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Eco-Justice Notes
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Lessons from Cuba
distributed 8/16/13 - ©2013

We need good examples of viable, sustainable societies that can guide us into a new future. We need to see places where people really are living healthy, fulfilling lives with small carbon footprints and minimal pollution.

I would not have thought of looking to the island nation of Cuba, but I've learned that there is a lot to be learned there about how a society in crisis can make a transition to dramatically reduced impacts. What we see there may not be what most folk in the United States would choose as a preferred way of life. But if -- when! -- we finally realize that our excessive way of life can't be sustained, then Cuba can show us many of the elements of how to live differently.

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My eyes were opened to Cuba as a positive model for a low-impact society through an article in the Worldwatch Institute's State of the World 2013 report, "Is Sustainability Still Possible?" (Also see the related blog site.) Article authors Pat Murphy and Faith Morgan trace ways that the country's history has created transformational situations that the rest of the world may soon face because of climate change and resource depletion. They speak of "lessons from a forced decline".

Cuba's relationship with the United States changed dramatically in the years after the Cuban Revolution, when properties owned by US-based corporations were nationalized. Economic sanctions banning almost all trade between the US and Cuba were imposed in 1962. A second major hit came in the 1990s in connection with the dissolution of the Soviet Union -- which had been a major trading partner for oil and food. "As a result of more than 20 years of such privations, Cuba now serves as an example of a country that has survived and thrived with very limited fossil fuel resources."

Those transitions were not voluntary, nor were they easy. People faced serious deprivation, and the changes were made to alleviate hunger and suffering, not as a way of reaching an abstract goal of sustainability. But this forced decline has led to important systemic changes.

I won't try to summarize the entire article (you're welcome!), but Murphy and Morgan document rapid and far-reaching changes in transportation and agricultural systems. Small-scale farms and urban farms -- mostly organic because of a lack of fertilizers and chemicals -- brought major increases in fruit and vegetable production. Electrical generation was decentralized and made much more efficient. Government programs distributed 9.4 million compact fluorescent light bulbs in a six-month period, and replaced hundreds of thousands of older appliances. These programs have been so successful that Cuban experts are working with many other countries around the world, teaching strategies for reducing energy demand.

The shifts in technology and lifestyle have lowered Cuba's greenhouse gas emissions -- that's a side-effect of changes made for other reasons. The article tells us that "Cubans on average use 43 percent less energy than people in the rest of the world, and account for 44% less CO2 each year. And compared with Americans, Cubans use 85% less energy on average and use 86% less CO2."

Cuba's post-revolutionary identity provides some of the factors that have made these changes possible. A strong national commitment to universally-available social services has softened the impact of reduced material goods. The island's astounding record of human development is described as an essential component of the culture's ability to withstand such big transformations. Cuba has exceptional medical care, both in the number of physicians and hospital beds, and in the measured outcomes of community health. (Health care is an export industry -- 37,000 Cuban doctors are practicing in about 50 other countries.) Education is free, and both males and females receive high-quality schooling, including at university levels.

The article tells us:

Cuba has a very low per capita income, yet in the non-materialistic, quality-of-life domain, it excels. Thus Cuba represents a paradox. It is a materially poor country that has First World education, literacy, and health care. It is rich in human development resources and low in environmental burdens ... In 2006, Cuba was the only country in the world rated as having 'sustainable development' in WWF's Living Planet Report.

It has been a rough way to get there, spread over 50 years of international tensions and driven by dangerous shortages, but Cuba has found a way to one form of "the good life" that is relatively climate-healthy, sustainable, and socially coherent. Can a country make dramatic cuts in its use of energy and other resources and flourish? Cuba shows us that it really is possible.

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What are we to learn from the Cuban example? It certainly does not translate easily to a setting like the United States.

Cuba is a small island nation, with a population of just 11 million -- that's not much more than New York City at 8.2 million. It has a tropical climate that allows year-round intensive agriculture, and that doesn't need extensive heating or cooling of buildings. And this is a country that strongly claims its heritage of a revolutionary overthrow of colonial powers, which provides a deep sense of solidarity.

Some of the things that have allowed transformation in Cuba -- universal health care and education, and mandatory policies for energy use and business practices -- are the basis of intense political division here in the US. Don't think that the Cuban model stands a chance of getting through the US political system!

There are two things that I find of most value in studying the Cuban example.

  1. It shows us the power of forced choices. When crisis makes change inevitable, then previously unthinkable options become, not only viable, but attractive. What sort of crises might push our affluent society into considering extreme changes?
  2. It highlights the need to define what we really look to as measures of "the good life." When push comes to shove, will we cling to big houses and private cars, or will we affirm less tangible indicators of the common good?

The question for us, especially in the US, is not how to follow the Cuban example. That won't happen here.

What we can see from looking at one of our nearest neighbors is a case study of a country that has been able to adapt, and even thrive, in the face of serious threats. We can find hope in seeing communities that live well while using far, far less resources. We probably won't get there by a similar path, but we can look to Cuba as an example of what a sustainable society can look like, and then think creatively about how our culture could get to a similar place.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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