We need to ditch consumer culture in favor of conserver culture. Cuba knows how to do this.
Where I am staying in Havana there is no internet. There is an international hotel within walking distance where you can buy minutes for a few CUCs. Internet access, like travel for USAnians, was looking promising not too long ago as Cuba and the US embarked upon a slow reconciliation process. Hotel and restaurant developers and tour operators rushed in ahead of the crowds. For a brief moment everyone was making money. Then US policies reversed and the boom went bust. When 3G will get to Cuba now is anyone’s guess.
On the way here, I watched two videos that gave me a new perspective. I would link them to the article but can’t at the moment. The first was a fresh interview with former professor Guy McPherson that provided new insight into the course of his turn away from the “life of leisure” — university tenure — to live in a mud hut in the desert (and attract others to do likewise), there to await the end of civilization, if not actively assist in its demise.
At the time, he believed from the writings of Utah professor Tim Garrett that civilization is a heat engine and that unless arrested, global warming will kill us all. His prescription was to turn the key and shut that deadly engine down as quickly as possible.
Of course no one did, so he and his partner left the mud hut and moved to a farm in Belize to wait out the end.
Now he admits he was wrong about at least a part of that. Because the aerosols industrial civilization sends skyward each day bounce light back to space, the planet is a degree or two cooler than it would be if industrial civilization suddenly ended. Global dimming has been buying time to mend our ways. But, if everyone up and moved to mud huts, or a farm in Belize, the end of the human story would ensue rapidly and it would not be pretty.
He and his partner have now returned to live in upstate New York and do their part to keep civilization intact a little longer. It seemed the more ethical course.
The second video I watched was Stuart Scott’s latest taping with climate scientist Peter Wadhams lamenting that our system of economics incentivizes carbon dioxide emissions and dis-incentivizes removal. Until that changes, there is little hope for a reversal of the pre-ordained fate McPherson describes.
However, you need to remember that the Chinese are now able to produce a bag of biochar fertilizer that costs $1 less than a comparable bag of chemical fertilizer and produces 15% better results, on average. Because a Beijing Sanju biofertilizer factory uses crop residues previously burned as feedstock, in the process converting labile photosynthetic carbon — temporary soil carbon — into mineralized carbon — permanent soil carbon — each factory effectively removes 66 kilotons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year. The price-to-yield factor disposes of Wadhams’ complaint. Just ask any farmer if he would like to get something much better for less than what he is paying now.
China had constructed 5 of these factories when I toured one in September. Another 20 were under construction, with 200 more planned. By 2020 they will likely be exporting the technology all along the New Silk Road, to Indochina, India, Africa and Latin America. It is simple, scalable and shovel ready. It does not need to change any economic paradigms to get going. It does not require approval by the White House or Senate. It does not require either the Aquarian Age or the collapse of industrial civilization. It is a strategy that can re-green the desert and turn the tide.
Which brings me to why I am in Cuba with Hans Peter Schmidt from the Ithaka Institut in Switzerland. The Swiss government, through its development agency, has decided to back pilot projects across the country, training farmers how to make and use biochar to regenerate the soils of this much abused island.
Cuba supplies the other half of the necessary solution. The first rule of holes is, when you find yourself in one, stop digging. We need to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere. To do that, we are going to have to tamp down our carbonized ways, gradually, even as we draw the legacy carbon out of the air. This will require societal behavioral change. We need to ditch consumer culture in favor of conserver culture. Cuba knows how to do this. It was forced to when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s, a time known to every Cuban as the “Special Period.”
During the Special Period tractors ran out of diesel and were replaced by oxen. Private cars were abandoned in favor of Chinese-made bicycles and “camels” — massive articulated buses. Water was hauled to upper floors of apartment houses by bucket. Caloric intake of the population declined by a third.
Cuba survived that period and learned to thrive, just as it has survived every insult hurled at it since its student revolt and popular revolution in the 1950s. Today it risks back-sliding into affluence from its burgeoning tourist trade, but at least there are not all those annoying advertisements on state-run television.
To keep going despite 50 years of blockade and economic sanctions, being cut off from most modern technologies, in the center of the Atlantic hurricane alley, and still struggling with the cultural residues of slavery, colonialism and wars of liberation, Cuba developed an inner strength and self-pride that made it nearly immune to the bullying machinations of its neighbor to the north.
Cubans don’t relish sacrifice and struggle, but they don’t shy away from it either. They are working on the two most important pieces of the climate puzzle — one technological, the other behavioral — and are going to become something the rest of the world will emulate in coming years.