Cuba: Canary in the Coal Mine

by: Kelsey Clampitt, Green Arm Intern, Dec. 2012

In 1970, oil production peaked in the US. Only a couple years later, the oil-producing Arab states of OPEC imposed an oil embargo on the US. In response, the Carter administration encouraged Americans to alter their behavior so as to reduce energy usage, but its appeals were largely ignored. When oil prices eventually declined again, the issue was largely forgotten. Despite this, Americans are still using fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate. Making this amount of energy use even more irresponsible is the fact that other countries around the world strive to meet the American standard, and are gradually attaining similarly excessive rates of energy usage. Meanwhile, the human population, and with it demand for oil, continues to increase.  As a result, humanity as whole is quickly nearing the point at which half of the world’s oil has been consumed, and rates of oil production will start to decline.  Due to many countries’ dependence on oil, this presents a serious problem.  Especially daunting is the fact that humanity has never encountered such a problem before, and therefore has little clue on how to overcome it.

Despite humanity never having faced global peak oil production, there are countries that can provide a model for dealing with oil famine. After the Soviet Union was dissolved, Cuba lost 80% of its import and export markets.  One of the main features of the resulting “Special Period” was an oil shortage. Unlike in America, however, the Cuban people were able, although out of necessity, to alter their behavior and live more sustainably. The movie The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil explores the challenges faced during this period, and how the Cuban people overcame them.

The three affected areas covered in the movie were transportation, agriculture, and electricity generation. In order for the nation’s workforce to complete their daily commute, the Cuban government had to create a mass transit system overnight. Canopies and stairs were added onto old trucks and semis hauling trailers were used as buses. Cars were replaced with mules and bikes imported from China or manufactured in Cuba. Universities were decentralized; three schools became 50 in order to reduce transportation needs of students and staff.  To combat the food shortage, land was broken up into small farms and cooperatives.  Farming gained status and became a desirable occupation.  Tractors were replaced by oxen, fertilizer by compost, and synthetic pesticides by bio pesticides. All arable land was devoted to growing food, even in urban areas. To supply electricity to the country, wind, hydro, and solar power were harnessed. Crop wastes were burned instead of fossil fuels.  While everyone suffered long and frequent blackouts, priority for electricity was given to schools and hospitals.


While Cuba and Egypt may appear different, it is possible that Egypt could adopt some of the methods used by Cubans to reduce energy usage.  The warm climates of both countries lend themselves well for harnessing solar energy, whether to generate electricity or heat water. Urban space, especially rooftops, could be utilized for agriculture.  The sustainable farming practices developed in Cuba could be implemented in Egypt, and the burning of agricultural waste could be used to generate electricity. Cairo, at least, already has decent mass transit systems in place, although they all run on oil products and could stand to be expanded.  Fortunately, walking is already a widely used form of transport. The density of Cairo could further be taken advantage of by the usage of bikes and motorcycles over private cars.

The largest obstacle to implementing these changes in any country, however, is cultural.  Individuals need to value living sustainably, and feel that they are altering their behavior for a worthwhile reason.  Authorities cannot simply tell citizens to live without, as that will only be met with resistance. While the changes made by the people of Cuba are commendable, it should be understood that they were done out of necessity. While it could be argued that these changes are necessary for everyone now, oil is still widely available, and therefore the impetus for change is lacking.  Unless we follow the example set by Cuba and implement ways to conserve energy immediately, humanity will soon face the complete depletion of the world’s oil unprepared.

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