April 27, 2006
Film shows many ways Cuba reacted to peak oil crisis
When people learn that the world’s oil reserves may soon reach their peak and then start to diminish, they often feel overwhelmed, said Pat Murphy, executive director of The Community Solution. Some people despair at the cataclysmic changes an oil-dependent world will face when oil supplies begin to run low.
But people don’t have to despair, Murphy said.
Rather, they can follow the example of a small island nation that already experienced peak oil and came through the experience with lessons to teach the world.
That nation is Cuba, and recently Community Solution completed a documentary that tells Cuba’s story, The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
“People are extremely concerned about peak oil and not seeing a clear solution to how to get off fossil fuel,” Murphy said. “Here’s a country that did it and came out the other end a better society.”
The Power of Community will be featured at a peak oil conference of about 700 people this weekend in New York City and at a conference next weekend in Washington, D.C. In May, the film will be shown to 500 people in Boulder, Colo., and at a documentary film festival in Telluride, Colo.
Now Community Solution employees are scrambling to fill the 460 back orders they’ve received for the film.
In Yellow Springs, The Power of Community will be shown at the Little Art Theatre on Sunday, May 14, at 5 p.m.
The strong response the film has received shows that people concerned about peak oil are hungry for its message, said Megan Quinn, Community Solution’s outreach director.
“The Cuban film shows there is hope, that there are things we can do now,” she said.
Trip to Cuba inspired film
During the visit, which took place in the fall of 2004, the group filmed 60 hours of conversation with Cuban permaculturalists, environmentalists, farmers and citizens.
The trip was the third visit to Cuba for Faith Morgan and Murphy, who wanted to see firsthand the community-based responses to peak oil that they had heard about.
In the past several years, The Community Solution, a Yellow Springs nonprofit organization, has taken as its mission informing the public about peak oil and community-based solutions to the predicted energy crisis. The organization sponsored the first national conference on peak oil in the fall of 2004 and a second national conference last fall. The Community Solution was formerly known as Community Service, Inc., and was founded by Morgan’s grandfather, former Antioch College President Arthur Morgan, in the 1940s to promote small communities.
On the trip to Cuba, Morgan said, she was impressed by the warmth and vitality of the Cuban people. She also was surprised to find a level of democracy that she didn’t expect, in which neighborhood elections produced candidates who were then elected to higher government positions. Murphy and Morgan said they roamed freely through city streets, which were free of military presence, and that Cuban citizens seemed eager to speak their minds.
The group found that the country’s response to its oil crisis was indeed a grassroots effort.
“The most important thing we can take from Cuba is that the solutions to the energy crisis are not at the governmental level but in individual activism in the community,” Quinn said. “The solution is not about finding new energy sources but instead in changing our lifestyle.”
Cuban energy crisis
The effect on Cuban people was dramatic, Cuban economist Jorge Mario said in The Power of Community. “Try to imagine an airplane suddenly losing its engines. It was really a crash,” he said.
People experienced frequent blackouts, for up to 16 hours a day, in Cuba’s oil-fed electric power grid. In her article, Quinn quoted an Oxfam report on Cuba that said, “In the cities, buses stopped running, generators stopped producing electricity, factories became silent as graveyards. Obtaining enough food for the day became the primary activity for many, if not most, Cubans.”
The average Cuban lost 20 pounds as a result of the lack of food, according to Quinn. The food shortage was exacerbated by the continuing United States’ embargo against Cuba, along with the collapse of the country’s large-scale fossil fuel-based farming.
Grassroots response to crisis
In the countryside, Cuba turned its back on petrochemical-intense agriculture and focused on organic farming, using bio-pesticides and fertilizers. Farmers also turned to animal energy for their needs, returning to the use of oxen in the fields. They learned permaculture techniques and now have sustainable farming methods that they lacked before, Roberto Sanchez of the Cuban Foundation for Nature and Humanity said in The Power of Community.
“You have to follow the natural cycles, so you hire nature to work for you, not work against nature,” Sanchez said. “To work against nature, you have to waste huge amounts of energy.”
Likewise, the country radically shifted its methods of transportation, with many urban Cubans biking, walking or carpooling to work. Even today, officials will stop almost-empty vehicles on city streets and stuff them with people needing rides, according to Quinn.
While Cuba is undeniably a poor country, with a gross domestic product of $3,000 a year, it is a healthy country, with twice the number of doctors per capita as the U.S., according to Quinn’s article. Throughout the Special Period, Cuba maintained its high health standard, and now has a life expectancy equal to that of the United States, and an infant mortality rate higher than this country.
While unintended, Special Period practices in some ways enhanced people’s health, with Cubans eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and exercising much more than they had in the past, Sanchez said in the documentary.
“Before, Cubans didn’t eat that many vegetables. Rice and beans and pork was the basic diet,” he said. “At some point necessity taught them, and now they demand vegetables.”
Murphy said the message Americans could learn from Cubans is “how to live a fulfilling, healthy and happy life using one eighth of the energy that Americans use.”
Making film a community effort
A painter, sculptor, potter and writer who grew up in Yellow Springs and returned here from California with Murphy several years ago, Morgan had never before made a film. But she said she was inspired by her trips to Cuba to do so.
“From the first time I went to Cuba, I felt a drive to document so that people could see what is happening,” she said.
Morgan worked closely with Yellow Springs film editor Eric Johnson, who worked full-time on the film for several months beginning last spring. Morgan wrote the script and collaborated with Johnson on shaping the film.
Also working as an administrator at Community Solution and caring for her mother, Jane Morgan, Faith Morgan found herself becoming consumed by the filmmaking process and keenly aware that people were waiting for the documentary’s completion.
“It’s hard to make a film and have a life, too,” she said.
Finally, in December 2005, she stopped coming into the Community Solution office and focused solely on the film, she said. In addition to collaborating with Johnson, her work involved many late-night sessions alone as she pasted the film’s script on her wall to try to find the best way to organize the story. The next day she would take her ideas to Murphy, Quinn and Johnson and the creative teamwork would continue. Johnson donated many hours to the process, Morgan said, and she donated all of her time.
Morgan also received help in Yellow Springs from Tom Blessing, who served as associate producer, designer Bob Bingenheimer and animator Marc Seimer, with filmmaker Jim Klein contributing editing consultation at the end of the process.
“It was a community effort,” Morgan said.
Now that The Power of Community is completed and getting out into the world, its creators hope its message of the lessons from Cuba add to the growing dialogue about peak oil, and that the film helps people find solutions to the coming crisis.
“If people are in despair, it’s harder to come up with ideas,” Quinn said. “If people feel there’s hope, it opens up the creativity to find solutions.”