The September 2021 Scientific American included a description by the editors of the deplorable state of disaster relief in the US. They traced the root cause of problems with relief programs as their “focus on restoring private property,” which results in little attention to those “with the least capacity to deal with disasters.” The book Disaster Preparedness and Climate Change in Cuba: Adaptation and Management (2021) came out the next month. It traced the highly successful source of the island nation’s efforts to the way it put human welfare above property. This collection of 14 essays by Emily J. Kirk, Isabel Story, and Anna Clayfield is an extraordinary assemblage of articles, each addressing specific issues.
Writers are well aware that Cuban approaches are adapted to the unique geography and history of the island. What readers should take away is not so much the specific actions of Cuba as its method of studying a wide array of approaches and actually putting the best into effect (as opposed to merely talking about their strengths and weaknesses). The book traces Cuba’s preparedness from the threat of a US invasion following its revolution through its resistance to hurricanes and diseases, which all laid the foundation for current adaptions to climate change.
Only four years after the revolution, in 1963, Hurricane Flora hit the Caribbean, killing 7000-8000. Cubans who are old enough remember homes being washed away by waters carrying rotten food, animal carcasses and human bodies. It sparked a complete redesign of health systems, intensifying their integration from the highest decision-making bodies to local health centers. Construction standards were strengthened, requiring houses to have reinforced concrete and metal roofs to resist strong winds.
Decades of re-designing proved successful. In September 2017 Category 5 Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico, leading to 2975 deaths. The same month, Irma, also a Category 5 Hurricane, arrived in Cuba, causing 10 deaths. The dedication to actually preparing the country for a hurricane (as opposed to merely talking about preparedness) became a model for coping with climate change. Projecting potential future damage led Cubans to to realize that by 2050, rising water levels could destroy 122 coastal towns. By 2017, Cuba had become the only country with a government-led plan (Project Life, or Tarea Vida) to combat climate change which includes a 100 year projection.
Several aspects merged to form the core of Cuban disaster planning. They included education, the military, and social relationships. During 1961, Cuba’s signature campaign raised literacy to 96%, one of the world’s highest rates. This has been central to every aspect of disaster preparation – government officials and educators travel throughout the island, explaining consequences of inaction and everyone’s role in avoiding catastrophe.
Less obvious is the critical role of the military. From the first days they took power, leaders such as Fidel and Che explained that the only way the revolution could defend itself from overwhelming US force would be to become a “nation in arms.” Soon self-defense from hurricanes combined with self-defense from attack and Cuban armed forces became a permanent part of fighting natural disasters. By 1980, exercises called Bastión (bulwark) fused natural disaster management with defense rehearsals.
As many as 4 million Cubans (in a population of 11 million) were involved in activities to practice and carry out food production, disease control, sanitation and safeguarding medical supplies. A culture based on understanding the need to create a new society has glued these actions together. When a policy change is introduced, government representatives go to each community, including the most remote rural ones, to make sure that everyone knows the threats that climate change poses to their lives and how they can alter behaviors to minimize them. Developing a sense of responsibility for ecosystems includes such diverse actions as conserving energy, saving water, preventing fires and using medical products sparingly.
One aspect of the book may confuse readers. Some authors refer to the Cuban disaster prevention system as “centralized;” others refer to it as “decentralized;” and some describe it as both “centralized” and “decentralized” on different pages of their essay. The collection reflects a methodology of “dialectical materialism” which often employs the unity of opposite processes (“heads” and “tails” are opposite static states united in the concept of “coin”). As multiple authors have explained, including Ross Danielson in his classic Cuban Medicine (1979), centralization and decentralization of medicine have gone hand-in-hand since the earliest days of the revolution. This may appear as centralization of inpatient care and decentralization of outpatient care (p. 165) but more often as centralization at the highest level of norms and decentralization of ways to implement care to the local level. The decision to create doctor-nurse offices was made by the ministry which provided guidelines for each area to implement according to local conditions.
