The real lessons of Cuba and peak oil

This is a guest post from kiashu.

People looking at changing to a low fossil fuel use society, whether the change comes about due to necessity (peak oil) or by choice (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), often look about for historical and current examples of countries which had large fossil fuel use and then dropped it somewhat or completely. I touched on this issue with Freezing Point, noting the experiences of the former Soviet bloc countries. However, those countries ran short and then had the tap turned back on for them by the West. But there are only two countries who had the tap kept off, or at least turned down - North Korea, and Cuba.

North Korea is not often brought up as an example of a post-peak oil country because violent tyranny, labour camps and famine killing millions are not a good example if you want to say we can get along without fossil fuels, or really a good example of anything much else pleasant - though their military looks like it might be fun, what with all the hot chicks, which perhaps explains the [North] Korean Friendship Association and their webpage,, especially the FAQ, "can I join the Korean People's Army?" Mind you, Communist midgets charging at you with bayonets fixed could be disturbing (due to two decades of malnutrition, the KPA has reduced the height requirement to 1.3m, or 4'3").

Cuba's much more often discussed by the most common type of environmentalist, the lefty middle-class pseudohippy, including in a documentary, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil. For a discussion of it, see this youtube vid. It presents a picture of how "Cuba lost half their oil overnight", and of a friendly socialist government helping the people to get into "all-organic agriculture", and of how peak oil will create for us a happy friendly community. On the less-friendly to commies side, more recently there have been articles in the press saying that Cuba imports 70% of its food, or even 85%, mentioning that Cuba still has rationing.

Neither of these is a full or accurate picture of events. I've previously noted that we should beware graphs, because they often tell the truth, but not the whole truth; this is even more so with articles and documentaries.

Background, Fidel and Nikita
Cuba from 1959 to 1992 had only collectivised state-owned agriculture. This treats a farm like a factory - you go to work, get paid, but don't get the produce of the place directly. If you own it all yourself and produce more, you get to have more yourself; but if you're working for someone else on salary, you don't. Generally collectivisation will allow for bonuses for particularly productive workers, which works for things where individuals can produce more, like mines or old-style factories, but not so well for things where the work of individuals doesn't stand out, like farms and assembly lines. So all that motivated people to work harder and be more productive were their fellow workers, peer pressure. Thus the Soviet-era Russian saying, "we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."

Of course, many workplaces, whether state-owned or private, will have workers get together and conspire not to work too hard, to do the minimum to not get in trouble with the boss. Thus, the collectivised state-owned agriculture was not very productive. This has nothing to do with whether they had fossil fuel inputs or not, but all to do with how they arranged their workplaces in communism.

During Soviet days, Moscow tried to tie its empire together by trade. They worked with a capitalist concept, Ricardo's "theory of comparative advantage"; that is, if Poland is good at growing wheat and Hungary is good at making steel, Poland shouldn't bother making steel or Hungary growing wheat, but each should specialise, and then just swap. The communists thus had the same aim as the modern "globalisation" crowd.

Castro and Krushchev got together for a chat, the bald shoe-banging buffoon said, "Look, comrade, you're a tropical country, you can grow sugar cane and tobacco really well, and wheat and corn not so well. Also you don't have enough space for a lot of cattle and sheep. So how about you just focus on growing sugar and tobacco, and we'll send you food in trade for it."

"Okay," said Castro, "But if we grow just one thing, it depletes the soil, and all these diseases and bugs pop up. Also we don't want to have to have the whole damn population working hacking away at sugar cane, we'd like to modernise and have some industry."

"Don't worry, dear Fidel Angelovich," said Kruschev, "we'll send you fertiliser to enrich the soil, pesticides and herbicides to kill the bugs, and oil and tractors."

"Done," said Castro, shaking Krushchev's hand and checking his cigar for CIA explosives before lighting it up to celebrate.

Fidel and... Fidel on his own
This worked very well... until the collapse of the Soviet Union, a collapse very unexpected in the communist bloc. Suddenly Cuba found itself with lots of sugar and tobacco, and no food or oil or fertiliser or any of that stuff. "That's alright," the Father of the Revolution said, "we'll just trade with someone else." The problem was, the US blocked Cuban trade with a good part of the world, and the only parts of the world that would trade with Cuba - places like Ghana - didn't have much food anyway. Cuba then entered what was called "the Special Period." I was homeless once - that was a special period, too.

Castro reacted to this by sending more people to the collectivised farms to help out. Of course this didn't work. People got hungry. So people started supplementing the insufficient government rations with growing their own in the yards, in parks and squares. "Private production and consumption? That's not very fraternally socialist of you, comrade. We'll confiscate that." Gardens were torn up. But pretty soon it became apparent that the people faced famine.

Graciously allow that which you cannot prevent
... Unless you're really mean and nasty. Now, any dictator has to do at least two things to stay in power: pay the army, and feed the people. They can do that and still be overthrown, but if they fail in one or both of those they're definitely out. North Korea decided to focus on paying the army only, had a famine which killed a couple of million people, and apparently faced a couple of coup attempts in the 1990s, including armies planning to march on Pyongyang; these were put down bloodily, and nowadays North Korea feeds itself by bailing up the West with nuclear weapons. "Your money rice or your life!"

Castro wasn't ruthless enough to let a good chunk of his population just die, and judging from that whole Cuban Missile Crisis thing, nukes seemed an unwise choice. So between changing government and changing government policy, Castro quite naturally chose to change policy. Following the advice of Machiavelli, he decided to graciously allow that which he could not prevent. Private growing and selling were permitted. Many of the collectivised farms were broken up and leased privately. Food production rose. Nobody starved. Revolution was averted.

This is the thing that documentaries like to focus on, Cubans setting up local organic polycultures in the socialist paradise.

Still burnin'...
Interestingly, going by EIA figures, their oil consumption didn't drop to nothing, or even "halve overnight" as the PowerOfCommunity site claims, but fell from 224,800bbl/day in 1989 to 180,000bbl/day in 1992, that is a drop of about 20%. It's now about 203,000bbl/day, thus a drop of only about 5%. But natural gas consumption went from just 1.1 billion cubic feet in 1989 to 26.4 in 1997 and is now 14.126 billion cubic feet annually. And coal consumption went from 254,000t in 1989 to 41,000t today.

Overall, total Cuban fossil fuel energy use went from a high of 0.51 quadrillion BTU in 1989 to 0.458 today, a drop of 10%. This is rather less than is commonly implied by groups promoting the success of Cuba's "solution to peak oil".

Note that Cuba does not appear to be planning to abandon fossil fuels; a Cuban newspaper tells us that the country has an electricity generation capacity of 3,500MW, 1,600MW of which were added in the last three years alone - all dependent on diesel and fuel oil, while another article boasts of the building of two new natural gas-burning plants of 35MW each, and that 3.45 billion cubic metres of natural gas a day are produced and consumed, about 10% for domestic cooking, and 90% for electricity generation. Doubling fossil fuel-derived electricity generation in three years is not really consistent with a plan to avoid future fossil fuel shortages; they obviously think peak oil is over for them and not coming back soon.

Overall, about 66% the oil Cuba uses is for electricity generation, the other 33% or so for transport. Much of the country was poorly-electrified or had occasional blackouts already, so they couldn't cut oil use there. They decided to cut it for transport, thus transport lost 20/33, or most of its oil. That's why you see on Cuban streets many horses and carts. So Cuba's experience of a drop in oil supply is that it's not cut evenly across the economy, but private transport misses out first.

Fossil fuels on the fields
However, their imports of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, which are all made from fossil fuels, dropped far more substantially than just 20%, as this pdf from the FAO, written in 2003, tells us.

"In recent years, there has been a substantial decrease in the use of agricultural inputs in Cuba, with a consequent fall in the yields of most crops. [...]

Despite a reduction in the use of fertilizers, the yield level of the banana crop has been maintained due to improved management and the existence of soil nutrient reserves. The potato crop is given priority by the state; levels of fertilizer application on this crop have remained steady and yield levels have been maintained. The domestic production of rice is far from satisfying domestic demand. The domestic production of rice is far from satisfying domestic demand and there are substantial imports. Yields are well below their potential.

The urban and peri-urban cultivation of crops has been promoted in Cuba in order to alleviate food shortages.

Emphasis is placed on making optimum use of available organic materials and composting. Biofertilizers have been tried as an alternative source of nutrients but their use has declined, apart from Rhizobium." [my emphasis]

So they didn't actually choose to have organic polycultures - they just didn't have the other stuff to use, and as soon as they had the option to return to conventional fossil fuel intensive agriculture, they did, with the notable exception of the urban agriculture. Cuba experienced less the power of community, and more the power of necessity.

