The world is full of drug addicts. The drug of choice is oil, and some countries are even willing to resort to theft and murder to obtain it. We enjoy around 94 million barrels of this drug per day. Suffice to say, such consumption of oil, and other finite fossil fuels, is simply not sustainable in the long term. We have already seen, in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the first resource wars of the 21st century.
In October 2006, the World Wildlife Fund, an international NGO that promotes environmental conservation, released its annual ‘Living Planet Report’. The key message of the report was clear: ‘We are using up the planet’s resources faster than they can be renewed’. According to the report, our consumption of natural resources, having rapidly increased in recent decades, now exceeds the Earth’s capacity to regenerate by 25%. The report also predicted that, if current trends continue, globally speaking, by the year 2050, we will be consuming natural resources at twice the rate at which they can be regenerated. In essence, we are living well beyond our means, and must take steps to alter our course.
However, the report did have a positive message – steps can be taken to reduce the consumption of natural resources and, in the words of the WWF, make the ‘transition to a sustainable society’. In the report, the term ‘sustainable development’ is described as being a way of ‘improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems’. To fit this description, a country must have both a ‘high level of development’ (measured by factors such as life expectancy, literacy and GDP per capita) and, at the same time, not exceed ‘the average bio-capacity available per person’ (ie: each citizen should on average not use the Earth’s resources at a faster rate than they can be regenerated).
It comes as little surprise that the most developed and affluent countries are also the ones who exact the greatest toll on the environment. At present, the average citizen of the US, Australia, Canada, Australia, Japan or the EU, is using up natural resources at rate of 2.5 (Japan) to 5 times (US) faster than they can be regenerated. At the other end of the scale, there are developing countries such as India and China. While their use of natural resources does not yet exceed bio-capacity, they are anot classed as having a ‘high level of development’, according to the aforementioned criteria, used by the UN.
As it transpires, Cuba is the only country that is able to meet the standards by which sustainable development is measured.
While conservation had been practiced in Cuba since the revolution, – a reforestation campaign beginning in 1959 has managed to nearly double the proportion of the island covered by forest – Cuba’s green revolution took off in the early 1990s, owing to circumstances the country faced at the time. The fragmentation of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a disastrous effect upon Cuba’s food and oil imports, which fell by more than 50%. According to George Carriazo, the Director of Cuba’s Centre for the Investigation of the Global Economy, foreign trade plummeted by 85% after the collapse of the USSR. Food Rations were cut and blackouts become the norm. The 1990s have come to be known as the ‘special period’ and were a time of great hardship for many Cubans.
The Toricelli and Helms-Burton Acts were imposed in 1992 and 1996 respectively, by a US government seeking to tighten the noose around Cuba. These pieces of legislation, designed to further impede Cuba’s overseas trade, added to the suffering of the populace.
With Cuba facing the prospect of starving citizens and an economic collapse, sweeping radical changes were rapidly implemented across the island. Effort was put into the development of alternative sources of energy. Farming practices that were adopted included the use of worm farms to convert waste into compost, a natural fertiliser. Natural pesticides were also developed. In short, a distinct method of farming, known as Permaculture, was implemented. This approach to agriculture relies on maintaining a diverse interdependent ecosystem and results in the production of high crop yields by way of minimal external input. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides are now rarely used. By 2003, their use had been reduced by more than 10 fold, compared to 1989. Another novel approach was the introduction of small-scale farming, including co-operatives and urban farms.
In response to the crisis of the 90s, Cubans created a system of agriculture that makes use of all arable land, and which works with, as opposed to against, the environment.
The story of Cuba illustrates what can be done when there is a will and a necessity to act. Let us hope that the steps to creating a sustainable world are taken sooner rather than later. Failure on the part of our governments to act could result in an indefinite global ‘special period’ characterised by widespread starvation, resource wars and irreversible environmental damage.
This week, Roberto Perez, a Cuban Permaculturalist and environmental educator, embarked upon a lecture tour around the UK. He will be speaking on the topic of urban solutions, food sustainability and the power of community. Mr Perez will discuss Cuba’s agricultural transition, and how individual communities faced up to the challenge of making it a reality. The environmental activist has previously featured in the award-winning documentary ‘The Power of the Community’.
The lecture tour began yesterday with Mr Perez giving a talk at the Embassy of Venezuela, in London. The Cuban Permaculturalist will be giving his next address tomorrow at the Permaculture Association Convergence, in Ilkley, before continuing his speaking tour, which will see him visiting many UK cities throughout the month of September.
A list of dates and venues for the speaking tour can be found at:
“The Power of Community”, which can be viewed at:
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This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek