialist government played in enabling Cuba's transformation, Americans won't quite grasp what is required of them when they face it as well.

        But unfortunately, for most Americans, Castro and socialism might have been red flags (heh) that would have distracted them from the film's other points. And I do like the film's emphasis on the role of the public - they were far from passive actors in this.

        I'm not part of a redneck agenda - Green Day

        by eugene on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 02:23:12 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  We too have a plan for addressing Peak Oil (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    if our political machinations fail and it ever becomes a problem with our country.  We will steal what we need from our neighbors and gunpoint and shoot our neighbors if they try to steal from us.  Yippie-yi-yay.

    My apologies to students who took my U.S. Government class in the 90s: evidently the Constitution doesn't limit Presidential power after all. Who knew?

    by Major Danby on Mon Mar 12, 2007 at 02:05:58 PM PDT

  •  The ironies about Cuba get lost. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    N in Seattle, jfm

    And everything that is said is somebody's propaganda.

    If you are in Cuba, and you begin the discussion with how great everything in Cuba is, the Cubans tell you how totally f*^K3d everything is.  If you complain about Cuba, the Cubans tell you how great everything is and how you don't appreciate it.

    But what can anybody expect?  Cuba is a highly educated country with few jobs and fewer opportunities.  You can make more parking cars in Miami than you can being a doctor or engineer in Habana.  You can get organic vegetables, but there aren't enough of them.  You can import chickens from Perdue, but you cannot import $$ from your relatives in the states.  You can always buy Habana Club rum for $3.25 a bottle, and cheap cigarettes, and healthcare is free and efficient.

    IMO it's these ironies that make for the spice of Cuba.  When they are left out, all you have is cardboard posters with slogans on them.

    •  Answering... (0+ / 0-)

      You can make more parking cars in Miami than you can being a doctor or engineer in Habana.

      No doubt, but will you have a better standard of living? Questionable. You certainly won't have a better standard of living with respect to the average of society, that's for sure.

      You can get organic vegetables, but there aren't enough of them.

      Cuban caloric intake is above third-world averages. Is there less food than a rich first-world country like the U.S.? No doubt.

      you cannot import $$ from your relatives in the states.

      I trust you realize that's a result of policies of Uncle Sam, not of the Cuban government.

      •  I didn't even imply that it sucked. (0+ / 0-)

        It doesn't.  It really doesn't need to be defended, and certainly not from me.

        My point was just that the Wonder Island, of which I'm a huge supporter, has it's peculiar ironies.

        The observations I made were based on my own experience and perceptions, and I stand by them.  Others who visit the island might have different views.

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