Cuba today

In the 1990s they grew virtually all of their own food, but a lot of people went hungry - they didn't starve, but it wasn't enough. From 2001 the US started selling Cuba food. Nowadays Cubans get about 22% their toal nutrition from wheat, and 13% from rice, most of it imported from the US. They also import from the US soya meal and the like which they feed to their livestock to get milk and meat, and so the US food must get partial credit for their nutrition from that, too. But overall the Cubans provide more than half their own nutrition.

In recent years promotion of biofuels and a rising middle class in Asia wanting meat, both of which require large inputs of grain, have meant rising grain prices. At the same time record sugar crops around the world have dropped sugar prices. So this has meant that Cuba pays more for the food it imports than the cash crops it exports. Looking at it dollar terms is probably where the "Cuba imports 70% of its food!" claim comes from. But in terms of actual nutrition, over half is domestically-produced, and a bit under half imported. We have to consider things in terms of nutrition; if I eat a dozen rolls of bread with tomatoes for $4 and a piece of brie for $6, it's not really true to say that 60% of my food was brie.

They still have rationing for their food, but they had rationing in the "prosperous" Soviet times, too, as did most communist bloc countries, so this has more to do with unproductive socialism rather than unproductive non-fossil-fuel-using agriculture. But food produced by people locally is not rationed, and is bought and sold freely. Cubans overall have better health than in the 1980s, mostly due to a more varied diet and with more fresh fruit and vegetables. Essentially, the rations are imports and cover most of the staples, while the private growing is domestic and covers the full nutrition.

Most of the oil and natural gas used is still used only for generating electricity; it could thus in principle be replaced by electricity generation not using fossil fuel. They'd then only be left with a bit of oil to use for their "camels".

The Cubans continue not to use large fossil fuel inputs in their food-producing agriculture, with the notable exception of potatoes, but they do use it for their cash crops. So it seems fair to say that you don't need fossil fuel inputs to feed yourself, but you do need them to make a lot of cash. With both their organic polycultures and their industrialised agriculture both, the Cuban government has used the best science it had to help productivity and sustainability; and Cuba does well in the biological sciences, being a significant contributor to medicine and pharmaceuticals in the Third World.

Cuba remains unfree and a communist country. As reported by AP, only 3% of the working population is self-employed, or employed by someone else; the other 97% are employed by the government. In the 1990s Raul Castro persuaded Fidel to allow about 150 categories of work to be done privately, but now that Cuba's more prosperous again, the freedoms are being taken back - 40 categories have been withdrawn, no more self-employed clowns, stonemasons, and so on. The 1,000 privately-owned restaurants have dropped down to 100, reportedly because they were taking business away from the state-owned restaurants. Whether this will change with the rise of Raul Castro remains to be seen.

So Cuba still uses a lot of fossil fuels. On the other hand, Cuba is putting in a fair amount of renewable energy; but this is dwarfed by its new fossil fuel using electricity generation. For another view of it all, consider the October 2006 Living Planet report, which says that "sustainable development" must achieve an HDI (Human Development Index) of 0.80 or more while at the same time having its per capita ecological footprint not exceed 1.8 hectares, the average biocapacity available to each person on the planet. On their assessment, only Cuba achieved both criteria. However, it's worth bearing in mind that the ecological footprint is more about a "fair share" than genuine sustainability. What is a fair share of a scarce and depleting resource? What is a fair share of polluting?

Going from this list, Cuban greenhouse gas emissions are about 4.0t CO2e per capita absolutely, or 3.1t with land-use change - they have a decent forestation programme. This compares to 5.6/6.8t as the world average, or about twice the 2t per capita I settled on as goal emissions. If the world lived like them, this would be 3.1/6.8 = 46% of current emissions, basically a 50% reduction (allowing for uncertainty in the various figures). Not enough by far - but still much better than the entire Western world, and almost anyone likely to be reading this article.

Lessons learned
So far everyone looking at Cuba has looked at it with some kind of axe to grind, doomer, anti-doomer, friend or foe of socialism and sustainability. Those who say we can't do without fossil fuels quote the "imports 70%" line. Those who are by nature collaborators with tyrannical regimes say, "look, the power of community, look how everyone got together spontaneously to help each-other out!" Those who are keen on organic food say, "look, they feed themselves without fossil fuels." Each of those is in some ways the truth, but is not the whole truth.

The real lessons learned from the Cuban experience are,

  1. having your country produce just a few things and importing everything else leaves it vulnerable to disruptions in global trade and supply
  2. these disruptions can drop in for a surprise visit, they're not easy to foresee and prepare against, if you wait until you hear the train coming before you get off the tracks you might get hit
  3. people are naturally conservative, that is reluctant to change, but will change when it's necessary to their survival. If given the chance, they'll try to go back to the old way of doing things, mixed in somewhat with the new ways.
  4. governments, insulated from day-to-day reality of common life, are more conservative still, but like the people will change when it's necessary to their survival. Governments will at first get in the way, later get out of the way, and finally help and then claim it was their idea all along, If given the chance, they'll try to go back entirely to the old way of doing things as soon as possible.
  5. it is possible, though difficult (requiring greater labour and skill) to feed ourselves with very little or even no fossil fuel inputs
  6. to get lots of money by exports requires large fossil fuel inputs

Thus an honest and balanced look at what actually happened in Cuba teaches us many useful things about peak fossil fuels and climate change, and the adaptations to them.

[All images courtesy of The Power of Community website, except for the commie tyrants, who they're sensible enough to omit from their website.]

Cross posted from Green With A Gun.

I'm shattered...I can feel the worst of my doomerism coming back.. we need to develop a new and lasting model of how to do without oil but in the meantime I'm working harder at my calling to neo-peasantry!!!

It's not doomerist to say that we can feed ourselves, but will have less cash :)

Decidedly anti-doomerist. A shred of hope sprouts at TOD

Nice post, Kyle. The distinction you make between food exports and in country food production can probably be explained by one economist who noted that large scale agriculture was "surprisingly resistant to the most successful strategies of adaptation." That is, it seems to be that large export farms can't be easily run by organic, low input methods - that small is necessary.

BTW, I think you overstate your own objectivity more than a little here. For example, you imply that you are the first person to note that the community response of the Cubans was a necessity. That point is quite explicitly made in _The Power of Community_ - there was never the suggestion that communities came together in anything other than a crisis response. But the point rather is that they did that, rather than going hungry in isolation as the Soviets seem to have done.


I didn't say I was objective, I said that I was presenting an "honest" assessment of the situation, rather than one filtered through some ideological filter for or against the whole idea of smallscale localised organic agriculture.

there was never the suggestion [in the documentary] that communities came together in anything other than a crisis response.

In the documentary and the public discussion surrounding it, there's a lot of talk about how existing community structures associated with the socialist way of doing things laid the foundations for the response to the crisis. In the youtube discussion I linked to, the interviewer Donaldson says,

"I mean, you've got a dictatorship there, and that's got some pluses and minuses... I mean, one thing about a dictatorship is, if they say, we're all going organic gardening, then we're all going organic gardening [...]"

Megan Quinn responds, "the government has done a lot of things to incentivise, which I'll get to in a moment. But at the beginning of the crisis the government really couldn't do anything, things were moving too fast, so what they did was actually relinquish more control to the local communities."

And so on. The documentary and the discussions surrounding it have basically said, "it was the power of community that got them through it, and this was because of past government policy, and now new government policy is really helping them."

And this isn't true. The changes arose from necessity, not community; community arose from necessity. The people say they're closer now than they were before; so the local gardens didn't come about from an existing close-knit community, they came about, and then community was built on top of them. And the government at first opposed these changes, and only accepted them when there was no alternative. They spent a few years supporting them after that, but now things are being rolled back.

And the government at first opposed these changes, and only accepted them when there was no alternative.

It appears that a similar but still different dynamic was at work in the Soviet Union. According to the reference below, even before it fell apart, a full 30% of food (by ruble value, not calories) came from household plots that had always been important to the Soviet food supply. Large scale agriculture in the USSR really sucked (for a whole host of reasons) and was never able to fully displace private small scale production at any point much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the Soviet elite. Household plots were in gradual decline until Gorbachev came along.

However, before the Soviet Union fell, with the advent of Gorbachev the Soviet government knew the game was up food-wise and they began to say, in effect, "grow your own food" even before food production fell off a cliff.

With good reason since by 1998 Russians were getting 59% of their food by ruble value from household plots (the peak) and eating much less than before.

Necessity trumped ideology.

(1)"Russia's Food Policies and Globalization",M1


BTW, as a bit of a corrective to folks who cite Russia as an example of gardens sustaining city folks, both sources agree that household plots were much more important for the maintenance of the rural populace than their relatively better off urban comrades. Rural dependency on small plots was five times greater than urban dependency. Gardening was common in urban areas but it didn't contribute nearly as much (neither ruble-wise nor calorie-wise). The ability to acquire marketed food was substantially greater for urbanites although there does seem to have been a small minority of city folk who were entirely sustained by homegrown staples like potatoes.

