What can Cuba teach the rest of the world of sustainability?

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the impact on the Cuban economy was devastating. The country lost approximately 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped 34%. Along with food and medicines that were imported, half of their oil came from the USSR and all oil imports trickled to a mere 10% of previous levels.

When this happened, Cuba’s transportation, industrial and agricultural systems were paralyzed. This time in the country’s history was known as the Special Period, when waiting for a bus could take three hours, power outages could last up to 16 hours, food consumption was cut up to 1/5th and the average Cuban lost about 20 pounds.

Before the crisis, Cuba used more pesticides than the United States. Much of their land was de-mineralized. Many crumbling buildings that could not be repaired were torn down. The empty lots lay idle for years until the food shortages forced Cuban citizens to make use of every piece of land.

It took three to five years of intensely “healing” the soil with amendments, compost, “green manure” and practices such as crop rotation and inter-planting (mixed crops grown in same plot) to return the land to a healthy state. Bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides replaced most of their chemicals, and today, 80% of Cuba’s produce is organically grown.

Bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides replaced most of their chemicals, and today, 80% of Cuba’s produce is organically grown.

Initially, this was an ad-hoc process where ordinary Cubans took the initiative to grow their own food in whatever piece of land was available.

But the government encouraged this practice and later assisted in promoting it. Organic urban gardens sprung up throughout the capital of Havana and other urban centers on roof-tops, patios, and unused parking lots in raised beds as well as “squatting” on empty lots.

These efforts were furthered by Australian agriculturalists that came to the island in 1993 to teach permaculture and to “train the trainers”. The Cuban government then sent these teams throughout the country to train others. The shift from despair to hope is all beautifully captured in the documentary “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”.

Living here in Southern California, I am often ashamed at all the wasted space we have lying idle. Rows upon rows of rooftops that could have gardens or solar panels on them. Buses and above-ground subway systems like the Metro Blue Line and Green Line could have supplemental solar panels on top (thankfully many of them use natural gas, but that too will peak in production approximately 10 years after petroleum peaks).

I see the beachfront communities that have no de-salination plants that could turn ocean water into a potable drinking and bathing source. I see the power structure that exists, the coal and oil monopolies, and I lay awake at night wondering when we are going to kick these gangsters out of power. When are we going to stop letting them run our lives and our businesses and our recreation activities?

I think we have much to learn from the incredible success Cuba had in dealing with its own artificial peak in oil production. As they proved, there is tremendous opportunity for urban centers to cut their oil usage and take up organic farming.

First and foremost, urban dwellers are the ones who need their food shipped in to them since they don’t have as much room in their apartments and condos. We’ve already seen them shifting their shopping trends to places like Whole Foods and farmer’s markets.

Change is in the air, real change and it’s not some fad or flash in the pan.

People are tired of the lacking standards the FDA has for what is considered “fit for human consumption.” They’re fed up with all the advertising and marketing gimmicks that the fast food industries keep trying to inundate them with. They’re sick and tired of not only being obese, but also FROM being obese.

A recent poll found that 77% of Americans said that a corporation’s environmental reputation affected what they bought.

In response to this phenomenon, the corporate world has gone to great lengths to market itself and its products as the greenest of the green – a tactic known as “greenwashing.” Greenwashing is a marketing ploy where corporations give a positive public image to putatively environmentally unsound practices.

So as consumers, it’s up to us to start questioning what we eat, where it was grown and how it was transported to us. There are many great sites out there for educating yourself, such as www.corpwatch.org and www.knowmore.org, for example.

You can even find farmers’ markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably-grown food in your area through the interactive map at www.localharvest.org