development energy sustainability

The Cuban miracle – how Cuba survived peak oil

Climate change and peak oil represent an imminent double threat to our way of life, and we’re a little in the dark about what to do about them. Interestingly though, one country has already experienced peak oil and survived to tell the tale.

In the early 90s, the collapse of the Soviet Union devastated Cuba’s economy. Exports nosedived and GDP plunged. The country had been heavily dependent on Soviet oil, and suddenly oil supplies to Cuba halved. Buses couldn’t run, power cuts were frequent. Food imports dropped by 50%, and the country couldn’t feed itself.

Cubans survived the crisis by pulling together to live with less oil. They had to learn to grow their own food, so all available land was pressed into service. Since chemicals and pesticides weren’t available, it was almost all organic. Before long, Havana was able to provide half of the city’s food requirements from urban gardens. Through a programme of food rationing, land re-distribution, and community gardening, it became self-sufficient within five years.

Intriguingly, the crisis eventually yielded health benefits. Without oil, people had to walk, and the number of active adults doubled. With less food and a new active lifestyle, levels of obesity halved, deaths from diabetes also halved, and heart disease dropped 35%.

Cuba managed to makes a success out of an imposed crisis. This became known as the Cuban Miracle, because it’s the opposite of what development theory recommends. “The approach was dubbed the ‘anti-model'” writes Andrew Simms, “because it was highly managed, focused on meeting domestic needs rather than export oriented, largely organic, and built on the success of small farms.”

This documentary from Community Solutions tells the story:

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