I think the conviction that one is being more honest than everyone is generally, actually a bias in itself. I don't mean that as an attack, just that I think it undermines the credibility of the analysis to engage in self-praise of your own perspective while doing the discussion.

I have not see the Youtube discussion you refer to (dial up, can't watch it), only the film itself. But I do think that the film itself makes the claim that socialism made it more likely that people would respond with collective solutions, but it doesn't claim that the power of community was motivated by anything other than a crisis.

That is, I think your distinction, between "community formed by necessity" and "community formed by community" is somewhat useful, but not quite as much as you think. That is, I don't think you've made the case that this particular collective response was the only choice - you've set it up as "government overthrown" or "government accepts a particular kind of response." I agree that Fidel had every incentive not to be overthrown. What I think you have not made a persuasive case for is that *the particular form* that the Cuban agricultural change took was the only possible response - that is, for example, that Castro couldn't have gotten the same results in any other possible way, or stayed in power in any other way. That is, necessity required a response, not as successful a response as they actually got.

I also don't think you've made a case that socialism wasn't a factor in the solutions become communal in Cuba - I'm willing to accept that the documentary's case may be insufficient, but you haven't successfully argued that - you've rather asserted it.

Again, I really liked your article, but I think what you've done is overstate the case on at least one side of the argument, so that your own mid-point looks as you put it, more "honest." The problem is, that bias pervades all analyses, and sometimes when we're most trying to be unbiased, we're most in the grips of it.


Thinking further on being objective, I actually came into writing it not at all objective, in that I was hoping I'd find out all the stuff was true. A relaxed, warm and sunny country with good healthcare, national self-reliance and independence, the country looking after itself, just exporting a few luxury goods, beautiful food-producing gardens everywhere, friendly grocers selling you vegetables grown not even a mile away, sexy Latin men and women dancing the samba with each-other between picking melons - who wouldn't like that?

Sorry for the worthless comment, but this was a great posting. It is nice to see somebody look at Cuba's energy and agriculture situation from outside of the 100% hatred or 100% enchantment that you always seem to get.

Thanks. That was basically my aim. "Well, this guy says they're All Bad, and this one says they're All Good... they can't both be right..."

You can thank or blame our own JD, the anti-doomerist, for this article. It was prompted by his post to his blog, Cuba: suckling the tit of industrial agriculture", in which he quotes the "imports 70% of its food!" figure. During the ensuing comments, he put up figures that Cuba's oil consumption had only dropped 20% during the early years of the "special period".

This led me to ask:
"70%? Really?"
"Only 20%? I always believed the people who said the supply had halved."

As I say in the sidebar to my blog, if you doubt it, google it. We just accept a lot of the stuff we read. If some information is used to tell us something extraordinary, then we ought to have a look at that information and see if it's any good. Turns out, both lots were wrong.

I haven't had much time to blog lately, but I did follow up on that 70% figure with the author of the LA Times article. As a source, she cited: "Centro de Estudios de la Economia in Havana, a report about 18 months ago, and th USiCuba Trade and Economic. Council." When I asked for more detail, she said it was something she read in Cuba in 2006. So that's pretty much a vaporware statistic.

As I say in the sidebar to my blog, if you doubt it, google it.

Actually, I find that to be a convenient fig leaf to cover your shoddy research practices. I think it would be a much better idea if you just cited your sources in the first place. Particularly since I've already caught you making up "facts" once already.

As of 2001-2003, the Cuban dietary percentages and import/consumption ratios were as follows (according to the FAO(pdf)):

Cereals: 53% of dietary intake, imports/consumption=104%

Vegetable oils: 6% of dietary intake, imports/consumption=99%

Meat: 6% of dietary intake, imports/consumption=46%

Milk: 6% of dietary intake, imports/consumption=46%

Cuba is highly self-sufficient in sugar and roots/tubers, which (combined) provide 27% of dietary intake. (If you want to call sugar "nutrition"...)

Thanks for following up the dodgy journalist.

I told you, I don't make things up, but like anyone I get bad sources from time to time - and when I find out I'm wrong, I say so publicly. Will you be retracting your "Cuba imports 70% its food" article, or publishing a correction? I doubt it. So play nice :)

The pdf you helpfully link us to lists selected foodstuffs, specifically:- rice, wheat, maize, sorghum, potatoes, cassava, sugar, soybean oil, palm oil, milk, animal fats, eggs, pig meat, poultry, bovine meat, and sheep and goats meat. Are we to presume that Cubans consume no fruits and vegetables?

Another FAO pdf tells us that as of Nov 2006, rice and wheat made up 35% of their diet; about 90% of this is imported, and 10% produced domestically. This leaves 70% of their nutrition to account for.

It also tells us that they produced 1,816,000t of fresh vegetables, or about 160kg per Cuban annually. This is about what the average Australian consumes, by coincidence. They also produce about 70kg tomatoes per Cuban. The exports list no vegetables or tomatoes, so it seems fair to assume they're eating them all.

I'd be interested to see more comprehensive statistics on their production and consumption. Until then, I think it fair to say - on the basis of the figures we've seen so far - that Cuba supplies about half its nutrition domestically.

Incidentally, this was the article I originally read which said that the rice in Cuba had come from Vietnam. I half-remembered it, then in casual comments on JD's blog just remembered "east Asia" and called it "China."

However, I had no actual numbers - but hey, it was a comment on a blog post, not a proper article. Nonetheless, I was wrong.

I didn't, however, "mak[e] up "facts"." I just got an inaccurate source (most of Cuba's rice is coming from the US), half-remembered it, and screwed it up.

I'm hardly unique in that :)

It's not a biggie, Kiashu, and I won't mention it again. I like your writing a lot, and I'm just giving you a friendly jolt to make sure you diligently cite your sources. :-)

On a small scale Cuba highlights something I've been suspecting. Cash crops like grains/soybeans etc are probably better produced using modified versions of our petro agriculture. I think they should become more organic over time but the cost/benefit ratio seems to favor modifying current practices.

Organic wheat/rice etc is more of a social desire at least for in the short term. Remaining supplies of oil/NG and use of biofuels and alternative routes to synthesis of ammonia will probably keep something close to current agricultural practices viable for these basic crops.

However it seems that all other vegetables outside of these core ones benefit from small organic approaches. This makes a lot of sense to me. Anyone who has grown a garden has probably realized that even small gardens can provide a lot of your produce. And if your willing to eat canned/frozen/dried food it works.

You missed something that might also be important most farm animals outside of cows can be successfully raised on small organic farms. Chickens and rabbits esp but also pigs and goats. And of course fish from ponds. So you also get more protein then you think.

The end result is its just the big carbohydrate sources that seem to be and issue. Generally diets heavily weighted in these are not good anyhow.

Nice post I think that it highlights something thats been bothering me about American organic farming. Right now its done more to support a lifestyle not out of pragmatism. And I think that the anti-fertilizer/herbicide etc crowd is missing what is showing in Cuba that the cash crops will probably continue to be produced like they are into the future.

For now this means that organic wheat farms are probably not a good idea long term at least for making money.

But it highlights that these are the real problem areas since petroleum based agriculture will probably suppress development of organic alternatives till its "too late" to replace them if shortages impact food production. Korea I think illustrates this.

Remaining supplies of oil/NG and use of biofuels and alternative routes to synthesis of ammonia will probably keep something close to current agricultural practices viable for these basic crops.

One thing rarely mentioned is that we have three real levels of fossil fuel "reserves"

1. economically viable reserves - the reserves that you can get out, going on the money cost of doing so
2. energetically viable reserves - the fossil fuels that you can get out, given that you want to get more energy out of them than it took to drag them up
3. the actual physical reserves in place

(3) > (2) > (1)

Just as some uranium mines in the world have a negative energy return on energy invested, and are economically unviable, but people mine them anyway because they want the uranium for purposes other than energy and money, so too will it be with fossil fuels.

Even if you won't get the energy back and it's very expensive, it may be worth getting fossil fuels for fertilisers, plastics and so on. These things would be a lot more expensive than they are now, but might still be worth it to some people.

So while peak fossil fuels may mean the beginning of the end of burning fossil fuels, it need not mean the end of use of fossil fuels. This is often forgotten by people, especially the doomer "humanity will die off!" crowd.

Regarding animals on small farms and large, I didn't mention them because it's really not clear how much the Cuban smallscale localised organic agriculture depends on them, compared to how much they depend on conventionally farmed animals (imported or local). It is clear that they import a lot of soymeal and the like, and don't eat it themselves. Whether that stuff goes to Alfonso Juarez's backyard goat or his cattle in the field pumped up with hormones I don't know.

But it is clear that the Cubans are responsible for no more than 65%, and no less than 50%, of their own nutrition.

The flip side of this with say 50% of the food imported is that transportation plays a very large role in feeding the population. Thus even though we may continue to grow grain pretty much as we do today. Distribution of grain my become very uneven.

