Last night, our friends screened for us the 2006 documentary, The Power of Community. This film tracks Cuba’s path to self reliance from the brink of complete macroeconomic disaster. This disaster was precipitated by the fall of USSR in 1991 and in the span of a week Cuba was cut off from soviet oil supplies and food imports. Virtually overnight, the soviet collapse created food shortages, electricity blackouts, loss of jobs and a general shutdown of the economy. The Cubans refer to this period in their history as “the special period”.
This 53 minute documentary is time well spent at two levels. Firstly, the remarkable recovery of the Cuban people is a story that needs to be told and heard, perhaps in many more ways. When the crisis hit Cuba, the problem was unlike any ever faced, ready-made solutions were not available from history, and the US, the one nearby country that could have helped, further tightened sanctions on Cuba.
Then there is the cinematic merit. Director Faith Morgan’s single pointed attention to the task set out for herself, to wit the precise solutions evolved by the Cubans in the areas of food & agriculture, transport, housing ,medicine etc is admirable. There are other angles to explore like the political will, Cuban cultural quirks and Individual heroes of the special period but have been excluded, which makes the film compelling viewing.
This is a U.S. film with its genesis in the debate on Peak Oil. The peak oil theory suggests that global oil production follows a logistic distribution curve which reaches peak production at a point in time. After this peak, the production of oil declines rapidly till all the oil reserves are exhausted. Simply put, there is a very finite limit to the oil supply of the world.
The first peak oil curve plotted by King Hubbert in 1956 accurately predicted the 1973 oil crisis. As per the current Hubbert curve, the world has already hit the peak in 2010 and oil production is now in the rapid decline phase
Inspiration from Cuba
This debate around peak oil intensified in the early part of this century and primary concern of the experts was that the world was walking blind into an energy crisis, with no plan B. Then of course it was pointed out that Cuba had an artificial peak oil crisis in 1991 and was a great simulation for the rest of the world to learn from.
Is a crisis always necessary to do the right thing?
The Cubans had no idea what hit them and were pushed to the limits of their creativity in the special period. The first dramatic measure was the import of a million cycles to replace public transport. The extra physical activity combined with food shortage, resulted in a national average weight loss of 20 pounds in the first three years.
The next response was urban organic farming. With no oil to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides, organic farming was the only way out, and a wonderful unexpected side effect of the crisis. With the economy in a tailspin and no jobs or food, highly educated professionals of all stripes became urban farmers. Today in Cuba, the farmers are among the top earners, very unlike farmers in the rest of the world.
All these outcomes came from an organic response to a crisis and not from a careful long term government plan.
It is tempting to conclude that we need a full blown crisis to get the country together to do the right things, a dim fatalistic view that I do not care for.
For now I think a great way for all of us to start is to get exposed to different ideas on sustainability. I have a quick list of some of the well known films and books to get inspired.
The environmentalist must watch/read list
- One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka (book)
- An Inconvenient Truth,Davis Guggenheim (documentary)
- The power of community, Faith Morgan (documentary)
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan (book)
- Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser (book)
- Food Inc, Robert Kenner (documentary, excellent companion to the books by Pollan & Schlosser)
- Silent Spring, Rachel Carson (book)
As luck would have it the screening happened in a house with a spectacular rooftop urban garden. All around, nearby rooftops had rubble, cables and clothes but I was in a lush green farm producing at least 50% of a family’s vegetable consumption. And it helps cool the house below. For a fresh produce newbie, seeing actual okra, colacasia, tomato plants was a delight. And I could picture a misty mountain hop from Hubbert’s peak to rooftop urban gardens.