Thursday, March 23, 2006

Peak Oil - are we all doomed?

The answer to the question depends on our interpretation of it. If it means, "are our energy intensive, gas guzzling societies doomed?" then the answer is, "yes, they are." If the sense is deemed broader, to ask, "do the majority of us have to die-off," in an apocalyptically nasty scenario of post "Peak Oil" (see my earlier posting "Die Off"), then the answer is, "not necessarily, but it depends on which course we chart." If we go in the right direction we will arrive in a safe land, but to find it, we might do worse than to take a guide from Cuba with us. Cuba used to receive an annual largesse worth billions of dollars from the U.S.S.R., which included plentiful agricultural supplies, fuel, pesticides, fertilisers, animal feed and seeds. In the wake of the break-up of the U.S.S.R. and eastern-bloc countries, the economic consequences were such that there was nothing left over for Cuba. Having found themselves thrown upon their own resources, the Cuban response was a focus on sustainable living, and now there are thousands of city gardens flourishing, planted on wastelands, rooftops and most tellingly, former carparks, made available by the demise in transportation use.
Cuba is thought to have over 2700 gardens which employ a total of 22,000 workers and produce more than two dozen different kinds of vegetables and herbs, which are sold to local consumers directly at anywhere down to about half the market price. Additionally,over 4000 larger and more intensive gardens operate, mostly on the outskirts of towns and cities. Due to the lack of chemical pesticides and fertilisers, all of this gardening is of necessity mainly organic. By supplying the produce at source for a local community there is no need for transportation. Many state enterprises, schools and hospitals grow some of their own food and farm livestock too. Some local communities produce up to 30% of their food, and over 500,000 tonnes of produce was made available for residents of Havana last year. There are health issues too, and it is thought that with enhanced yields from the gardens, most of the country should be able to meet the recommended allowance of 300 grams of vegetables per person per day. The more highly populous cities of Havana and Santiago de Cuba will not be able to produce this level from city gardens alone, however.
Cuba's economic crisis, protracted for more than a decade, with food shortages and a severe curtailment of transportation by lack of fuel, forced the nation to focus on less energy and transport intensive forms of production, distribution and marketing of foodstuffs, by operating on a local level. To be sure, Cuba is trying to improve its lot beyond the level of local food production, mainly through tourism and exploiting its mineral wealth (both energy intensive activities), but nonetheless, their basic lesson might provide the means for our survival, rather than a "Die Off" scenario, where ultimately everybody loses.
If we are at the point of "Peak Oil" (see my previous posting) and we can expect a steady rise in costs and an increasingly insecure supply of transportation fuel, adopting the Cuban model of urban agriculture, where relatively small communities of perhaps 10,000 - 20,000 people are provided for by local farms may be our solution. It would be better to pursue this line by choice and soon, rather than hide our heads in the sand until the problem is so hungry it can no longer be ignored.

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