In the past grain was readily shipped worldwide. However transport of grain far from the ports or in our case rail lines may become difficult as the road infrastructure falls into disuse.

I've not done a formal calculation but I estimate that the current road network will have extensive failures 10 years or so after automobiles are not the primary transportation. The rail network will expand for sure but in the interim a lot of far flung communities may no longer be viable.

Do you know anything about the road network in Cuba.

Although this is probably slanted.

Googling indicated that in general the roads are not very good outside of part of the main highway and in the cities.

This means that moving bulk goods back to the smaller villages is probably pretty expensive. I suspect that diets of the villagers are basically 100% local food. It makes sense that imported food is primarily eaten in the coastal cities. However your soymeal result also indicates to me that animal feed is in use.

It would be very cool if we had data on the diets of the urban areas vs rural. Since Cuba is a island you probably don't have large inland cities.

However Santa Clara seems fairly large 300,000 inhabitants and is reached by both road and rail. Google maps did not seem to show a extensive paved road network.

I think its save to say that retraction of the availability of goods to towns of reasonable size and reachable from ports or by rail or the remaining main roads is reasonable.

A interesting trip.

Well, I did read that in the rural areas basically everything they ate was locally-grown. We don't know how much that's true for the smaller cities or towns, nor is it clear whether the lack of imported food in the rural diet is due to poor road transport, rural poverty, or what. Probably all of those things.

There's not much point in maintaining the roads if there aren't many cars running. They didn't have many to begin with, add in fuel shortages, and...

I probably should also have noted that 203,000bbl/day is 74.1Mbbl/year, which for a country of 11.394 million people is 6.5bbl each annually. This compares to about 25bbl/yr for the US, and is actually about the same as Russia's per capita consumption. Though if you take out the 2/3 that goes to electricity generation in Cuba, that leaves you 2.2bbl/yr per person, which is a bit more like Peru, Indonesia, Albania, Nicaragua, countries like that.

So, not exactly what I called "wasteful industrial", but hardly a fossil fuel free life. And as I noted, their fossil fuel-using electricity generation being built at a cracking rate does not indicate a country that thinks it'll be seeing peak fossil fuels any time soon.

I don't think it's really true to say "Cuba adapted to peak oil", it's more like, "they put up with it for a bit and are now keenly using fossil fuels again in great and growing quantities." It doesn't look like we'll be seeing a "carbon zero" resolution from Cuba any time soon.

Thanks for your paper its important in my opinion.

Also note that tourism plays a big part of the economy and thats certainly something that will diminish as oil supplies decline.

I'll be interested to see if they have the money to move to electric rail and wind power.

A couple of things seem pretty obvious suburbia McMansion/SUV style is almost certainly dead. But in general it looks like we are looking at a slid towards third world standards of living with the poverty and political problems that result.

However on the flip side as I said above it will be interesting if Cuba can wean itself off off fossil fuel for electricity generation and maintain the standard of living. I'm a bit surprised they don't have a nuclear power plant I guess even the Soviets did not want to see Cuba develop a nuclear bomb but thats political.

Also despite the government in reading the link I sent on someones travel Cuba sounded about the same as the rest of Central America.

Actually, there need not be a lot of fossil fuels for them to have tourism, they're not even a hundred miles from a country with hundreds of millions of people. Absent the US embargo, I'd expect to see a regular ferry service start up, that needn't use a lot of FF...

I don't know if Cuba has the money for much at all. They only pay their civil servants US$11 a month and up. The CIA world factbook tells us that they have a PPP GDP of US$51 billion. They have $35 billion in revenue (70% of GDP!) and $36.7 billion in spending. I've not been able to get a breakdown of this spending.

But presumably if they can afford gas-fired plants, they can afford wind, solar, trainlines, and so on. Dunno really.

Cuba was building two 417 MW VVER-440 V213 nuclear reactors at Cienfuegos - for reference, a similar one operates today in HUngary, but this was stopped at the beginning of 1992 with the Communist bloc collapse. I don't know what arrangements they'd made at the time for the spent rods, presumably the Soviets would take care of them, since they would have had to be supplying them in the first place. Cuba only acceded to the NPT in 2002.

Edited to add: According to this Havana Journal article (the online newspaper, despite its name, is published from Cape Cod by US citizens)

o Locomotives
Cuba has purchased 100 locomotives from China for US$130 million(2). Cuban railways have been deteriorating for years due to lack of maintenance, equipment, and spare parts. Under this new program, rail transport has risen by 13 percent, and food transport by rail rose by 60 percent in 2005 compared to the previous year(3). Also, 1,000 train cars have been repaired(4).

o Buses
Cuba signed a contract for 1,000 Chinese buses for urban and inter-provincial transportation(5). The bus system has been collapsing due to lack of maintenance and spare parts, leading to improvised mass transit that is neither effective nor efficient.

o Refrigerators
Due to crumbling electrical infrastructure, stop-gap measures are being implemented throughout the island to address rising demand. One of these is the replacement of older appliances with newer, more efficient models, including 30,000 Chinese refrigerators(6).

(footnotes can be found in original text)

So apparently China, of all places, is helping with a more eco-friendly infrastructure. What does China get out of it? Oil exploration rights (adding more irony to the depiction of Cuba as an post peak oil ecotopia), mineral investment, Cuban biotech, and a spy base to listen in on US communications.

Actually, there need not be a lot of fossil fuels for them to have tourism, they're not even a hundred miles from a country with hundreds of millions of people. Absent the US embargo, I'd expect to see a regular ferry service start up, that needn't use a lot of FF

This is a good point. Ferry service is many times more efficent than air flight. In the future, fewer people will be able to vacation to Europe or Hawaii or Tahiti. If the embargo is lifted on Cuba (Isn't it about time? The embargo hasn't had the intended effect in 40 years. Maybe more trade and interaction might work.) then tourism to Cuba will be a bargain, at least to those located in the south.

Peak oil of course spells hard times for my state of Hawaii. High oil (the first FF to peak) means that tourism (25% of our economy) will be severly curtailed. Agriculture (coffee, pineapples, macadamia nuts, etc.) will become less profitable, since all the inputs must be imported from thousands of miles away. We're at high risk for fuel interruptions, and our electric bills will be the first to go up since 85% of our electricity is generated via oil. We're also at risk for food interruptions, since 90% of our food is imported. Our situation here is very similar to Cuba's, without the repressive socialist regime.

I visited for a week in 2000.

We traveled the autopista (divided highway) from Havana out to the country. Not well maintained and not much traffic. It was shared by every mode of transportation from pedestrian, animal to motor vehicle.

In Havana, many ride 2 to a bike. If you have transportation, you have friends. We saw 4 people riding a small motorbike.

And under every overpass on the autopista were people hitchhiking.

And yet even with all that ineffieient socialist production. The Cuban people are far better off than many of their fellow south American capitalist hell holes on many measures from health care to literacy. Just goes to show that if you are an imperial center of capital e.g. US or Britian you can do quite well out of the gig, if you are on the periphery then you are better off with a form of democratic socialism. Heck even the USA has 43% of capital allocation done by the government sector because the free market can't figure it out. Balance appears to be a key in success.

"south American capitalist hell holes" may be something of a misnomer. Many of the so called "capitalist" countries in South America are actually oligarchies, with a small set of families controlling most of the wealth and industry in the nation, and willing to sick the military and police on the 90% of the population who have no chance of engaging in wealth production except as a low level unskilled laborer for the wealthy.

Before anyone makes a comparison to the U.S., yes, I know, we have moved too far in this direction ourselves.


If only pure capitalism existed. There's not a free market in any state on earth. There's just various degrees of people with weapons controlling other people's property. It's because people with guns are better at providing our desires than the market

You might be better hoping:"If only pure communism existed." Neither of these absolute states has ever existed, but a stable, sustainable society based on "From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs", has a far greater chance of success than the Darwinian "Nature red in tooth and claw" principle of the free market.

The best examples of the "communist" society would be the closed religious communities (abbeys, monasteries, etc)of the pre-industrial age; the black market activities such as the Camorra-run rubbish collection in Naples is an excellent example of a "free market" in action.

Unless there is a massive die-off, capitalism has passed its use-by date, as it is dependant on ever increasing growth which is impossible on a finite globe.

I personally don't like either extreme. A wishy-washy hybrid would be most comfortable.

A thing that always amuses me is how "Anti-communist" americans claim to be, while retaining all manner of "socialist" subsidies and protectionist systems. New Zealand, which is supposedly a "Welfare State" has a far more Right-wing lassee-faire economy in many ways.

Lets just hope that some form of reasonable society can exist as soon as possible after the survivors crawl thru the immanent population bottleneck.


Here's a funny, but minor example of private-public hypocrisy in the US. You may know that the South is the cradle of the right-wing movement that began with opposition to school desegregation and then cleverly evolved into support for Christian "segregation academies", which in turn bloomed into an entire Reaganite ideology associating privatization and Christianity. Yet the bulk of important Southern universities are state-owned, and I've never heard anyone talk about privatizing them.

