When down is up: Review of “The Power of Community”

When down is up: Review of "The Power of Community"

When peak oil hit, Cuba hit back with a raft of positive solutions that reshaped the country to laudable ends.
It's only a few years old, but The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil by Faith Morgan and The Community Solution studio has already become a classic documentary in the peak oil world.
This short (53 minutes) award winning 2007 documentary packs a punch in telling how, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost over half of its oil supplies very quickly, essentially making it the only culture in the world to have experienced what amounted to a direct peak oil-type event.
Yet in spite of many of the scary scenarios that are spun out in attempting to imagine what an oil crash might look like, what actually happened in Cuba offers hope that a society can successfully step down from industrialization without necessarily meeting the roving bands of zombie marauders — or starving to death — as we've been taught to fear.

Case study

Of course every culture is different, and the Cuban real-life experiment can't necessarily be applied to other places wholesale. But the Cuban story offers so much hope not only because the freak-show apocalypse failed to materialize, but because several amazing, and indeed wonderful things, did happen.
While the initial shock did mean a government rationing of food, and individuals having to stretch food to make it until the next allotment, the film depicts the calm and enlightened response of the people in moving quickly to establish individual gardens, community gardens and small farms. And, much to the benefit of their health, all of these new local food efforts were organic because the fossil fuel based pesticides and fertilizers were no longer readily available for use.
The filmmakers – director Faith Morgan and her writing partners Pat Eugene Murphy and Megan Quinn — interview many Cuban growers who speak to the transformative effect this peak oil/local food diet had on Cubans, beginning with their eating more produce over all and resulting in a healthier population.

Hoofing it

The energy withdrawal of liquid fuels that affected Cuban transportation also proved an unexpected boon to the health of locals as walking and a mass influx of bikes got Cubans out from behind the wheel, making them have to use their bodies as the main way to get around. That was just as inconvenient to Cubans as it would be to anyone else living in industrialized areas or cities who are used to driving or relying on mass transit. Mass transit was still available in Cuba (including some new, improvised forms) but because of the glut of new passengers, long waits and crowded vehicles made walking and biking a preferred option.
All in all, Cubans lost an average of twenty pounds through all this hoofing it, which also made them healthier, a nice side effect when access to medicine was on the decline, due again to the peak fuels crisis.
Probably the most troublesome aspect detailed in the film is the intermittent electricity available to Cubans, which slowed the pace of business and services. But because bemoaning the situation was a useless response, the Cubans again showed resilience in adapting to the new conditions, building more passive solar housing units and employing solar panels and solar hot water heaters to take up the slack.

Up with people

In each situation — growing more food, walking more, using low-tech options — Cubans were forced to be more inventive, and to work together for solutions that helped preserve both dignity and social order. That's why the film is titled The Power of Community. In working together, Cubans revitalized their society. They revived organic farming methods known to the older generation and they started relating differently to fellow citizens who shared a common plight.
I honestly couldn't believe that I, a die-hard peak oil junkie, hadn't seen this film until this month, when a fellow Transitioner (thanks Diane of Sustainable Reston) gave me a copy for our local Transition Staunton Augusta chapter.
I can't wait to show this documentary at our film series in the spring because, unlike every other documentary out there that bewails the negative possibilities of a low energy future from a more or less speculative point of view, this one tells a real-world story based on what happened on the ground not so long ago and not so far away.
And the story, it turns out, isn't so bad after all.
Let's hope this unexpected yet oddly fortunate case study proves to be the rule that we can expect when the rest of us are hit with the impact of peak oil's unmistakable presence.

–Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice