A Better World: The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

Community Gardens Cuba

What if the world oil supply were suddenly drastically reduced? What if due to unforseen circumstances such as foreign attack, Arab oil fields such as Ghawar Field were shut down?

For Cuba, this was the impact when they were cut off from oil shipments in the 1990s. In the Soviet Union, due to Perestroika, former state companies became worthless and were bought by banks. Countries became renationalized while people lost all their savings, bureaucrats were imprisoned, and due to inflation, many quietly starved. Affected countries, such as Cuba, heavily dependent upon the former Soviet Union for petroleum, became immobilized.

Written and produced by Eugene ‘Pat’ Murphy, Faith Morgan, and Megan Quinn, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is an award-winning film by Community Solutions. How Cuba successfully coped with its loss of 1990s Soviet oil shipments and overcame significant hurdles as it adjusted to a new low-energy paradigm is the subject. The film depicts the strength of the people pulling together, with the help of government, to re-establish local farming, cooperatives, and manufacturing in spite of adversity such as the simultaneous trade embargo imposed by the United States.

Especially meaningful is the history of energy lesson offered as a time capsule of then and now. Despite repeated warnings that there is a limited supply of petroleum, most people today, particularly in the United States, have a limited grasp of the concept of Peak Oil. With the massive Tar Sands projects underway in Canada, and thousands of hydrofracturing well explorations taking place around the world, it appears that the dates of Peak Oil keep being pushed further and further into the future. However, fossil fuels are not regenerative.

According to Peak Oil author and Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg:

“Peak Oil is unprecedented. We’ve never become dependent on fossil fuels before in human history, and we’ve never experienced a peak in fossil fuel production, so we’re flying blind, as a global community, and so we need examples. We need some sort of laboratory experiment, where we can run this and see what’s the best way to do it, what’s not so good, and so on. And Cuba provides us with that, because Cuba has already undergone a kind of energy famine.”
Documentary film writer Pat Murphy, author and engineer, explains:
“Peak oil occurs when the oil reservoirs are about half empty. Reservoir pressure drops at about the halfway point, and so less and less oil will be extracted each year. World oil production grew in the 1950s, then accelerated until the late 1970s, dipped for a few years because of the Mid-East crisis, and then began increasing again. In a few years we will hit the ultimate peak, when half the world’s oil will be gone. Oil production will begin to decline. At the same time, world oil demand will continue to grow. And world population growth is increasing along with it.”

While today it hardly seems possible with the present natural gas and “oil glut” that there may ever be Peak Oil crisis, the idea of conservation and preparation is not lost from during the Carter Administration and America’s oil crisis in the 1970s. However the energy climax matters not merely because of population growth and global warming, but because the critical tools to power down the massive U.S. economy will remain reliant on diminishing fossil fuel supplies for developing a variety of alternative energy infrastructure.

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is divided into four parts including: General introduction, History of Peak Oil, Cuba’s Economic Crisis, and Agriculture. Because Cuba has always been a resource-based economy, the most time is spent on The Special Period, describing the 5-year period when Cuba transitioned back into localized farms. It was forced to undertake a New Green Revolution, including with urban gardens, sustainable practices, and land distribution.


Many of the professionals in the documentary, whether economist, urban planner, lawyer, or environmental engineer, emphasize it was not by choice and that during the first three years, people undertook immense sacrifices whether in diet, lifestyle, or culture. This was especially the case when it became clear that government food rations were inadequate due to the trade embargo.

Roberto Perez, Director at Foundation for Nature and Humanity states:
“Cuba in the 1980s had 90,000 Russian tractors, factories of pesticide, or chemical fertilizer we received from the Soviet Union. In 1990, everything changed. There was nothing.”
Rachel Bruhnke, environmental engineer, says:
“In reality, when this all began, it was a necessity. People had to start cultivating vegetables wherever they could.”
In desperation, people spontaneously started urban gardens in the cities. This helped them cut back on transportation and fuel, while providing employment. The Cuban government assisted the people in the establishment of these gardens however it could including through land redistribution. Many smaller farms and cooperatives with a variety of services and decentralization options were established. Essentially, any person wanting to become a farmer would receive training and assistance, including their own plot of land, so that more food could be grown.

During the Special Period, the government also trained scientists in sustainable agricultural research. Outside help in planning and design also arrived by way of permaculturalists from Australia. The film shows an agronomist demonstrating sustainable biotechnology methods of which a variety are shown, including growing worm humus, planting crops in layers, and using nets to extend the growing season. However the most important part, many participants agree, was the will to survive and the determination to succeed.

Resident permaculturalist Patricia Allison asserts:
“The people cooperating with and caring about each other are the main factors that we need to encourage. We can all plant fruit trees, we can all have water catchment devices on our roofs. It’s not the technology, it’s the human relationships.”

In just a few years, Cuba was able to demonstrate that it had surmounted its difficulties. Everyone seemed to agree that the power to re-engineer their society and community took determination and cooperation. This included reorganizing city neighborhoods so that many more mixed use developments occurred locally, redesigning transport vehicles and systems, opening up more community centers, and installing a lot more solar panels.

The results of the Cuban experiment are self-evident. Despite being having severe oil shortages and fossil-fuel based supplies, despite having a food-embargo and financial services cut, Cubans tightened their belts and put the country to work to survive. Even in 2006, the date of the documentary, emergency measures that had first been put into place were so effective they are still being used. Urban farm gardens are able to provide Savannah with half of its fruit and vegetable needs, and in smaller cities up to 80%, and much of it is organically grown. In the country, there is a food surplus such that many small farmers have enough to sell or even give away as charity to schools and for older people. Cubans even exports extra fruit and vegetables, including offering biotechnical expertise.

Everyone in the community found new roles to play during the five-year Special Period, such as homemakers offering meal preparation, young mothers offering community childcare, tradespeople learning to care for working animals, and city people rennovating trucks into camel-buses. All farmers earned a special status because everyone appreciated how important they are in preventing famine, hunger, and malnutrition.

Semi-trailors used to haul people, Cuba

Semi-trailers converted to public transport

Without adequate fossil-fuel based transportation, the choice to farm much more locally and organically was not by choice. Without a source of fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, Cuba had to turn to organic farming. It took from three to five years to rebuild soil fertility so that it could be productive again. By pulling together, everyone in the community found new roles to play during The Special Period. Consumers even learned to treasure a slower-paced lifestyle that encourages more music, art, and dance. Despite having lower incomes, everyone is grateful to survive.

By comparison, in the United States, an oil-shut down would be devastating because we are drastically underprepared emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. And this is precisely why Community Solutions‘ film, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is a model to learn from if as a consumer-oriented society we are to avoid a massive die-off. According to the documentary producers, being prepared is necessary at a critical juncture when global warming, peak energy, and overpopulation are overlapping.

Pat Murphy, author of Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change explains:
“Oil is finite, natural gas is finite, coal and uranium—all these are finite fuels. So there’s going to be a peak for all of these, and peak oil is just the beginning.”

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is a valuable case study and an inspiration. We can overcome the odds—and our differences—to survive during an oil shutdown. Local citizens cannot rely on the military or the government to save them, because too often their chains of command are not written for genuine creative crisis resolution. We must have more crisis leaders trained from within our own local communities, people who are prepared for leadership roles that encourages ethics and honors diversity, just as the Cuban people were able to demonstrate.

Visit The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions to purchase the DVD.

Images from CommunitySolution.org