You see, Southerners just worship college football, absolutely worship it more hours of the week than God. Very few of the top American football programs are private schools; wealthy Los Angeles supports one and Notre Dame is practically the national school of American Catholics. There's no substitute for state tax dollars if you want to build a top-flight football program. It's been that way at least since socialist Huey Long used Louisiana's oil-filled coffers to build up LSU's program, his one lasting contribution to Southern political reality. Here in Texas, UT and Texas A&M used to split a "Special Fund" between them from state oil leases, but now have to share with other state schools. I've never heard Texan Ron Paul complain that when these programs become self-sustaining and profitable, they are state enterprises that crowd out private competition.

So it's gotten to the point that no city in the South ever refuses to use tax dollars to build stadiums for PROFESSIONAL football teams. The military-industrial-sports complex marches on!

Well, I greatly desire not to be shot.

The question is whether capitalism requires a cheap labor & resource base consisting of client states that operate by feudalism (UK-India, France-Indochina). The US seems to have followed a standard model of moving in on former Spanish colonies by cutting deals with the existing feudalists, instead of overthrowing them. Compare this with the US before 1860, where the need for slave ships helped create a market for shipbuilding in Massachusetts, and the exports of the Southern slave economy helped balance the books while Northern industrialists imported capital and raised protective tariffs to fend off competition. You could say that after the Civil War, the North imposed a more "natural" relationship, with its industrial oligarchy covertly partnered with the South's rural oligarchy in a fake two-party system, but the South clearly the junior partner. The Southern oligarchy also sicced its militia and sheriffs on the rest of the population, and millionaire slavetrader-turned-general Nathan Bedford-Forrest was one of the founders of the KKK, before it got as out of control as a Guatemalan death squad. In Texas, the KKK had a rep in the 1920s for rich white -on- poor white violence.

So we do have a historical model for capitalist feudalism...

Originally the problem wasn't that the free market couldn't figure out how to allocate the capital, but that the free market tended to allocate it in such a way that left the working class lighting torches and forming mobs. The attitude of most right-wingers is that the society that does the best job of exploiting workers without the workers attempting to fight back is a truly superior society that deserves to conquer the Earth. So if the combo of patriotic brainwashing and a for-profit military-industrial complex keeps the capital allocated and the torches unlit, so be it.

The real lessons learned from the Cuban experience are,

having your country produce just a few things and importing everything else leaves it vulnerable to disruptions in global trade and supply

This is what is scary. In the United States, we are importing a huge amount of things. I read recently that 99% of shoes are imported. I expect that replacement parts of a lot of things we need are imported. At least we do produce quite a lot of food, so we are better off than places where population is very dense.

A non-PO, shoe-related diversion along the same lines. Not too long ago the Dalai Lama came to our town. A friend who runs an outfitting store got a call from someone who wanted to make a gift of a pair of soft shoes. The caller's problem was that he couldn't give the Dalai Lama a pair made in China, and finding the right pair made somewhere else was proving a challenge. My friend eventually found some old stock in the right size, but yes, most affordable shoes seem to come from China.

Yes, people in Cuba are much better off than the people in most Latin American countries, but that's mostly because they've been in a state of relative peace. Even the best economic system can't do well with total societal-collapsing civil war.

I like to use Google Earth to go to places that are ignored by the MSM. When I looked at Cuba I expected to see more cars because I had read reports of all the old American clunkers running around. Google Maps didn't show many cars and on rural roads they were nearly absent. The whole country looks very dreary IMO.

If they had used their sugar surpluses to make ethanol Cuba may have become a mini Brazil by now. But what's done is done. I find it hard to believe that after Fidel's and Raul's departure, some of the smarter ones won't figure out it's better to follow the Chinese and Russian examples than to live in the of splendor socialist squalor.

Excellent article- I think theoildrum's balanced and quantified analysis is a priceless asset.

The emerging paradigm is becoming pretty obvious. Barring total system collapse farming bulk grains with machines (powered by anything from horses to fusion reactors) is the best way to get our basic carbohydrate energy demands. Processing these crops into everyday convenience foods is likely to become less economical (mostly from packaging and transport needs), so people would do well to relearn the art of cooking from scratch with only minimally processed ingredients. For fresh foods that require large amounts of labor, refrigeration and rapid transport and sale the most efficient way is to grow your own. After a year of veggie gardening I am eating vastly more fresh produce than I would ever allow myself to buy from the shops. In between these two extremes are root crops and specialty grains where the transport difficulties and small markets/unimproved strains make it closer to break even to grow your own if space allows. They make a good safety net to have on board in your garden in case of a more severe systemic meltdown.

Cubans overall have better health than in the 1980s, mostly due to a more varied diet and with more fresh fruit and vegetables. Cuban longevity is more or less equal to that here (US) at the tiniest fraction of the cost. Cuban health is much better than it other parts of Latin America. Cuba exports doctors and health care. We export weapons (with free delivery of bombs if you qualify as a terrorist haven). Cuban education is similarly impressive.

Life in Cuba is hard, and many, many mistakes have been made, and there is no utopia there. I know this very well from several direct sources. But if one compares the efforts made by the Cuban gov't in seeing that the bottom half of its population has some kind support and ability to survive and compare it to our gov't, well you'll see there is no comparison, none at all.

As for dictatorship, I'll only say this: we've had two highly flawed Pres. elections, we've had 9-11 (I wont' start), the anthrax attacks (again, I won't start), the Patriot Act, the Wellstone assassination (ok, I started), the Military Commissions Act, and several other subsequent acts that have gutted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We torture, we render, we assassinate, we bolster, support and impose open dictatorships, we invade, we bomb, we blockade, we destabilize. We account for more than half the world's miltary budget, we have miltary bases in over 700 countries. We have ripped up innumerable international treaties and refused to sign many others. Explain to me in greater detail your complaints about Cuba please.

Not every thing you say about Cuba is wrong, maybe not even most. But don't pretend there isn't a spin to it. No-one is without bias (except me :) ).

I think you are confusing me with an American, mate. I am Aussie Aussie Aussie oi oi oi. I am not saying, "Cuba suxxorz, US roxxorz." Just visit my blog to see various negative comments about the USA.

It's possible for both Cuba and the USA to be undesirable places to live overall, or both desirable, and for them to have overall bad or overall good government policies, etc. Which is better, and which worse? I dunno, that's like asking me if I'd rather have my left foot cut off or my right.

I never said I was without bias. I said I was making an attempt at an honest assessment of the Cuban situation. I am very biased - in favour of the sorts of things people claim are good about Cuba. If the PowerOfCommunity documentary were telling the whole truth, I'd be delighted.

we have miltary bases in over 700 countries.

Wow, did every state and province in the world just secede while I wasn't looking? :p

Oooops! Over 700 bases in 130 countries.

I never (or rarely) presume nationality here at TOD (which is one of the great things about TOD), nor did I this case. When I hear about all the negative things in Cuba, I naturally make comparisons with the US. My point is that the Cuban gov't has done several very good things it was NOT forced to do and therefore I don't completely or necessarily believe you when you say it did the energy things only because it was forced to. Partly, maybe. But again, we have a gov't here that doesn't do the right thing even when the roof is falling in.

When the hell is a presidential candidate going to make an issue of American bases in 130 countries? Most Americans don't even know! If they knew, most of them would demand those bases be closed so as to keep more pork-barrel bases open at home. If they cared, they'd notice that most of those countries had bases before 9/11. It's not about terrorism!

A presidential candidate already has. Ron Paul.

And for saying so, in addition to other things, he's been one of the highest donation earning candidates in the race.

we have miltary bases in over 700 countries

Not really. You guys have over 700 bases for sure, but the whoe world itself has less than 250 countries. ;-) Apart from splitting hairs like this I have to agree with you.

It might be a better comparision to compare Sweden and Cuba. Sweden has a population of about 9 million to Cubas 11. Sweden is a democracy, Cuba a dicatorship. I dare say that the health care and educational systems in Sweden is just as good as the Cuban ones. The last famine in Sweden was about a 100 years ago. As natural resources go, I think Sweden is a bit better off with the mineral resources in the north, mainly iron ore, and substantial hydro power. GDP per capita is $32,200 as 2006, compared to Cubas nonimpressive $4,000.

I know where I would want to live, but then again I'm kind of biased. Cuba probably is a lot warmer though.

Sweden and western Europe formed a bulwark against the FSU. The west of Europe was given significant aid and access to markets (that is no economic blockade).

Sweden started with a higher technological, industrial and capital base not to mention unfettered (compared to Cuba) access to international markets (resource, capital and export) After WWII the USA amounted to 50% of total global GDP. That's not including Britain, Japan and Western Europe. The combined GDP of the west Vs communism was overwhelming. On the technological side equally impressive imbalance in favor of the west existed. If you are opposing that Empire life won't be easy.

