One country, much maligned, provides a glimpse of a near future that many more may face. Almost like a laboratory example, positioned on the flight path of the annual hurricane season, since 1990 Cuba has lived through the economic and environmental shocks that climate change and peak oil hold in store for the rest of the world.
The sudden loss of cheap Soviet oil and its economic isolation were so extreme at the end of the Cold War, and its reaction to the shock was so contrary to orthodox approaches and relatively successful, that it was dubbed in Washington the 'anti-model'. Then oil imports dropped by over half and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers dropped by 80 per cent. The availability of basic food staples such as wheat and other grains fell by half and, overall, the average Cuban's calorie intake fell by over one third in around five years (Pfeiffer, 2006).
Because of serious and long-term investment in science, engineering, health, education and land redistribution, there was reduced inequality. Research into low-input ecological farming techniques meant the country had a strong social fabric and the capacity to act.
At the heart of the transition after 1990 was the success of small farms and urban farms and gardens. The immediate crisis was averted by food programmes that targeted the most vulnerable people - the old, young, pregnant women and young mothers - and a rationing programme that guaranteed a minimum amount of food to everyone. Soon, half the food consumed in the capital, Havana, was grown in the city's own gardens. The threat of serious food shortages was overcome within five years (Novo and Murphy, 2001). Overall, urban gardens provide 60 per cent of the vegetables eaten in Cuba.
Time magazine recently called for a 'War on climate change' (Time, 2007), and, interestingly, Cuba's experience echoed what America achieved in a more distant time of hardship during World War II. Eleanor Roosevelt then led the 'victory gardening movement' to produce between 30 to 40 per cent of vegetables for domestic consumption, and public education campaigns warned that wasting fuel was like fighting for the enemy.
Cuba demonstrated that it is possible to feed a population under extreme economic stress with very few fossil fuels; but there were other surprises too. As calorie intake fell by more than one third, of necessity the proportion of physically active adults more than doubled and obesity halved. From 1997 to 2002, deaths attributed to diabetes halved, coronary heart disease fell by 35 per cent, and strokes and other causes by around one fifth (Franco et al, 2007). The approach was dubbed the 'anti-model' because it was both highly managed and led by communities, it focused on meeting domestic needs rather than exports, was largely organic and was built on the success of small farms (Pfeiffer, 2006).
The same country's approach to disaster preparedness and management is also instructive. Compared to the deaths and destruction in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, when Hurricane Michelle hit Cuba in 2001, only five lives were lost and recovery was quick. It was due to proper planning and a collective approach managed by government, but owned at the local level. Disasters expert Ben Wisner commented on the evacuation of 700,000 of Cuba's 11 million people:
This is quite a feat given Cuba's dilapidated fleet of vehicles, fuel shortage and poor road system. At least one analyst suggests that the Cuban experiment 'may hold many of the keys to the future survival of civilization'. (Wisner, 2001)
Currently, according to our calculations, in a given calendar year the world as a whole goes into ecological debt around 7 October - by which time we have consumed more and produced more waste than ecosystems can deal with. The results are seen in climate change, oceans emptied of fish and desertification. Forty years ago Senator Robert Kennedy said that:
Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials... The Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. (Kennedy, 1968)
But it is possible to assess if we are achieving human development while living within our environmental means.
Nef's own Happy Planet Index compares the relative success of nations at delivering long life expectancy and high levels of well-being, compared to their size of ecological footprint. The results reveal many middle-income countries performing well, with good life expectancy and well-being and relatively low footprints. Strikingly, some of the best performers are small island states. Somehow, they have worked together to produce more convivial communities while respecting environmental limits.
The UN faces huge challenges. Not least is how to recognize and protect the large and growing number of people we can expect to be displaced in a warming world. The climate refugee crisis will dwarf that of political refugees. What will happen to the nationhood and economic areas of countries that could disappear entirely, such as Tuvalu? How can we change our locked-in thinking about economic development and reorganize around the principles of resilience, social justice, sufficiency, ecological efficiency and the capacity to adapt?
We might begin by asking, as acid tests:
• Will what we do make people more or less vulnerable?
• Will it move us toward truly sustainable one-planet living?
• Will it move us fast enough to prevent irreversible, catastrophic climate change?
When the people of Tuvalu first encountered Europeans in the 19th century, they gave them the name Palangi. Victorian travellers translated the word to mean 'heaven bursters', a reference to their ship's guns. Now, some of our lifestyles truly threaten to burst the heavens. At the very least, to achieve poverty reduction in a world threatened by climate change, we know that rich countries must radically cut their own consumption to free up the environmental space in which others can pursue, as a first step, the Millennium Development Goals.
The good news is that we now know from the literature on human well-being that making the rich richer does nothing to increase their life satisfaction. On the contrary, numerous studies confirm that once your basic needs are met, you are just as likely to have high life satisfaction, whether your ecological footprint is large or small. My conclusion is that a new development model is needed as much, if not more, in countries such as the UK and the US as in the majority developing world. It is us who have to demonstrate that good lives do not have to cost the Earth.
Given the speed with which we must now act, perhaps there is a lesson that we can learn from the past. At the time of writing, the nations of the UK and the US are gripped by a credit crisis (although more properly called a 'debt' crisis), threatening recession or even full-blown depression, and the impact of high oil and rising food prices, as well as the massive added challenge of having to avert climate change.
During the 1930s President Roosevelt launched his New Deal5 to tackle the excesses of a reckless domestic financial sector and to lay the foundations of economic recovery, which also put the US in a position, a few years later, to enter and help win World War II.
Was this article helpful?