Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Cuba’s transition from a peak- to a post-petroleum world

Excerpts from “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived the Peak Oil Crisis”
Cuba’s "Special Period" was an economic depression that began in 1991 after the collapse of Cuba's primary sponsor, the USSR. The depression peaked by the mid-1990s and decreased in severity by the end of the decade. Cuba also experienced an energy famine when oil imports dropped from 13 to 4 million barrels per year. Thus, Cuba was the first country to face the peak oil crisis, even though it was an artificial peak. This crisis transformed Cuba's society and economy, as exemplified by the Cuban governments change of its 30-year motto from "Socialism or Death" to "A Better World is Possible", and led to the nationwide adoption of sustainable agriculture. Cuba's successful transition from a peak- to a post-petroleum world teaches us many lessons that will be useful when our own countries are forced to make this transition in the near future.

Because most of Cuba's electricity was produced by burning oil, the oil shortage led to widespread blackouts. People could no longer rely on refrigerators, so their only option was to eat fresh food when it was available. Food shortages became the first problem to develop during the Special Period. To understand why, it helps to know that Americans consume 10 barrels of oil per year producing food, 9 on autos, and 7 on houses. Food shortages were exacerbated by an intensification of the U.S. embargo, which led to an 80% decrease in food imports. After the Green Revolution Cuba's agricultural system was the most heavily industrialized in Latin America, but the oil shortage meant that they couldn't use energy-hungry tractors or combine harvesters or transport the food great distances to consumers. Thus, farmers had to completely transform the agricultural system by relocalizing it and changing farming methods from those of industrial agriculture to permaculture. Society became more decentralized as people moved from cities to farms. People became more self-sufficient as they learned to produce their own food. This took 3-5 years, during which there were constant food shortages, and Cubans lost an average of 20 pounds. Government food distributions & rationing kept people from starving.

But Cuba had some advantages: it had 2% of the population of Latin America but 11% of the scientists. Prior to the Special Period scientists had conducted research on sustainable organic farming, and once the need arose they implemented these methods nationwide. It took 3-5 years to make damaged soils fertile and productive again through systematic application of green manure (plowing green matter in) and compost and use of crop rotation. Nationwide farmers decreased oil-derived pesticide use from 21,000 tons to only 1,000 tons per year by using crop-interplanting methods and biopesticides. Now 80% of the food produced in Cuba is organic. The Cuban diet has changed in response: it is now more vegan-like, with greatly decreased consumption of meat, sugar and dairy products and increased fiber content.

The urban agricultural movement was also effective. It started as a survivalist response on the part of individuals, but grew when entire communities began to convert idle neighborhood plots of land to community gardens. These communities used permaculture methods to create natural gardens on roofs and patios. Each neighborhood has a kiosk to sell fruits and vegetables.

The impact of Peak Oil during the Special Period extended far beyond agriculture. To be politically independent Cuba had to be economically independent, which in turn required energy independence. Cuba now uses its own crude oil (which unfortunately is dirty and bad for the environment) and biomass to produce electricity, and Cubans now use one-eighth of the amount of energy that Americans use. Cubans now would rather sell their oil than use it.

The collapse of the economy meant that money became worthless, and people were forced to switch to alternative currency systems such as bartering. People had to abandon their cars. In small towns people turned to horses for transportation. For transportation over short distances city dwellers could walk or use bicycles. For longer distances Cuba had to develop a mass transit system overnight. Even now mass transportation in cities is inadequate, so the current trend is to build mixed-use communities that are self-reliant because all amenities are local.

Increased exercise and a switch to a healthier diet of fresh vegetables caused the health of Cubans to improve. Health care became decentralized, with doctors and nurses living in the same neighborhoods as their patients and paying house calls. Universities decreased in size but increased in number so they could serve local populations.

The people of Cuba demonstrated impressive resilience during the Special Period. They were forced to live with less and to change their way of thinking and way of life, but they successfully adapted, and are still happy. Cubans survived despite their government's planned economy; perhaps during "long emergencies" such as the Special Period it doesn't matter what form of government you have as much as how resilient communities are.