As such to my way of thinking I would classify Sweden as part of the club "imperial center of capital". The Swedish model is very socialistic and successful at giving the average Swede a very high standard of living. NOTE: Many Swede's with lots of money move to tax havens like Monte Carlo to avoid paying for the benefit of all their fellow country men.

It is difficult to imagine North Korea in such a horridly sorry state, one truly feels deeply depressed about the situation. People point to this as communism but it's no more communist than China today or capitalist America, Hati, Guatemala, El Salvadore, Niciragua etc.

Cuba's top down socialist model has had significant impediment at self development not only by economic blockade and sanctions, but by direct terrorist attacks against Cuba from the US including chem/biological attacks on farms/crops and a muted invasion as well as assassination attempts on leaders.

It's a safe bet to say that when comparing Cuba to Sweden the economic system is a significant factor in Sweden's success, however in my view there is a lot more to it than just a straight out fight between communism and capitalism as envisioned by their creators.

Again I would say that economically a balance seems appropriate. Extremism whether it be communist e.g. North Korea or capitalist e.g. NAZI Germany, lets not touch religious extremism are really self destructive.

One of the main elements in the past in keeping the excess of our semi capitalist system in check is the democratic ability of people to vote and agitate for change via peaceful means (aka freedom) however capitalism does not guarantee freedom, it just so happens that so far at this point in history it has evolved that way. One only has to look at the freedom enjoyed by native American Indians and slaves from Africa all the while the magnanimous constitution was being written about Life and Liberty and the purpose of man.

We are reaching the checkmate of overpopulation and overconsumption. Lets hope our adaptation is more Swedish then Cuban before it gets North Korean or even worse back to WWI and WWII style "problem solving" After all we are the "smart ape" we wear suit god damn it.

Just thinking of going back to WWII style conflict. I wonder how much convincing people in the USA might need before a select few could be running concentration style camps clearing off Muslims? I mean when I talk with some generally nice people I get chills at how Muslim = Terrorist it's a short leap to taking out the trash so to speak. People were willing to re-define torture and the US was going through a boom cycle.

I think I might stock up on alot of scotch :(

I think you'd have to go to Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" to begin to get at the issues that have advantaged Sweden over Cuba. But I wish more Americans understood how the Swedes chose to abandon their European empire to concentrate on internal development, long before socialism was a word.

I think I might stock up on alot of scotch :(

You should do it while it's cheap. Then you'll have something to barter with when times get tough.

Cuba's top down socialist model has had significant impediment at self development not only by economic blockade and sanctions, but by direct terrorist attacks against Cuba from the US

I think you:

  • Seriously underestimate the damage a dictatorship can do to an economy; at the time of the Korean war, N. Korea was the industrial powerhouse of the peninsula.  Now look at it.  Zimbabwe is another sad example.
  • Mistake the terrorism of the communist regime for something else; the USA hasn't thrown Cuban librarians into prison, to name just one terrorist act of Castro and his secret police.  True, we do have miscarriages of justice in the USA like Keith Henson being railroaded by the Church of Scientology, but this has to be kept small or the public will make its displeasure known.  The US government still cannot stand up to firm public pressure, and we should exercise this a lot more.

An apt and illustrative comparison might be Cuba and Haiti. Both started in similar positions 50 years ago, and both are in quite different positions now.

Of the two, I'd choose Cuba... but then again I'm probably one of "Those who are by nature collaborators with tyrannical regimes" that our unbiased and objective author referred to above.

That's just a little Aussie-style piss-taking humour, don't take it to heart ;)

i think bush and neoconco have declared force majeure on the constitution(al) contract.

Self deleted, 700 country horse already whipped.

Don't forget that the governement now intercepts, records, and stores every single piece of domestic electronic communication from email, to browser usage, to phone calls, and has done so for that past five years, all without a warrant or judicial oversite. And congress is about to provide the telecoms with immunity, essentially legitimizing this illegal behavior and forever . And don't forget that the traditional media essentially acts (with a few excepting cases) as a government mouthpiece, dutifully reporting what government actors say without any critical analysis or fact checking whatsover. The KGB and Pravda had nothing on us.

The very notion of 'the common good' has been pretty much extinguished in America by decades of 'greed is good', and 'I got mine, you get yours' and 'Me, Me, Me Hyper-Individualism'.

It's the Gospel of Chronic Capitalism Incarnate.

It has produced an unchecked level of consumption, by Americans, which has no rival in human history.

It has brought us all to the very doorstep of mass extinctions of a myriad of creatures and beings, ourselves included.

If '...the changes arose from necessity, not community; community arose from necessity' in Cuba, what can be expected to arise from the culture of
'Me, Me, Me Hyper-Individualism' in America?

Cooperation? Hardly. Try Neo-feudalism. Enslave the 'little people', makem work on a plantation growing food for their corporate-military-prison complex Masters.

When the Soviet Union unraveled, the first person on the average Russian's doorstep was Not Adam Smith, it was Al Capone.

When life unravels in America, gangsters will rule the streets. Necessity will be in the form of someone telling you that if you give them a hundred bucks a week, maybe your house and business won't burn down.

I usually think of myself as a practiced anti-American, but then I see an American talking about their country and I realise I've got a long way to go:)

Your history indicates that in times of trouble your government panics and threatens violence and often gets in the way of relief efforts, but the people themselves work together to solve their problems. So I think you'll miss out on the cannibal hordes, whatever that bigot Kunstler says.

Capitalism, in its free-market connotation, is the essence of cooperation, as is evidenced by the technical marvel through which you speak, which took many people to build and which you willingly bought for your betterment, providing you access to the "common good" called the internets. I think you're confusing gun-boat capitalism with capitalism in general

A lot of the infrastructure that is not sustainable after Peak Oil was actually only made possible by government subsidy and regulation. This is partly because the government externalizes the costs of investments, so that people don't need to care about sustainability, since it isn't there money. For instance, the 2 trillion that went to the Iraq war would not have been provided by private investors, because it doesn't provide a sustainable profit even from the get-go. Such ungodly wasteful affairs are only done on the taxpayer's dime

If the government police happen to go bankrupt, then hire private police and mediation. It's simple to do once the government loses its forced monopoly on those services, and since we have a history of market economics unlike Russia, enough of us may choose to do that to stabilize society

Not really 100% correct.

The internet began as a government funded (socialist) initiative.

All of the early internet was free (socialist), one of the challenges and reasons for the dot com bust was the difficulty of making money on the internet.

This site costs you or I nothing directly, and the contributors of excellent articles are not paid for their efforts.

The many excellent posts and sharing of ideas are done for no profit or financial reward. (If you're getting paid to read this site let me know how, ps not interested in clicking links)

Regards the government and police going bankrupt and social stability. Just as in the great depression government will be in greater demand when the markets are failing! you only need to see the line up for bailouts by the banks and eventually Joe Sixpack will need it too.

Markets are great when things are growing and everyones happy making money, when they decline and bust things have a habit of not stabilizing nicely. After all we are not talking about a few isolated cities, lots of land, more agrarian society of Adam Smiths time with the farmer, the butcher and the baker etc...

Things today are a little more complex than that.

Free does not equal socialist, and priced does not equal capitalist. Socialist equals having the market forcibly distributed, and caplitalist equals having the market voluntarily distributed. In a capitalist free market, you could live your life as a commune if you so desired, but you wouldn't be forced into it

TheOilDrum is not forced into providing these articles, nor is it subsidized into providing them, which would mean other people had been forced into paying for them, and thus it is not socialist, but rather they want some people to read these articles, and some people want to read them, which makes for a market of willing participants, which falls under the system of capitalism

In depression people can still turn to the government if that's what they're conditioned to, and they are. However, people would be better to not bother trying to live on a government-backed currency but rather make new currencies, which will be legal if the government's police go bankrupt and can no longer maintain their monopoly on currency. LETS is an example of something people could quickly pull of in those circumstances

Capitalism is not about freedom it's about making profit. There are a great many freedoms that you or I may enjoy because we were born in a nation of power and privilege.

There is nothing 100% free about free markets in fact for the great majority of the worlds population it's the total opposite of freedom e.g. serfdom. How free are the Chinese yet they have a growing capitalist economy? What happened to the Russians when they had a little "shock therapy" in free markets? How long since blacks had the vote? How long since women were able to vote? Can you trade with Cuba or Iran? What freedoms did African slaves enjoy under capitalism? What freedom does a Mexican worker have to come to America or Europe and participate in the free economy? Why under capitalism did Irish starve as British exported food? The answer to many of these questions is that YES we have freedom but many others under the same capitalist system don't.

These are big picture questions, internally there are laws regulations and contracts that prohibit freedom in the market place. Google Microsoft lawsuits and you will find some interesting reading on how to monopolize a sector of the economy.

We take for granted that the snapshot of life we see today and the benefits that accrue to us has existed forever under our perceived perfect system. It hasn't nor is it applicable to the great majority of humanity.

