How Cuba Survived Peak Oil – Movie and Discussion

This past Saturday I attended a screening of “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil” at UMKC. The room only had about ten people in attendance. It is a shame the room wasn’t full, because the lessons that one tiny island country have to teach us are worth paying attention to. It was, however, exciting to see the variety of individuals there, some of them coming from a business/finance background, others from the Food Not Lawns movement. Quite a few did not have a background in gardening or raising their own food, and I hope they left the meeting with an interest in changing that.

While waiting for security to open the door, we visited among ourselves, sharing brief introductions.

“Tell Me About Your Garden”

Mrs. Kjelshus, wife of Ben Kjelshus who got the “Food Not Lawns” group started in Kansas City gave me a once-over and said, “Tell me about your garden.” I told her about the mountains of mulch we had been moving, my 100% organic plans for this year, and my hope of tripling my produce to 600 pounds this year.

She did seem very pleased at my use of shredded paper and nodded in approval when I told her that I use it between beds for weed control, as well as in the compost.

“Tell me about your compost, how much do you get out of it?” she asked.

I felt a bit embarrassed, “I don’t think I do it right, so I only pull dirt out of it about once every six months to a year.”

Mrs. Kjelshus frowned. “Are you turning it every day?” I shook my head.”Well, you need to do that. You should be getting compost out of it every three weeks.”

At my look of dismay she suggested the following, “Put a wheelbarrow underneath your barrel composter and lay some hardware cloth over it. Dump the compost onto it and give it a little shake.” She smiled, “What comes out is the finest particulate you could hope for.” (Note to reader: I began turning the compost on a daily basis starting the next day. I’m also paying more attention to what I put into it, and trying for a better balance in order to speed breakdown of materials into usable compost)

At that point, the doors were opened and we went in and sat down. After a brief introduction, we began watching the movie, which was about an hour long.

Notes on “How Cuba Survived Peak Oil”

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990’s, Cuba lost over 80% of its import/export business, essentially propelling the small country into an artificial (yet still ongoing) peak oil crisis they refer to as “The Special Period.” Heavily dependent on oil for their energy needs, transportation and large corporate farms (which were more dependent on fertilizers and pesticides than the U.S.) – Cuba immediately began experiencing severe blackouts, massive disruption in food supply, and a nearly complete lack of oil to operate their automobiles. Coupled with the embargoes imposed by the U.S. which included severe economic penalties to other countries who docked in Cuba (ships that docked in Cuba were banned from docking in U.S. ports for a minimum of six months) and Cuba soon found themselves on the verge of famine.

Pregnant women were anemic, babies were being born underweight, and young children were showing classic signs of malnutrition. The average Cuban adult lost 24 pounds by 1994.

Without gas for private vehicles, the people of Cuba were depending on buses, which were few and far between, overloaded and infrequent.

The government imported millions of cheap bicycles from China and citizens learned to ride bikes instead of drive. A rationing/food distribution program was put into place to give some measure of stability, and the citizens began to re-educate themselves on sustainable agricultural practices. Oxen were re-enlisted to drag plows, and along with them, scores of people were trained on how to train others on the use of oxen, as well as train the oxen themselves.

Where there had been a small amount of large farms, there were now vacant lots transformed into gardens, and tiny farms popping up all over. Instead of fertilizers, people were learning organic farming methods, intercropping, and how to create compost and worm humus.

The Australians, especially those well versed in the permaculture movement came to help. Slowly things changed, the government offered free land, tax-free, to individuals willing to farm. They replaced a system that “in good times never fulfilled basic needs” with a “survival agriculture” system that is currently 80% organic. Not only that, but Cubans diet is now healthier, less fat-filled, and the gardens offer a larger variety of fresh produce than ever before. Cuba uses “21 times less” pesticides now than prior to the “Special Period.”

Cuba also made enormous strides in health care and education. Currently this small island country provides free health care to every one of its citizens and even exports its doctors to other Latin American countries due to having an over-abundance of medical professionals. They also decentralized their higher education centers, increasing their major universities from two to over FIFTY. This decentralization meant that a higher education was available to people in all areas of the country, and ensuring an extremely high literacy rate to all citizens (a far better literacy rate than the current 83% in the U.S. by the way).

I had to smile when one of those filmed referred to the new farming methods as working with nature and called it “lazy people agriculture.” I’ve long called myself a “lazy gardener” – I love perennial fruits and vegetables as well as fruit trees, because once planted, they require very little attention. Each year you get more and more fruit and vegetables with little or no effort! I’ve long eschewed pesticides and fertilizers as “too much work” – since you have to wash your hands well after application of chemicals and then again once you have harvested the produce. Why bother, when it also causes natural workers (bees, ladybugs, etc) to go somewhere else instead of staying local and benefiting my yard?

The changes in Cuba has also imbued Cubans with a renewed sense of community. Patricia Allison, a permaculturist profiled in the film said, “It’s not the technology, it’s the human relationships.” With smaller farms, with less mobility out of a community, people are learning to live, work and prosper in close relationship to one another.

In the end, Cubans lives might be simpler and more down-to-earth now than they were twenty years ago, but they are also healthier, better educated, and more community centered than ever before. As one said near the end of the movie, “You don’t need that much to be happy.”