A national plan for coping with Covid-19 was developed before the first Cuban died of the affliction and each area designed ways to to get needed medicines, vaccines and other necessities to their communities. Proposals for preventing water salinization in coastal areas will be very different from schemas for coping with rises in temperature in inland communities.
Challenges for Producing Energy: The Good
As non-stop use of fossil fuels renders the continued existence of humanity questionable, the issue of how to obtain energy rationally looms as a core problem of the twenty-first century. Disaster Preparedness explores an intriguing variety of energy sources. Some of them are outstandingly good; a few are bad; and, many provoke closer examination.
Raúl Castro proposed in 1980 that it was necessary to protect the countryside from impacts of nickel mining. What was critical in this early approach was an understanding that every type of metal extraction has negatives that must be weighed against its usefulness in order to minimize those negatives. What did not appear in his approach was making a virtue of necessity, which would have read “Cuba needs nickel for trade; therefore, extracting Cuban nickel is good; and, thus, problems with producing nickel should be ignored or trivialized.”
In 1991, when the USSR collapsed and Cuba lost its subsidies and many of its trading partners, its economy was devastated, adult males lost an average of 20 pounds, and health problems became widespread. This was Cuba’s “Special Period.” Not having oil meant that Cuba had to abandon machine-intensive agriculture for agroecology and urban farming.
Laws prohibited use of agrochemicals in urban gardens. Vegetable and herb production exploded from 4000 tons in 1994 to over 4 million tons by 2006. By 2019, Jason Hickel’s Sustainable Development Index rated Cuba’s ecological efficiency as the best in the world.
By far the most important part of Cuba’s energy program was using less energy via conservation, an idea abandoned by Western “environmentalists” who began endorsing unlimited expansion of energy produced by “alternative” sources. In 2005, Fidel began pushing conservation policies projected to reduce Cuba’s energy consumption by two-thirds. Ideas such these had blossomed during the first few years of the revolution.
What one author refers to as “bioclimatic architecture” is not clear, but it could include tile vaulting, which was studied extensively by the Cuban government in the early 1960s. It is based on arched ceilings formed by lightweight terra cotta tiles. The technique is low-carbon because it does not require expensive machinery and uses mainly local material such as terra cotta tiles from Camagüey province. Though used to construct buildings throughout the island, it was abandoned due to its need for skilled and specialized labor.
Challenges for Producing Energy: The Bad
Though there are negative aspects to Cuba’s energy perspectives, it is important to consider one which is anything but negative: energy efficiency (EE). Ever since Stanley Jevons predicted in 1865 that a more efficient steam engine design would result in more (not less) coal being used, it has been widely understood that if the price of energy (such as burning coal) is cheaper, then people will use more energy.
A considerable amount of research verifies that, at the level of the entire economy, efficiency makes energy cheaper and its use goes up. Some claim that if an individual uses a more EE option, then that person will use less energy. But that is not necessarily so. Someone buying a car might look for one that is more EE. If the person replaces a non-EE sedan with an EE SUV, the fact that SUVs use more energy than sedans would mean that the person is using more energy to get around. Similarly, rich people use money saved from EE devices to buy more gadgets while poor people might not buy anything additional or buy low-energy necessities.
This is why Cuba, a poor country with a planned economy, can design policies to reduce energy use. Whatever is saved from EE can lead to less or low-energy production, resulting in a spiraling down of energy usage. In contrast, competition drives capitalist economies toward investing funds saved from EE toward economic expansion, resulting in perpetual growth.
Though a planned economy allows for decisions that are healthier for people and ecosystems, bad choices can be made. One consideration in Cuba is the goal to “efficiently apply pesticides” (p. 171). The focus should actually be on how to farm without pesticides. Also under consideration is “solid waste energy capacities,” which is typically a euphemism for burning waste in incinerators. Incinerators are a terrible way to produce energy since they merely reduce the volume of trash to 10% of its original size while releasing poisonous gases, heavy metals (such as mercury and lead), and cancer-causing dioxins and furans.
