The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil is an intriguing film of an unintended case study. It chronicles the radical life condition change that was triggered in Cuba by the break up of the Soviet empire and Cuba’s loss of Soviet support, markets and imports in 1990-92. This was further exacerbated by the tightening of the American import embargo into Cuba – thus depriving it not only of oil, but also food and medicine.

From a relatively highly industrialized, auto-based culture, Cuba became overnight the poster child for what is happening now world-wide under peak oil conditions. Except that while the rest of us are going through slow withdrawal, Cuba was plunged virtually into a cold turkey severance from its oil energy “fix”.


This story is intriguing merely as a human interest story, but I found it an object lesson in integration and the integral interconnections of human systems compressed into a relatively small bounded (island) space. (I have previously considered the value of studying islands as prototypes of city/eco-region situations.)  Cuba’s story is the modern day equivalent of a city/state being put under siege. The drastic loss of their most common energy source, changed totally all four quadrants of Cuban’s bio-psycho-cultural-social lives.


In the upper right quadrant – Bio – the average Cuban lost 20 pounds in the two years of 1990-1992. The loss of food sources, forced the Cubans to change their whole meat/rice/oil based diet to one that is now much more healthily based on organically grown vegetables and fruit, and less home grown meat sources (chickens, rabbits, fish).


In the upper left quadrant – Psycho – they had to change their whole attitude to identities and roles in the community. Because of the importance of growing food for survival and health, farmers became (and remain) respected members of society. Interestingly, Cuba had a strong education sector and remains the Latin American country with the highest number of (medical) graduates. Now they even produce more doctors than Cuba needs and “trade” medical services with Venezuela for oil imports.


In the lower left quadrant – Cultural – Cuba moved from a standard 1960’s modernist world, with scant appreciation for interpersonal values, to a society where relationships became vital for the very survival of families, businesses, farms, transportation – the whole web of life returned to an era where personal relationships became paramount.


In the lower right quadrant – Social – Cuba’s loss of oil, meant that her transportation system was forced to replace the supremacy of the gas-guzzling car with the necessity of the public bus (actually conversions of tractor/trailers). They imported hundreds of thousands of bicycles from China and people had to completely re-organize their lives to move from home to work, suburb to down town, family to friends. Many moved back to the land, and set up self-supporting homesteads. It would appear that many became landowners and small business operators (in stark contrast to the state-owned farms and businesses before the Soviet demise) who were allowed to create a thriving economy, that exceeds production capacities of state-owned operations. According to the film now, 80% of the Cuban vegetable food consumption is sourced from organic farms. That is probably the highest percentage in the developed world.


The story of Cuba and the Power of Community illustrates the extreme integration that we tend to take for granted in our lives. If one element (or quadrant) of the whole/holon changes – then everything is changed.