Words to live by.

A Roundtable Discussion

Luis Flores served as the moderator and introduced the roundtable members – Ben Kjelshus, James Webb, and Ben Wilson. Each were given a few minutes to weigh in on the film and what they personally had taken away from watching it.

Ben Kjelshus, one of the prime movers and shakers of the Food Not Lawns movement here in Kansas City pointed to the increased cost of petroleum which we are of course seeing now, despite there being no particular reason for gas prices to rise so high. He considers Cuba as a great example to follow. Here in America, an increase in food prices will affect a lot of people, and there is genuine concern for the possibility of people ‘taking to the streets’ when faced with food shortages.

James Webb, a professor at UMKC, said, “We have got to change the way we do things.” He also pointed out that Cuba has the highest literacy rates in Latin America, better health care and more doctors. He also noted that the United States are the only first world country that does not have universal health care. He summed it up by pointing out that in this country, we have lost our sense of community.

Ben Wilson, a UMKC graduate, had visited Cuba in 2003 as part of a research grant, asked Cuban citizens for their views on capitalism, the United States, and the ongoing embargo. He noted that the overwhelming view of capitalism is that it is one of selfishness. He went on to point out that Cubans were naturally well-adapted prior to the “Special Period” because they had a thriving barter system already in place. He pointed to a university professor who has internet and television access and barters it in exchange for food, laundry services, and housecleaning.

Luis Flores summed up the thoughts of the roundtable members by describing Cubans as having a different sense of collective consciousness, while in the U.S. we are still dominated by the motive to compete with others, and even a drive to exploit others.

Several resources worth checking out were mentioned in the movie and by the roundtable members and these include:

“I Thought Cuba Was BAD.”

On Sunday I was visiting with a neighbor and mentioned seeing the movie. She blinked, looked a bit confused and said, “Okay, I’m not very good at history, so I don’t know much about Cuba and what happens there. I mean…isn’t Cuba…BAD…somehow?”

I ran down a little history and told her about the movie and I could see her interest. I actually felt relieved that she too, had known very little about Cuba other than the common party line. Honestly, until I saw the movie, my own thoughts were…Cuba…bad.

Saturday’s film again reminded me to not pre-judge. I questioned whether I should go and actually was tempted NOT to go, wondering what in the world a film about Cuba could possibly be relevant to me and mine. I’m so glad I did decide to go.

Here’s the thing – there is very little black and white in the world, instead there are shades of gray in just about every aspect of our lives. We must question everything, not be mindless slaves to what we have heard, or what someone else has told us. Saturday’s film was a prime example of that. It might not be the whole story, but it is a new and different perspective, one that can be learned from.

Growing A Community

This same neighbor is the mother of Brendan, the young man who volunteered to help Dave build our chicken coop. My explanation of the Cuba situation led back to talking about fostering community, which had come from a request for babysitting my little one on a day I’m teaching a cooking class and my husband is in school. My neighbor was more than willing to watch Emily, in no small part because her almost three year old and my daughter are new, and rather inseparable, playmates.

But this is part of a bigger lesson. We need to slowly move towards a different model – one that incorporates relationships with community, fosters friendships and support, and encourages the sharing of resources.

During the open discussion that followed the roundtable, I mentioned Janelle Orsi, homeschool graduate, attorney, and co-author of The Sharing Solution, who writes,

“Everyone involved is giving something and getting something, through endeavors like:

  • co-owning property or pooling resources
  • sharing use of property, either by taking turns or simultaneous use
  • cooperating to perform a task, make decisions, share responsibilities, or collectively purchase goods and services, and
  • exchanging goods or services in a barter process”

The tide is turning, and more and more of us are realizing how silly it is that every single person on our block own a lawnmower, instead of pooling our resources and sharing the cost and maintenance of one between neighbors. This apparently struck a chord with Luis Flores, the moderator, who said, “That really stood out to me when I first came to this country. Everyone has all of these things.”

We can have all of these things…the snowblower, the ride-on lawnmower, and more…but not every ONE of us needs to EACH have these things. We can share, we can pool resources, we can create a new sense of community and live better, happier lives as a result.

What Does This Mean for Us?

I worry that the U.S. will have to experience a massive disruption in food, energy and transportation before it learns to change. A recent article on, which I will post about in more detail in a later post, shows that despite the warning signs, Americans remain blissfully complacent about climate change, global warming, and peak oil. Despite the ‘hard times’ already beginning with the housing collapse in 2008, and the ongoing faltering of our economy, many still are operating under the “spend, spend, spend” laissez-faire attitude that we have all become so well known for.

Will it take our fannies being held to the fire for us to change? Will it take our children suffering from malnutrition and our lives and way of life in a state of free fall before we finally act?

Most don’t want to see the truth of the matter – that Cuba’s past is our future. Our day in the sun will vanish, and many will be standing still, confused, wondering what the hell happened, instead of acting.

Gandhi once said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” To that end, I will:

  • Continue to strive toward a “no-waste” household
  • Teach myself, family, friends, and anyone else who is interested about gardening, composting, and other self-sufficiency principles
  • Continue to learn and improve those skills and others
  • Turn my home and garden into an example of self-sufficient, grow-your-own goodness

What will YOU do?

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