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Life After Oil: Cuba Can Teach Us How to Live Without Our Dirty Fossil Fuel Addiction

The crisis in the Gulf is only the most recent reminder that we have to begin imagining a post-carbon future.

As oil pours into the Gulf of Mexico, providing a painful reminder of the cost society pays beyond the gas station pump for fossil fuel energy, it's hard to even begin to imagine what a post-carbon future would look like. If you can't picture it, try looking about 90 miles south of Florida.

Cuba, which enjoyed plentiful oil during much of the latter half of the 20th century, entered a crisis when the Soviet Union and the Socialist Bloc disintegrated. In late 1989, Cuba saw its access to oil, food imports and chemicals used in industrial agriculture whisked away practically overnight. A few years later, in 1992, scarcity increased further when the U.S. tightened its blockade of Cuba. After 20 years of painful transition, Cuba is now a living example of how a society can flourish while treating oil like the scarce, filthy and increasingly risky-to-procure energy source it is.

The United States can learn two lessons from Cuba: first, what might happen if we do not transition to clean, renewable forms of energy before our oil runs out; and second, how we might successfully thrive in an era when oil is no longer a cheap form of energy we take for granted. Where Cuba's model can offer the most to the U.S. is in lessons learned about agriculture. Few Americans may be aware of how fossil fuel-dependent our food system really is. Oil powers tractors and fuels food processing plants, refrigerators and freezers that store our food. Oil powers the trucks and trains that ship our food to us and we also use oil to make pesticides. As for fertilizer? That comes from natural gas.

Cuba is living proof that an abrupt shift is painful. No Cuban who was alive at the time can forget the first years of the so-called "Special Period." Sara Daisy, who lives in Havana, describes waiting upwards of five hours for a bus to take her to work. Fernando, a middle-aged Cuban with a bit of a belly, says he lost 25 pounds in those first years, sucking in his tummy to show how he used to look. The societal upheaval caused by the lack of oil permeated every aspect of Cuban life. When Cubans were able to find transportation to their jobs, often they would arrive to find the power was out and they could not work anyway. The commute home was no easier, with another long wait for the bus.

Cuba, a nation with nearly 100 percent literacy and a highly educated population, simply didn't have enough oil to transport students to and from the island's major universities. And, perhaps most fundamentally, Cubans had simultaneously lost food and the inputs needed to grow their own food using industrialized agriculture. With only an average of 60 percent of their caloric needs met, Cubans began to starve.

The country needed to restructure in order to survive. Some of its adaptations are ones we in America might consider sub-optimal (like the widespread and encouraged use of hitchhiking as a means of transportation). But, keeping in mind that we can and should be selective in what we replicate, Cuba does provide a model for running a modern society on little oil. Nowhere is this truer than in agriculture. Cuba is perhaps the only country on earth with a national policy promoting food sovereignty via agroecology (that is, being able to feed their own population by growing food organically and ecologically).

The first phase of transitioning to agroecology involves input substitution. Farmers apply compost, manure or worm casting in place of nitrogen fertilizer and use organic pesticides in place of chemical ones. Cuban scientists worked to identify native beneficial insects, fungi and bacteria that prey on local pests. The island has hundreds of stations that produce these beneficials and provide them at a low cost to Cuban farmers. Whereas a chemical pesticide kills all bugs, good and bad, beneficial organisms only prey on the pests, leaving the rest of the ecosystem intact.

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