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Film Review: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

A few weeks ago, I reviewed A crude awakening the oil crash. I criticized it for not offering possible solutions to help ease us into an oil scarce future.

Today’s film:

Morgan, Faith, Eugene Murphy, and Megan Quinn. 2006. The Power of Community how Cuba survived peak oil. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Community Service, Inc.

is mostly about possible solutions. It uses Cuba as a case study. Up until the early 1990s, Cuba used a lot of cheap oil, almost all of it supplied by the Soviet Union. All of Cuba’s power plants were oil fired and Cuba’s agricultural practices were very similar to the United States — large farm tracts farmed using oil powered machinery and heavy use of petrochemical based fertilizers. Cuba was also a nation of cars. It surprised me to learn that this communist state did not have much public transit until the 1990s.

All of this changed with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Oil shipments stopped and agriculture ground to a halt, as did transportation. The lights went out too, with Cuba moving from 24 hour electricity to six or seven.

How Cubans turned their lives around and maintained a relatively modern in society on a fraction of their previous oil usage is the main subject of this film. So what are some aspects of a future without cheap oil?

More Agricultural Workers – With the inability to operate most of their petroleum fueled tractors and harvesters, more workers moved to the farms to plow fields with oxen and undertake other labor intensive activities. This change in agriculture had the beneficial side effect of forcing the Government to break up the majority of their collective farming system and turn over about half of the arable land to individual farmers who could keep their farming profits. As was the case in most former communist countries that abandoned collective farming, agricultural production shot up. Wages rose as well, actually drawing people from cities.

Rise of Organic Agriculture – Modern conventional agriculture is extremely oil-intensive. (To get a feel for how intensive, watch King Corn about farming in Iowa.) With the loss of most of their oil, Cubans turned to organic farming and permaculture. This was part of the reason for breaking up the large collective farms. A number of the required practices, like planting complimentary crops together, don’t work well on large acreages.

Rise of Urban Gardens – Partly to increase the amount of food grown and partly to reduce the amount of fuel needed to transport food, all cities in Cuba now have urban gardens. According to the film, pretty much every vacant lot has been converted to garden space. Havana now supplies 50% of its vegetables from its urban gardens and according to the film, other cities do better.

Creative Use of Biomass – Cuba did find a little more oil to run its generators since the early 1990s, but it’s still not enough. But they’ve found the extra power they needed in part through using the wastes from their sugarcane farms in biomass electric generators. It reduces wastes while adding to the national power grid.

More local power generation – The film mentioned that many schools and clinics, beginning with rural areas were being powered by solar and wind generators.

More Mass Transit – As I mentioned above, cars were king in Cuba before their oil shock. In the immediate months after losing their oil, the government started adding large buses to cities in Cuba. People started riding them. There had been an effort to convert to bicycles, but not even Fidel Castro could keep people riding one-speed steel Chinese bicycles when other alternatives existed. According to the film, every city in Cuba now has a bus system. From it films, it seems like Cuba has enough oil for the cars that are left.

The film itself consists chiefly of interviews with English speaking Cubans, alternated with scenes of the various solutions being implemented. There are also interviews with members of The Community Solution, a NGO that works in a number of countries.

There are one or two unintentionally funny moments. One is a scene showing a solar powered house in rural Cuba. The owner proudly points to his TV as a symbol of rural electrification. As the camera pans across the TV, it is clear that a Castro speech is being played.

Sometimes the film comes across as overly preachy, but mostly you get what you were promised – a case study on some ways that we might transition to a future without cheap oil while avoiding societal collapse. Cuba found a way forward that kept their population from crashing and kept them in the 20th Century. If we have the will, I be we can do as well if not better when our own turn comes later this century.

If you are convinced that Peak Oil is real, this movie is worth your time. There is a companion website to the movie at http://www.powerofcommunity.org/cm/index.php.

Oh, and don’t bother running to your Netflix Queue for this movie. As of this writing, it wasn’t in Netflix. I got to watch through the power of interlibrary loan.


3 Responses

  1. I live in North Europe and what Cuba did is great.
    I’ve got a book about it (Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance – Transforming Food Production in Cuba).
    Unfortunately North Europe is not communist and temperatures are not constantly around 77°F or 25°C.
    I don’t think people and governments will be willing to follow the Cuba’s example. Otherwise they would already be talking about it.

  2. Every one of these “solutions” were suggested in the 1970s when I was working in the Ag library. That garden idea isn’t real practicaly in Alaska and Ohio. We can all return to the living standard of the 1890s if we just follow Obama.

  3. Hi Patrick, Thanks for stopping by. Solutions are going to need to be adapted by region. What Cuba did isn’t a one size fits all solution, but simply a sign of hope that the end of cheap oil doesn’t have to spell doom for a modern society. Each nation will do things differently. But do things differently we will when $200/barrel oil becomes the new normal.

    Hi Norma,

    If these solutions had been tried in the 1970s, petroleum would be a minor mineral that wouldn’t be fueling Islamic extremism around the world. Or at least on its way to being a minor mineral mostly used for plastics and fertilizers.

    The Ohio Agricultural Extension Service has put a lot of resources into providing gardening help at http://extension.osu.edu/topics/garden/vegetables-and-herbs, so I expect its at least somewhat practical there.

    I admit it is unlikely that Alaska could become self-sufficient in food, but a lot of gardening is done here too. See the Alaska Cooperative Extension gardening publications at http://www.uaf.edu/ces/pubs/catalog/detail/index.xml?subtopic=Horticulture%20and%20Home%20Gardening

    I’m sorry that you’re so obsessed with Obama. My old bishop used to say that hating someone was like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. That might be something to consider when thinking about how to inject a negative comment about the President into your next conversation.

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