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Cuba's pathbreaking energy policies

The last drop of oil will have dripped away in forty years, according to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal. Of course, that doesn't mean we actually have until January 1, 2046, to change our oil-consuming ways. It won't work that way.

As the production in the great oilfields of the Middle East and the Americas starts to diminish in earnest, the price of oil will continue its present climb upward. Recent price increases have more to do with political events, wars, accidents and royal screw-ups, such as the erosion and shutdown of BP's Alaska pipeline. Such jumps in price are reversible.

The irreversible increases will be those set off by declining production from the old fields and the impossibility of finding new fields to replace them. That new, never-ending increase in prices can begin anytime now.

If America were like the little pig who built his house of bricks, the nation would be getting ready for the post-carbon world. But we are the pig who built his house of straw, scoffing at the existence of the wolf of scarcity who is coming to blow our house in.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will be blindsided by such titanic jumps in the price of oil that only the rich will be able to go on living in 50,000-square-foot houses and riding on energy-voracious private jets.

So what is it like when the oil flow becomes a molasses-like dribble? The energy faucet was turned off on North Korea and Cuba in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union disappeared. With it went the relatively cheap oil it had been supplying both Communist countries. In the face of the crisis, though both were centralized dictatorships, they reacted in different ways.

Just how each country reacted is discussed by Dale Allen Pfeiffer, on the From the Wilderness website, in two articles that will make any sensible person pause for a minute of sober thinking.

North Korea, with is malignly insane, hereditary dictatorship, could not cope. This once-industrialized nation collapsed. Steel and concrete production dropped by two-thirds. Pfeiffer tells us that "North Koreans turned to burning biomass, thus impacting their remaining forests. Deforestation led, in turn, to more flooding and increasing levels of soil erosion. Likewise, soils were depleted as plant matter was burned for heat, rather than being mulched and composted."

With tens of thousands of tractors immobilized for want of diesel oil, more people were needed to grow food and fiber. But lacking calories to sustain hard labor, productivity dived and the food situation worsened until starvation set in.

Pfeiffer foresees a real possibility that "worsening conditions and widespread flight from the cities could lead to violent confrontations. It is even possible that rural instability could eventually result in civil war."

Cuba is a different story. A highly industrialized nation, Cuba was not growing enough food to feed itself at the time the oil stopped flowing. It imported food paid for with the profits from its petroleum-based sugar, tobacco and citrus agriculture.

Pfeiffer reports that "Cuba lost 85% of its trade. Fertilizer, pesticide and animal feed imports were reduced by 80%.... Food imports (which had once accounted for 60% of the food consumed in Cuba) were also halved. And by 1994, agricultural production had dropped to 55% of the 1990 level. Per capita daily caloric intake dropped from 2,908 calories in 1989 to 1,863 calories in 1995, a decrease of 36%."

But unlike North Korea, Cuba rebounded. According to Pfeiffer, "Fruit production has returned to its 1989 level (and even surpassed it in the case of plantains). Vegetables and tubers for domestic consumption have seen a prodigious increase in production. Food intake has climbed to 2,473 calories and 51.6 grams per person, a 33% increase over caloric intake in 1994."

To accomplish this, Cuba damn near had to reorganize the whole society. The country instituted a "new system of sustainable agriculture, the development of healthy markets, and the privatization and cooperatization of the unwieldy state farms."

Cuba switched "the nation's agriculture from high input, fossil fuel-dependent farming, to low input, self-reliant farming...farmers used new environmental technologies offered as the result of scientific development--technologies such as biopesticides and biofertilizers. Biopesticides developed the use of microbes and natural enemies to combat pests, along with resistant plant varieties, crop rotation, and cover cropping to suppress weeds. Biofertilizers were developed using earthworms, compost, natural rock phosphate, animal manure and green manures, and the integration of grazing animals. To replace tractors, there was a return to animal traction."

Half of Havana's produce is grown on small urban plots and meat apparently is a seldom-eaten commodity. Few Americans would take to living in post-petroleum Cuba, free speech issues aside. Nevertheless, Cuba is an example of a society, dictatorial or not, that was able to make enough changes to survive and at least have hopes of a greater prosperity. It cannot have been easy for a Communist country to break up its huge collectives in favor of family farms and small co-ops.

Like Cuba, American agriculture is oil-dependent. What it can learn from Cuba in the realm of such things as biopesticides remains to be seen. The two countries are very different, but Cuba offers one lesson Americans will ignore at their own danger.

As the age of oil ends, a society that clings to the social and economic institutions and practices of the early twenty-first century will go the way of North Korea. The lesson to be learned from these two Communist states is change or die.

Editorial Notes: Last week, von Hoffman wrote another PO-aware column: Life in a Post-Carbon World. The idiosyncratic Nicholas von Hoffman was a reporter and columnist for the Washington Post and a commentator for 60 Minutes (CBS). Von Hoffman's columns currently appear in the liberal-left U.S. periodical The Nation (only on the web, apparently, not in the print edition):
Nicholas von Hoffman is the author of A Devil's Dictionary of Business, recently published by Nation Books. He is a Pulitzer Prize losing author of thirteen books, including Citizen Cohn, and a columnist for the New York Observer.
-BA

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