This is just a semanatic argument, so to clarify what I mean, look up "anarcho-capitalism", which is opposed to the kind of capitalism you refer to, "state capitalism"

Capitalism is not about freedom it's about making profit.

This is one of the things that irks me about ideologues; any enterprise has to make a profit or it will die.

Even farming.  If the farmer's labor doesn't yield more food than his investment in labor and seed, there is no point to farming (hobbies excepted).  If the business doesn't make more money than the investment in materials, equipment, rent, labor, etc. there is no point to the business (ditto).

Or, we could hire militias to exterminate our neighbors, like the conservative pro-US army did in Indonesia, or to bully the poor into providing us cheap labor while we cut deals with foreign capitalists, like old Cuba and recent El Salvador. Note that either way, America retained its plausible deniability, but made money.

I've never had one single libertarian explain to me why feudalism won't recur post-collapse. Capitalist meritocracy? I'll tell you what merit was during the Dark Ages: being good at cutting off people's heads while riding a horse. That barbarian meritocracy extorted a position of privilege so overwhelming that it took a thousand years for a new "meritocracy" of shifty merchants, lying salesmen and tyrant industrialists to supplant their descendants, often by intermarraige. Can you even tell me whether a landed nobleman in 1000 AD was a private or public-sector actor? A man who privately owns all the capital goods (land) capable of producing a surplus, who controls all the top positions in government, who monopolizes all military skills, who enforces his own private law on his peasants with his private police force, and who works in partnership with a universal church whose bishops run their own feudal estates. The most perfect rigged game in history, and how most humans lived for the last 3000 years.

As I've mentioned above, such a powerful model that it began to reappear in the southern US, and later became the pet model of exploitation for the United Fruit Company and many other US corporations. It's a lot more real than "Atlas Shrugged".

Most libertarians don't believe that collapse will occur (me being one of them) - but I'd grant you that feudalism is a likely outcome if it did occur.

One nit - the feudal dark ages with church and "nobles" (ahem) conspiring to keep the peasantry thoroughly oppressed only lasted about 1000 years - and once that system fell apart it disintegrated pretty quickly, and with much carnage.

I did enjoy your 2 comments though :-)

The concept of sustainability is creeping into mainstream thinking. Not everyone is happy about paving over farmland for Melbourne's urban sprawl, possibly using US construction workers on visas,21985,23316671-662,00.html

I presume as Cuba's population grew they had a policy of setting aside land for small scale farming rather than housing. Or maybe side by side development. No doubt their tropical climate helps. Australia keeps receiving a get-out-of-jail card with every new mineral export. One day that will stop.

Oh, some people are happy about Australia giving visas to US construction workers. I've got a friend who is a surveyor. First hired, first fired...

4.0 t CO2-e emissions per capita looks pretty impressive to me. British Columbia, where I live, at about 16 t/cap is well above the global average and Alberta is near a whopping 74 t/cap thanks to all that oil and gas generation.

I seem to remember that Cuba has a little oil and gas off its north coast. What proportion do they import?

4.0t CO2e per capita (not considering land-use change) is not bad by modern standards, that's true; Sweden manages 7.5, Thailand 4.3, and so on - basically anyone lower than 4t is either a little island state or has significant rural poverty - though plenty of places with lots of rural poverty have much higher emissions.

They had an emissions high of 36.258Mt CO2e in 1989, a low of 28.337 in 1993, and are now at 32.978. So their emissions dropped at the same time and by the same percentage - 20% - as their oil consumption, and are now 9% lower than their peak in 1989. Just judging from the fossil fuels consumed to emissions ratio, whose calculations I won't bore you with, it's about the same as in 1989 - they've not put in any significant efficiencies. Which isn't a surprise, since the US embargo prevents their getting much in the way of technology.

The point is that when listening to all the talk of Cuba taking a "path to sustainability" you get the impression they're just about carbon-neutral. You see lots of pictures like this of improvised mass transit,

but not many like this of oil-fired power stations

- in fact, I challenge anyone to find a picture online of a Cuban nonrenewable electricity generator larger than truck-sized. People praising environmentally-friendly Cuba don't like to mention the nasty polluting bits anymore than Florida Cubans like to mention Cuba's excellent healthcare system :D

According to the EIA data I linked to above, it's

Oil production: 75,000bbl/day
Oil imports: 128,000bbl/day

Natural gas production: 14 billion cubic feet
Natural gas imports: nil

Coal production: nil
Coal imports: 41,000t

So they produce about 37% of what they consume in oil, produce their entire natural gas consumption, and none of their coal.

I challenge anyone to find a picture online of a Cuban nonrenewable electricity generator larger than truck-sized.

Thanks for the numbers and a relatively easy challenge. In the background of this picture is an NG plant operated by a Sherritt joint venture that's said to produce 12% of Cuba's electricity. But I did go looking on Sherritt's site first, without success.

I can't get the link to work - you can do a picture in your posts by typing [img src="" width="240"], with <> in place of [].

I believe you found one, but the point remains that we don't usually see those two sorts of images side by side like that; people present one or the other.

..the US embargo prevents their getting much in the way of technology.

I keep seeing this assertion, but I don't believe it's true.

The embargo is a US thing.  The embargo is not respected by Venezuela, Mexico, and even the EU.  If you claimed that Cuba could not buy any non-military technology they wanted in the EU, I would hope that people here would have enough sense to laugh at you.

Damn. There goes my ability to point at Cuba as an example of a rapid adaptation to a large change.

Well, it depends on what you call "a large change". I'd call a 20% drop in overall supply, a 2/3 drop in transport fuel supply, a "large change". Imagine that in Australia? We'd be in the shit, all those freight trucks...

And they did adapt - they fed themselves, and found other ways to travel about.

It's just that there's a continuum, really:

wasteful industrial <----------------> ecotechnia

and the Cubans are often portrayed as being far to the right of that scale, when in fact they're more to the left of it. They're further right than is the West, but it's not their choice.

The importance of the fact that it's not their choice, only necessity which pushed them that way, is that they're moving back. They didn't just say, "oh fuck it, then, we'll build windmills, screw this oil stuff." They said, "we'll do without for a while, then when the stuff is available, we'll go sick on it."

That's another lesson, then - if a country thinks the fossil fuel peak is only temporary, they won't put into place long-term adaptations.

Castro himself is very aware of peak oil and the crisis humanity faces. For that matter, so is Chavez. They cannot completely control where they are going. They cannot deny their own people too far in advance of the impacts being felt. One hopes that they or their successors will as things progress, or rather, become more dire. One hopes the world will, for that matter.

I don't think they'd be building fossil fuel-burning power plants which will last 30-50 years if they were expecting not to be able to fuel the things.

So either they're confident Cuba's natural gas and Venezuela's oil will last that long, or they're as clueless as their capitalist imperialist running dog colleagues ;)

On thought, Cuba is not on the continuum to ecotechnia.

Returning to the model I presented in The Freezing Point of Industrial Society,

Cuba in the 1980s was developing from a mixed industrial to a wasteful industrial economy; that is, from a society which had many machines but many manual labourers, to one which was mostly machines and used a lot of energy wastefully. The 20% drop in oil supply meant they simply fell back closer to the mixed industrial.

Like many countries around the world, they're putting in place a few ecotechnic sorts of things - a few wind turbines here and there, some organic farming there. But broadly speaking they seem to be quite keen on fossil fuel using industry, and relatively less keen on renewable energy, etc.

It's good to see some clear-headed thinking -- there's not enough time left to be delusional about how to cope with the hard times ahead.

In California, there are people who believe we can feed ourselves just like Cuba by growing Victory Gardens in our back yards. But as I show below, we're a different climate, different culture, and live in a much more densely populated region--we should be cautious about what "lessons" we think can be learned from Cuba.

Lessons for California and the U.S. from movie "How Cuba survived Peak Oil"

After seeing the film The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil, I thought about how those lessons might apply to California Agriculture. California grows about one-third of the U.S. food supply. Much of what follows is based on the excellent Oxfam analysis of the complexities involved in Cuba and its food production reforms. see

Just as Robert Hirsch of SAIC advised the U.S. Dept. of Energy that we ought to prepare for peak oil at least a decade ahead of time, so too should social values and our economic structure be altered well ahead of peak.

Social Factors

Before 1959, the United States owned 40% of Cuba's sugar production, 90% of the utilities, oil refineries and mines, and some of the banks.

The Cuban revolution powerfully motivated people to overcome United States domination and become self-sufficient. People were willing to make large personal sacrifices for the public good. The energy crisis took place within this social framework.

As times get harder in the United States on the down-slope of Hubbert's curve, our Lotto-driven, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" society will need to be convinced to work for the greater good. Dmitri Orlov's three-part "Post-Soviet lessons" ( describes the problems our culture has that will make this difficult for us.