For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_Period and the video "The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived the Peak Oil Crisis"

Monday, August 23, 2010

Solar Cookers for Haiti

I recently purchased a panel reflector solar cooker for $130. The HotPot was designed and developed by Solar Household Energy (www.she-inc.org) and is manufactured by Integrated Logistics Solutions (www.ils.com.mx) in Monterrey, Mexico. Its design uses simple scientific principles. The reflector focuses sunlight on a black pot containing food. The pot is enclosed in a transparent glass "greenhouse" that traps the heat absorbed by the black pot. The HotPot is excellent for slow-cooking vegetables, rice, legumes, and fish (and meat for my wife). Twice per week I buy locally grown organic produce at the Farmers Market, come home, cut it up, and toss it in the HotPot. It can cook up to 9 pounds of most foods within 3 to 4 hours. Preparation usually takes no more than 15 minutes of cutting and tossing into the pot. No liquids need to be added except for rice and beans because water is "sweated" out of the food. Cooking is even easier; I just set it outside facing the sun, and then rotate it twice to track the sun across the sky. Afterward I simply fold up the reflector, wash the black pot, and store them with the glass pot. Solar cooking requires no fossil fuel energy, is good for the environment, and requires minimal cleanup. In addition, the dishes I prepare are healthy and are excellent as leftovers.


Solar cookers can help solve two of the biggest problems in Haiti, deforestation and lack of clean water. Deforestation primarily results from poor people chopping down trees to make charcoal to fuel their stoves. Women often spend many hours every day collecting wood to make charcoal. A simple solution is to provide solar cookers with instructions to the women in each household. Haiti has abundant sunshine, and to become sustainable the Haitian people need to make use of this valuable, free resource. Solar cookers eliminate the need to cut down trees for charcoal. The time saved could be used by women and girls to improve the situation, perhaps through education. An additional benefit is that solar cookers can be used to effectively pasteurize water, thereby preventing water-borne diseases. Solar cookers are an extremely cost-effective solution to the problems of deforestation and water contamination. Solar Cookers International (http://www.solarcookers.org/) has an aid program to distribute solar CooKits, pots and Water Pasteurization Indicators (WAPIs) in Haiti. This is an example of high-impact philanthropy, meaning charitable donations are used to maximize benefits by leveraging existing resources.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Simpleton’s Guide to Sustainability

From general to specific. Items in lists within good cells improve to the left from good to better to best. Any suggestions for additions or deletions?












Conserve (reduce, reuse, recycle)











Hidden costs

Triple bottom line accounting


Reusable, recyclable, biodegradable








Selective harvesting


Solar and wind energy

Personal Automobiles

Public transportation


Soybeans, farm-raised herbivorous fish

Escalators, elevators



kayak or canoe





Downhill skiing

Cross-country skiing

Recreational vehicles

Tents and Cottages

Industrial agriculture

Organic Community Supported Agriculture

Using a treadmill

Walking outside


Running or bicycling

Travel for meetings


Daily commute to work


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Cutting government services doesn’t always save money

People are familiar with the concept that cutting corners often ends up costing more money in the long run: this applies to homes, cars, nearly every consumer purchase. But the same holds true with government services, which we purchase with our tax dollars. Many want the cheapest government possible, so the trend in the past few decades has been towards decreasing taxes. That trend combined with the recession beginning in 2008 has led to drastic cuts in government services. Those cuts, however, often lead to problems that cost money to remedy. One of many examples is the problem of violent patients in emergency rooms (Julie Carr Smyth, AP, 8/11/2010). Cash-strapped states have closed state hospitals and addiction programs and cut mental health jobs. As a result, ER visits for drug- and alcohol-related incidents increased from ~1.6 to ~2 million between 2005-8, and incidents of violence in ER rooms jumped from 16,277 to 21,406 between 2006-8. In response, hospitals have had to pay for expensive deterrents such as 24-hour guards, bulletproof glass, installation of "panic buttons", coded ID badges and scanners, and metal detectors. From a sustainability perspective, it makes more sense to invest in prevention of substance abuse and mental illness than in security systems to protect people from addicts and the mentally ill. Treatment and prevention increase social capital and may increase economic capital through cost savings; security and deterrence systems do not increase any form of capital.