10 10 28 Surviving Peak Oil JH

At its monthly public forum on October 19th, the South Eastman Transition Initiative showed the movie, “The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil”. I am writing this column to share the challenge of the movie with those who did not attend this event.

Basically the movie documents what happened in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. For many years Cuba had depended on the Soviet Union for most of its raw materials, including oil. When the oil stopped flowing, Cubans faced a crisis. They had to re-invent a way of life that did not rely on cheap and abundant oil.

To focus this context, the movie offers a quick summary of the state of the global oil industry.

As Dr. M. King Hubbard predicted in the 1950s, oil production in the USA peaked in 1974. Nevertheless, appetite for oil continued to soar. On average today, the USA uses 26 barrels of oil a year for every citizen. Globally we use five barrels for every new barrel discovered. Developing economies like China exacerbate the problem as they demand lifestyles comparable to those in America.

It is not likely that our oil will stop flowing within a matter of weeks, as in Cuba. But Cuba’s experience ended up being a laboratory experiment that the rest of the world can learn from. While this “Special Period” was difficult, it transformed an oil-dependent existence into a higher quality of life for many: they learned to work along with nature instead of against it.

With little food to be found anywhere people started growing food in every available space in the cities. These “urban gardens” gave rise to a thousand vegetable kiosks in Havana alone. Beyond city limits, farms became smaller and employed more people. Depleted soils were rehabilitated through organic methods like crop rotation, composting, green manure, inter-planting and the introduction of bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers. Oil based pesticides used dropped from 21000 tons a year to 1000 tons.

Education and health services were quickly decentralized, bringing them closer to the people. Three major universities split up into 50 entities spread around the country. Yet life-span and infant mortality rates continued to equal those in the USA while using less than one fifth the amount of energy per person.

There was a major attempt made to place schools, work places, and recreation facilities within walking distances of most people. A not so surprising result was a major upswing in community spirit and participation.

One thing is certain, for most of our human existence we did not depend on oil, and once the present blip passes we will again learn how to live without it. That transformation will not come as quickly for us as it did in Cuba, but it will come. If not us, at least our children and grandchildren will have to adapt to a world with less oil that is more expensive.

Jack Heppner