The worst energy alternative was favored by Fidel, who supported a nuclear power plant which would supposedly “greatly reduce the cost of producing electricity.” (p. 187) Had the Soviets built a Chernobyl-type nuclear reactor, an explosion or two would not have contributed to disaster prevention. Once when I was discussing the suffering following the USSR collapse with a friend who writes technical documents for the Cuban government, he suddenly blurted out, “The only good thing coming out of the Special Period was that, without the Soviets, Fidel could not build his damned nuclear plant!”
Challenges for Producing Energy: The Uncertain
Between the poles of positive and negative lies a vast array of alternatives mentioned in Disaster Preparedness that most are unfamiliar with. There are probably few who know of bagasse, which is left over sugar cane stalks that have been squeezed for juice. Burning it for fuel might arouse concern because it is not plowed into soil like what should be done for wheat stems and corn stalks. Sugar cane is different because the entire plant is hauled away – it would waste fuel to transport it to squeezing machinery and then haul it back to the farm.
While fuel from bagasse is an overall environmental plus, the same cannot be said for oilseeds such as Jatropha curcas. Despite the book suggesting the they might be researched more, they are a dead end for energy production.
Another energy positive being expanded in Cuba is farms being run entirely on agroecology principles. The book claims that such farms can produce 12 times the energy they consume, which might seem like a lot. Yet, similar findings occur in other countries, notably Sweden. In contrast, at least one author holds out hope of obtaining energy from microalgae, almost certainly another dead end.
Potentially, a very promising source for energy is the use of biogas from biodigesters. Biodigesters break down manure and other biomass to create biogas which is used for tractors or transportation. Leftover solid waste material can be used as a (non-fossil fuel) fertilizer. On the other hand, an energy source which one author lists as viable is highly dubious: “solar cells built with gallum arsenide.” Compounds with arsenic are cancer-causing and not healthy for humans and other living species.
The word “biomass” is highly charged because it is one of Europe’s “clean, green” energy sources despite the fact that burning wood pellets is leading to deforestation in Estonia and the US. This does not seem to be the case in Cuba, where “biomass” refers to sawdust and weedy marabú trees. It remains important to distinguish positive biomass from highly destructive biomass.
Many other forms of alternative energy could be covered and there is a critical point applying to all of them. Each source of energy must be analyzed separately without ever assuming that if energy does not come from fossil fuels it is therefore useful and safe.
Depending on How You Get It
The three major sources of alternative energy – hydroturbines (dams), solar, and wind – share the characteristic that how positive or negative they are depends on the way they are obtained.
The simplest form of hydro power is the paddle wheel, which probably causes zero environmental damage and produces very little energy. At the other extreme is hydro-electric dams which cross entire rivers and are incredibly destructive towards human cultures and aquatic and terrestrial species. In between are methods such as diverting a portion of the river to harness its power. The book mentions pico-hydroturbines which affect only a portion of a river, generating less than 5kW and are extremely useful for remote areas. They have minimal environmental effects. But if a large number of these turbines were placed together in a river, that would be a different matter. The general rule for water power is that causing less environmental damage means producing less energy.
Many ways to produce energy start with the sun. Cuba uses passive solar techniques, which do not have toxic processes associated with electricity. A passivehaus design provides warmth largely via insulation and placement of windows. Extremely important is body heat. This makes a passivhaus difficult for Americans, whose homes typically have much more space per person than other countries. But the design could work better in Cuba, where having three generations living together in a smaller space would contribute to heating quite well.
At the negative extreme of solar energy are the land-hungry electricity-generating arrays. In between these poles is low-intensity solar power, also being studied by Cuba.
The vast majority of Cubans heat their water for bathing. Water heaters can depend on solar panels which turn sunlight into electricity. An even better non-electric design would be to use a box with glass doors and a black tank to collect heat, or to use “flat plate collectors” and then pipe the heated water to an indoor storage tank. As with hydro-power, simpler designs produce fewer problems but generate less energy.
