Middle Row, Centre: The Power of Community

It’s a pretty safe bet that not too many of us will be worrying about peak oil during the holidays. But it’s an equally safe bet that it’s something we’ll all have to deal with in the coming years, perhaps sooner than we think.

As oil becomes scarcer and more expensive, our petroleum-based North American economy will have to make major adjustments if it is to survive.

An upcoming documentary in the Alpine Films series provides a working blueprint in facing the post-fossil fuel age. The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil details how the Cuban economy underwent a major downturn in 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union.

That collapse signalled an end to an era of cheap oil provided to Cuba by the USSR on a subsidized basis, resulting in much hardship.

The years 1989 to 1992 came to be known in Cuba as “The Special Period”, which witnessed a drop in the Caribbean island nation’s GDP of some 34 per cent. It lost 80 per cent of its export and import markets.

Factories closed, electrical blackouts were common, and food was scarce.

Cuba took drastic steps to face the crisis. In many ways it was a bellwether – the first nation to deal with the end of oil.

North America can learn much from Cuba’s experience, to help us deal with the same reality.

The Power of Community takes us through a brief history of the concept of peak oil. The finite nature of petroleum production was predicted as far back as the ’50s – there’s only so much to go around, and we’ve already tapped most of it.

It then takes us through a tour of the Cuban countryside and cityscape, interviewing educators, energy analysts, bio-climactic architects and agriculturalists, who explain the drastic changes to the fabric of Cuban society.

From the country with the highest rate of agricultural mechanization in all of Latin America, which used more pesticides than even the US, Cuba has converted to agricultural cultivation that is 80 percent organic. New bio-pesticides and fertilizers have been developed and are being exported all over South America.

Urban agriculture has led the way, with rooftop gardens and patios springing up all over the cities, and every spare piece of available vacant urban land converted to growing vegetables.

Teams of agriculturalists were imported from Australia, to train local farmers in composting and crop rotation.

Today, large state-owned plantations formerly devoted to sugar production have been broken down into small farms. Cuban farmers have become some of the highest-paid employees in the country.

Cuban health has also improved immeasurably. The country imported 1.2 million bicycles from China, and the increased exercise that accompanied the breakdown of a petroleum-based transportation system has resulted in drastically decreased diabetes and heart-related fatalities.

Cuba has been able to maintain its social services, and has a child mortality rate still matching that of the US. It’s turning out more doctors than it needs, and sends many of them to Venezuela in exchange for oil imports.

The power of community is indeed strong in a country like Cuba, whose population has for decades been conditioned to a national ethic of common struggle.

Whether a highly individualized society like North America’s, where community has been submerged in the growth of suburbia, can make the necessary changes in time to face the inevitable without social collapse, is a matter for some debate.

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil plays at 7:30 pm Friday, January 21, upstairs at the Alpine Bakery. Admission is by donation.

Brian Eaton is a cinema buff who reviews current films and writes on other film-related topics on a regular basis.

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