One of the last Communist nations on Earth, Cuba is a point of perennial fascination for many on the left. The resurgence of the socialist left in Latin America has recently delivered new friends and allies to the once-isolated regime, and its ongoing defiance of the United States makes it a kind of hero to America’s critics. Indeed, Michael Moore celebrated Cuba’s health system in his film Sicko. In spite of its "poverty", Cuba’s average life expectancy — 76 for men and 80 for women — is just above that of the United States (with 75 for men and 80 for women) and the rest of Latin America. Doctors are among Cuba’s proudest exports.
Cuba has also emerged as an unlikely model state for environmentalists desperate for alternatives to ways of living in cities that are destroying the biosphere. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Cuba is the only country in the world that practices "sustainable development". That is, its notable improvements in human living conditions such as education, urbanisation and life expectancy have been achieved alongside practices that minimise ecological impact and resource consumption. Knowing this, I arrived in Cuba with high hopes of finding a green utopia.
In Havana, it’s immediately clear how such a small average carbon footprint has been achieved. Many suburban blocks and rooftops are given over to organic food production. Car pooling is mandatory and hitchhiking is protected by law such that every public car must carry six people.
At night time the city is only barely illuminated, with two out of three lampposts along the central Park Avenue around the Capitolio unlit and the dome of the former congress building is itself a shadow in the night. Whether the lights will shine brightly over the Capitolio again is not only a political question, but an environmental one.
Cuba’s sustainability in environmental and urban practice arises less from conscientious design as from necessity. The Cuban socialist economy is based around a chronic scarcity of resources arising both out of the United States trade embargo and the nature of the command economy itself.
One professor at the Havana University told me, "Socialism is not an economic system, it is just grand words and ideas with nothing to pay for them." Many, if not most, Cubans actually want more personalised transport, street lighting, hot water and a greater variety and abundance of consumer goods but the socialist economy has so far been unable to deliver this.
In Havana there is no advertising and little conspicuous consumption. Alongside murals depicting Che Guevara and saluting the "Junta de Fidel y Raul", cartoons urge citizens to recycle. Recycling and conservation however are not things Cubans do out of revolutionary fervour.
In the 1990s Cuba lay on the brink of starvation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tightening of the US embargo left the island short of fuel, food and funds. It was in this "Special Period" that the "sustainable" Cuba was born as not only the government but ordinary citizens found ways to survive through improvisation and innovation.
Without a ready supply of petroleum-based pesticides and fertilisers, organic farming prevailed. Without sufficient gas and petrol, the government enforced car pooling and hitchhiking and public transport. The Soviet-built National Freeway lay unfinished and virtually empty, bearing only public transport and horses and carts. Even basics like toilet paper vanished and Cubans still tell stories of how they adapted certain kinds of leaves to use for this or even simply for writing. Even today immigration forms can be found recycled as toilet paper in the International Airport.
Electricity and water consumption in Cuba is still limited on the supply side. Besides Havana’s evening darkness, every Cuban household has been provided with energy efficient light bulbs and government programs are rolling out new energy-efficient refrigerators. New Chinese-built buses have replaced the old diesel fleet and new cars now match the famous beaten-up vintage cars on Havana’s streets.
Many of the more recent changes have been driven by a force which is external to this economy of scarcity. A boom in tourism to Cuba is pouring money into urban reconstruction. It is also creating a new middle class for whom raised levels of consumption are suddenly becoming possible.
Old public cars in Havana are distinguished by their yellow number plates. Such cars are obliged to pick up hitchhikers and carry six passengers. New private cars, however, are distinguished by their blue number plates. Renaults and Kias with only two or three passengers are increasing in number. Cubans who run bed and breakfasts for foreigners can afford such luxuries as new scooters or motorcycles.
Tourists themselves constitute a separate class of people in Havana, demonstrating through their own presence and behaviour all the glories of an economic mindset adjusted to abundance and the heedless consumption that goes with it.
Herein lies the paradox of the current reconstruction. Tourists flock to Cuba to experience something exotic, whether it is timewarp kitsch, socialism or eco-tourism. Yet the wealth and freedom of the tourist not only challenges the economy of scarcity that gave rise to this exotic system but also arouses the envy and aspiration of everyday Cubans who long for the same prosperity and freedom enjoyed by the foreigners they meet.
This is the reality of Cuba’s record sustainability. Based as it is upon momentary necessity rather than the considered desires of its people, it goes against the trajectory of human history and aspiration which is to consume more not less, to be freer rather than more local and to be more individual than communitarian.
Yet, as Cubans look foward to a new abundance, the big question is whether the rest of the planet will sooner or later be forced by necessity to look towards Cuba, for human aspiration is only one element of history, throughout which environmental factors have repeatedly proved to be the greater force.
As environmentalists around the world rage at the failure of global institutions to act in the face of carbon-induced climate change, Cubans are in another race against time — to enjoy the fruits of abundance before human civilisation suffers the big crunch that scientists tell us is coming.
The unpleasant truth for environmentalists in democratic countries like Australia is that so far it is only necessity that has given rise to sustainability. Barring the invention of new technologies that may free the economy of abundance from its reliance upon burning carbon, it is only such crisis and necessity that will change the way we live and chances are that we, like so many Cubans, will not enjoy the experience.
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