Wind power is highly similar. Centuries ago, windmills were constructed with materials from the surrounding area and did not rely on or produce toxins. Today’s industrial wind turbines are toxic in every phase of their existence. In the ambiguous category are small wind turbines and wind pumps, both of which Cuba is exploring. What hydro, solar and wind power have in common is that non-destructive forms exist but produce less energy. The more energy-producing a system is, the more problematic it becomes.
Scuttling the Fetish
Since hydro, solar and wind power have reputations as “renewable, clean, green” sources of energy, it is necessary to examine them closely. Hydro, solar and wind power each require destructive extraction of materials such as lithium, cobalt, silver, aluminum, cadmium, indium, gallium, selenium, tellurium, neodymium, and dysprosium. All three lead to mountains of toxic waste that vastly exceed the amount obtained for use. And all require withdrawal of immense amounts of water (a rapidly vanishing substance) during the mining and construction.
Hydro-power also disrupts aquatic species (as well as several terrestrial ones), causes large releases of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from reservoirs, increases mercury poisoning, pushes people out of their homes during construction, intensifies international conflicts, and have killed up to 26,000 people from breakage. Silicon-based solar panels involves an additional list of toxic chemicals that can poison workers during manufacture, gargantuan loss of farm and forest land for installing “arrays” (which rapidly increases over time), and still more land loss for disposal after their 25-30 year life spans. Industrial wind turbines require loss of forest land for roads to haul 160 foot blades to mountain tops, land loss for depositing those mammoth blades after use, and energy-intensive storage capacity when there is no wind.
Hydro, solar and wind power are definitely NOT renewable, since they all are based on heavy usage of materials that are exhausted following continuous mining. Neither are they “carbon neutral” because all use fossil fuels for extraction of necessary building materials and end-of-life demolition. The most important point is that the issues listed here are a tiny fraction of total problems, which would require a very thick book to enumerate.
Why use the word “fetish” for approaches to hydro, solar and wind power? A “fetish” can be described as “a material object regarded with extravagant trust or reverence” These sources of energy have positive characteristics, but nothing like the reverence often bestowed upon them.
Cuba’s approach to alternative energy is quite different. Helen Yaffe wrote two of the major articles in Disaster Preparedness. She also put together the 2021 documentary, Cuba’s life task: Combatting climate change, which includes the following from advisor Orlando Rey Santos:
“One problem today is that you cannot convert the world’s energy matrix, with current consumption levels, from fossil fuels to renewable energies. There are not enough resources for the panels and wind turbines, nor the space for them. There are insufficient resources for all this. If you automatically made all transportation electric tomorrow, you will continue to have the same problems of congestion, parking, highways, heavy consumption of steel and cement.”
Cuba maps out many different outlines for energy in order to focus on those that are the most productive while causing the least damage. A genuine environmental approach requires a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA, also known as cradle-to-grave accounting) which includes all mining, milling, construction and transport of materials; the energy-gathering process itself (including environmental disruption); along with after-effects such as continuing environmental damage and disposal of waste. To these must be added social effects such as relocating people, injury and death of those resisting relocation, destruction of sacred cites and disruption of affected cultures.
A “fetish” on a specific energy source denotes tunnel-visioning on its use phase while ignoring preparatory and end-of-life phases and social disruption. While LCAs are often propounded by corporations, they are typically nothing but window-dressing, to be pitched out of window during actual decision-making. With an eternal growth dynamic, capitalism has a built-in tendency to downplay negatives when there is an opportunity to add new energy sources to the mix of fossil fuels.
Is It an Obscene Word?
Cuba has no such internal dynamics forcing it to expand the economy if it can provide better lives for all. The island could be a case study of degrowth economics. Since “degrowth” is shunned as a quasi-obscenity by many who insist that it would cause immeasurable suffering for the world’s poor, it is necessary to state what it would be. The best definition is that Global Economic Degrowth means (a) reduction of unnecessary and destructive production by and for rich countries (and people), (b) which exceeds the (c) growth of production of necessities by and for poor countries (and people).