There's some hope -- 29% of Americans are volunteers. A campaign to get the other 71% volunteering would be a good start for preparing society for what lies ahead, plus keep people busy as their jobs disappear.

Economic structure

The disparity of wealth in America is likely to lead to a lot of social unrest as times get harder. Adjustment to peak oil would go more smoothly if wealth were more fairly distributed, but the only way this could possibly happen is to institute the reforms suggested in Joel Bakan's book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.

Land Reform

In Cuba before 1959, eight percent of the farmers owned 70% of the land. The revolution redistributed the land to the farmers.

California is, and always has been, a state with very large farms. It is unlikely the land will be redistributed here. [Voluntarily, anyway - ed.] California's past and present is most likely its future: brutal exploitation of labor (Richard Street "Beasts of the Field").

Also, California has the largest and most elaborate water distribution and irrigation system in the world, and these large waterworks function best in a centralized and highly controlled manner, which also does not lend itself well to land redistribution.

Percent of population doing Agricultural work

As energy declines, we can allocate more and more scarce energy to agriculture, but at some point a proportional number of people and animals must go back to the land to make up for the lost energy - ultimately 90% of us.

Cuba was fortunate to already have at least 15% of their population living rurally (the CIA fact book says 21% are agricultural workers now). Although the Oxfam report and movie don't say anything about this, I imagine that this meant a much larger percent of urban dwellers had some connection to the land and potential food aid from their relatives who worked on farms than the average Californian has.

But less than one percent of our population are agricultural workers -- 834,000 according to -- and that number is expected to drop.

Cuban Agricultural Research and Extension

Cuba had already started sustainable agriculture programs and research many years before the crisis hit. This allowed them to quickly get information to farmers and city dwellers and train them to grow food organically. A campaign to breed oxen and train young farmers in how to use them was quickly put in place.

The United States started spending a large amount of money on agricultural research starting in the 1850's, and the bills that started agricultural colleges and the department of agriculture state quite clearly that this money is to be used to aid the small farmer.

But that intention was corrupted almost from the first day by larger farmers quickly taking advantage of the research at nearby colleges. Nearly 100% of college and USDA funding now goes towards industrializing and mechanizing agriculture. (Jim Hightower, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times).

Californians need to allocate far more resources to the University of California SAREP (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program), which has a skeleton staff of ten people and almost no funding for research. They have a good statement of what sustainable agriculture is at .

Climate & Water

Cuba's temperature ranges between 68 and 81 degrees F, and they get almost 50 inches of rain per year, over the entire year. That allows them to grow crops year round.

California is cursed with a Mediterranean climate, where there’s no rain during the height of the growing season. This is gotten around with elaborate irrigation systems, and in the warmest part of the state it's possible to grow crops year round.

The USA devotes about seven percent of its energy to provide water services. See In California, the water table has dropped significantly, requiring energy to pump water beyond what windmills can provide. As energy declines, that will impact water availability and decrease crop production.

California is also likely to have severe water shortages in the future. There is already competition between agriculture and the 36 million residents of the state for water. Worse yet, all global warming models for California show significant water problems from drought, early snow melt and disappearing glaciers (reservoirs in the sky) and extreme flooding, which will greatly reduce the amount of food that can be grown here.

Urban Food and Agriculture

Our most fertile land, the peat soils in the delta region, can not be saved from hydrostatic forces, earthquakes, severe floods, and rising sea levels, no matter how much money is spent (Thad Bettner ). This is bad news for the Bay Area; our best hopes for food in an energy crisis would be to have food shipped from the Delta to the greater bay area.

In 2000 food purchases took up 66% of the average Cuban salary, because the food rations did not cover all of the food people needed. High prices were partly due to a shortage of trucks to haul produce from the country to the city - the few people who had trucks charged vendors and consumers a lot of money and paid the farmer very little. The Cubans got around this problem by donating trucks and fuel to the agricultural cooperatives to eliminate middlemen. We should plan ahead of time how to eliminate the middle man here as well.

Given our capitalistic system, and the current lion’s share of profit going to middlemen rather than farmers, I’m not confident this will happen.

Cuban urban dwellers can receive up to one-third of an acre for a personal lot in the periphery of the major cities. Doing the same for Bay Area residents would mean most of us would need to commute 30 to 100 miles to reach our little plot of land since we are so densely and massively urbanized.

I have other issues with growing food in the Oakland urban environment as well: (See the Oakland Depletion Protocol document in section #3.)


Just as Cuba had a sudden energy crisis, so too are we likely to have many crises from energy shocks in the future from wars, hurricanes, terrorism, revolutions, and potential five to eight percent world-wide oil depletion rates. There will also be hiccups in global trade delivery of oil and LNG.

We can get more efficient and sacrifice resources to agriculture, water services, and the trucking industry, but as geological depletion relentlessly continues, as global warming and extreme weather greatly reduce agricultural production, and as the ten high plains states above the Ogallala reservoir run out of water or the energy to pump it up from hundreds of feet down, we will face a food crisis.

We would be better prepared for that if we started programs now to get large numbers of people to go back to the land. There is no way we can continue to have just one percent of the population providing half of the food for the other 99%. (we import the other half: Larry Rohter. Dec 12, 2004. South America Seeks to Fill the World's Table. New York Times).

We should plan an orderly retreat. This would be done by relentlessly cutting back on our energy use more than the depletion rate so that we stay under the energy curve. Universities would shift from industrial and mechanical agricultural research to providing sustainable agriculture outreach to small farms and collectives. However unpleasant this sounds, the alternatives are chaos, starvation, Rwandan-style lowering of the population, the complete loss of Democracy to fascist leaders who will step in to try to regain stability, and the potential invasion of our country by other nations taking advantage of our weakness.

* * * * *

Hello Ardnassac,

Well said. I would add the additional caveat that neighboring AZ & NV will be in worse shape than CA once things start getting depletion ugly.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Great balanced post on Cuba with lots of good comments. Ideology sucks and blinds our perceptions and our planning capabilities, reducing resiliency and survivability.

I should have taken another couple of days to write the article. I found an FAO report from 2001 that tells us imports as a percentage of consumption, and even breaks it down into per capita calories for us.

1970-1979, 741 of 2,756 were imported; 73% self-reliant
1980-1989, 925 of 3,039; 70% self-reliant
1990-1995, 667 of 2,468; 73% self-reliant
1996-2001, 612 of 2,496; 75% self-reliant

Of course, protein and various vitamins and minerals might come out very differently. But this gives us a broad brush to paint with and say that up until 2001 at least, far from Cuba importing 70% of its food in nutrition terms, it actually domestically produced 70% of its food.

It also tells us that in 1996-2001 Cuba's food import averaged about US$621 million. It's now about $900 million, a 50% increase. At first glance, this gives us 25% x 1.5 = 38% of nutrition from imports, so that Cuba still produces over half its own food - well under the mere 30% stated in recent articles. Of course imports may have increased at the same time as domestic production, or one increased but the other not, and so on.

I can't find more recent figures than that. Overall, though, it seems that since Cuban imports have risen in dollar terms while the price of grain etc have risen, and it's been reported that their calories per day have been rising steadily since 2001, their domestic production must at least have stayed steady.

So their imports today almost certainly provide more than the 1996-2001 figure of 25% their calories; but could not really be more than 50% their calories.

Overall, then, it still seems reasonable to say that Cubans produce a bit over half their own food in nutrition terms. It may be more, but is not likely less.

On a lighter note (from an earlier comment from Kiashu):
Samba is from Brazil.
Cubans dance salsa.
All those writers publishing about food production and oil in Cuba would do well to ask the average Cubans what they think.
Different picture, not a comfortable one for most used to polarized opinions.
Perhaps going to Cuba would be a good idea, if one writes about it…
Also double or triple checking sources is always a good idea. Too much ideology is attached to the issues.

Cubans samba, too. I hear tell even some Australians do! ;)

It'd be lovely to be able to ask Cubans what they think, and travel there. However, the travel budget for writers of TheOilDrum articles is not greater than what they're paid for the articles - that is, zilch.

While each writer has their faults, and me more than any of them, I think you get pretty good value for money from these articles, compared to some newspaper you pay a buck or two for, or some magazine you pay several bucks for, or some book you pay tens of bucks for.

So a quick summary of this whole post. Cuba is not a good example of people coping with sudden relatively fast oil depletion because necessity was actually just a gun pointed at their collective heads. It sorta worked by as soon as the gun to the collective head was lowered, they just backslid into old habits, which is Human Nature i.e. Fate, nothing can be done about this.

A 'capitalist' country, in similiar circumstances, would fair no better, probably much worse, due to it's inherent 'winner take all, I got mine, don't tell ME what to do' attitude, plus and enormous amount of guns, drugs and general deeply dysfunctional pop culture.

So where is an example of peak oil coping, "Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects" by Dmitry Orlov. Someone who has experienced 'Life from Both Sides Now.'?