This might not be as economically difficult as some imagine because …
1. The rich world spends such gargantuan wealth on that which is useless and deadly, including war toys, chemical poisons, planned obsolescence, creative destruction of goods, insurance, automobile addiction, among a mass of examples; and,
2. Providing the basic necessities of life can often be relatively cheap, such as health care in Cuba being less than 10% of US expenses (with Cubans having a longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rate).
Some mischaracterize degrowth, claiming that “Cuba experienced ‘degrowth’ during its ‘Special Period’ and it was horrible.” Wrong! Degrowth did not immiserate Cuba – the US embargo did. US sanctions (or embargo or blockade) of Cuba creates barriers to trade which force absurdly high prices for many goods. One small example: If Cubans need a spare part manufactured in the US, it cannot be merely shipped from the US, but more likely, arrives via Europe. That means its cost will reflect: [manufacture] + [cost of shipping to Europe] + [cost of shipping from Europe to Cuba].
What is amazing is that Cuba has developed so many techniques of medical care and disaster management for hurricanes and climate change, despite its double impoverishment from colonial days and neo-colonial attacks from the US.
Cuba realizes the responsibility it has to protect its extraordinary biodiversity. Its extensive coral reefs are more resistant to bleaching than most and must be investigated to discover why. They are accompanied by healthy marine systems which include mangroves and seagrass beds. Its flora and fauna boast 3022 distinct plant species plus dozens of reptiles, amphibians and bird species which exist only on the island.
For Cuba to implement global environmental protection and degrowth policies it would need to receive financing both to research new techniques and to train the world’s poor in how to develop their own ways to live better. Such financial support would include …
1. Reparations for centuries of colonial plunder;
2. Reparations for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, multiple attacks which killed Cuban citizens, hundreds of attempts on Fidel’s life, and decades of slanderous propaganda; and,
3. At least $1 trillion in reparations for losses due to the embargo since 1962.
Why reparations? It is far more than the fact that Cuba has been harmed intensely by the US. Cuba has a track record proving that it could develop amazing technologies if it were left alone and received the money it deserves.
Like all poor countries, Cuba is forced to employ dubious methods of producing energy in order to survive. It is unacceptable for rich countries to tell poor countries that they must not use energy techniques which have historically been employed to obtain what is necessary for living. It is unconscionable for rich countries to fail to forewarn poor countries that repeating practices which we now know are dangerous will leave horrible legacies for their descendants.
Cuba has acknowledged past misdirections including an economy based on sugar, a belief in the need of humanity to dominate nature, support for the “Green Revolution” with its reliance on toxic chemicals, tobacco in food rations, and the repression of homosexuals. Unless it is sidetracked by by advocates of infinite economic growth, its pattern suggests that it will recognize problems with alternative energy and seek to avoid them.
In the video Cuba’s Life Task, Orlando Rey also observes that “There must be a change in the way of life, in our aspirations. This is a part of Che Guevara’s ideas on the ‘new man.’ Without forming that new human, it is very difficult to confront the climate issue.”
Integration of poor countries into the global market has meant that areas which were once able to feed themselves are are now unable to do so. Neo-liberalism forces them to use energy sources that are life-preservers in the short run but are death machines for their descendants. The world must remember that Che’s “new man” will not clamor for frivolous luxuries while others starve. For humanity to survive, a global epiphany rejecting consumer capitalism must become a material force in energy production. Was Che only dreaming? If so, then keep that dream alive!
Don Fitz is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the environment have appeared in Monthly Review, Z Magazine, and Green Social Thought, as well as several online publications. His book, Cuban Health Care: The Ongoing Revolution, has been available since June 2020. Thoughts from Stan Cox and John Som de Cerff were very helpful for the technical aspects of this review. A much briefer version of this review appears in the New York Journal of Books.