Cuba's energy revolution - combating global warming

By Marce Cameron

Compact fluorescent light globes are as bright as incandescent globes but consume 75-80% less energy and last 5-10 years. If every one of 110 million US households replaced just one 60-watt incandescent globe with a compact fluorescent, the energy saved would be enough to power a US city of 1.5 million people — equivalent to taking 1.3 million cars off the road or switching off two coal-fired power plants.

In a December 19, 2007 Fastcompany.com article titled “How many lighbulbs does it take to change the world?”, Charles Fishman noted that in 2006 about US$1 billion was spent purchasing some 2 billion light globes in the US. Of these just 5%, 100 million, were compact fluorescents. That same day the US federal government signed legislation intended to phase out incandescent globes between 40 and 150 watts by January 2014. To put this into perspective, it took the Apollo space program only two years more to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. The European Union hopes to achieve a complete phase-out of incandescents by 2012.

While capitalist governments dithered, Cuba’s revolutionary socialist government became the first in the world to carry out a rapid and wholescale changeover to compact fluorescents during 2005 and 2006. Cuba was also the first country to ban the sale of incandescent globes. Moreover, this replacement program was carried out as part of a comprehensive and far-reaching “energy revolution” (see “Cuba: Viva la Revolucion Energetica” on p. 23).

“Cuba has solved crippling energy shortages that plagued the island as recently as 2004 without sacrificing a long-term commitment to promoting environmentally friendly fuels, the head of the UN Environment Program said Wednesday”, the Associated Press news agency reported on July 4, 2007. “The electric grid still relies too heavily on wasteful gas-flare reactors and heavy polluting diesel generators, but the communist government has taken important steps toward developing wind and solar power, as well as ethanol from sugar cane”, Achim Steiner, the program’s executive director told AP, adding: “In terms of a short term response, it is quite remarkable how Cuba, under its economic conditions [a small Third World country under a US economic blockade] managed to solve that crisis.”

Cuba’s energy revolution is not an isolated initiative. Among Cuba’s environmental achievements are reversing deforestation and the world’s first, and so far only, large-scale conversion from conventional agriculture to organic and semi-organic farming. Urban organic farms have proliferated during the past decade and now supply the bulk of the fruits, vegetables and herbs consumed in Cuban cities. Cuba’s remnant forests and coral reefs are the ecological jewels of the Caribbean, having been spared the twin ravages of poverty-driven deforestation and rampant capitalist development that have devastated fragile ecosystems elsewhere in the Third World.

This is not to say that Cuba has no serious environmental problems or that it leads the world on every environmental front. Germany, for example, leads the world in installed photovoltaic capacity and Denmark in the share of electricity generated by wind power. A small Third World country under a 47-year economic siege from US imperialism, Cuba cannot afford all of the latest environmental technologies and is denied access to some of them by the US blockade. What makes Cuba unique is that this small Third World country has achieved key indicators of social development and human wellbeing (such as life expectancy, infant mortality and adult literacy) similar to those of developed capitalist countries, but at a much smaller economic and environmental cost.

A 2006 report published by the World Wildlife Fund pointed out that Cuba is unique in having both a high UN Human Development Index (HDI) and a relatively small ecological footprint (a measure of a country’s per capita impact on the biosphere through the consumption of natural resources and energy). If all countries followed Cuba’s example the world could be developing sustainably and all of the planet’s 6.9 billion people could enjoy a high level of human development, according to the WWF.

Why aren’t more countries following Cuba’s example? Why hasn’t the Australian government launched an energy revolution on the scale of socialist Cuba’s? The reason is that Cuba has a government that serves the interests of working people, not those of a capitalist ruling class. Cuba’s energy revolution is part of a larger social revolution.

In 1959 the Cuban workers and peasants overthrew the US-backed Batista dictatorship and brought to power a revolutionary working people’s government. In late 1960 the revolutionary government organised the workers to take over Cuba’s big capitalist enterprises, establishing state ownership of the key economic resources and subordinating market relations to centralised economic planning to meet social needs.

Cuba’s planned economy made possible its energy revolution. Cuba’s power generation and distribution system is not broken up into many competing profit-oriented businesses. Rather, it functions as a single national enterprise at the service of society. Only planning at the level of the economy as a whole has allowed Cuba to carry out such a sweeping renovation and reorganisation of its entire energy generation and distribution system. The energy revolution also involved the replacement of millions of household electrical goods with new, energy-efficient appliances and a restructuring of electricity tariffs to encourage savings.

In addition to national economic planning, Cuba’s energy revolution was only possible because it had the active participation of the population. The Cuban government — born of a popular revolution and based on mass organisations of working people in their local neighbourhoods, schools, colleges and workplaces — was able to harness “people power” to achieve a common goal. Convinced by their government of the need for the energy revolution, Cuba’s working people made it their own. In a similar way, urban organic farming in Cuba is not a marginal activity as it is in Australia but a mass grassroots movement supported by the government.

Capitalist governments can’t do this because they serve the interests of the tiny corporate elite. Capitalist societies develop according to what will serve to maximise the profits of capitalist firms. Society is held hostage to the corporate rulers who own the economy and control the state. The goal of the capitalists is to “make money” (accumulate capital). To achieve this goal they must turn the working people, who produce society’s wealth, not only into “hired hands” — working under the capitalists’ control — but also into atomised and permanently dissatisfied consumers of the goods and services marketed by capitalist firms. This not only undermines human solidarity, subordinating all human relationships to the “cash nexus”, it also puts humanity on a collision course with Earth’s ecosystems.

Cuba has taken a different path. The conscious goal of Cuba’s socialist revolution is to liberate human beings from all forms of exploitation and oppression by building a new society based on shared wealth and human solidarity. One difference between Cuba and capitalist societies is that Cubans are not bombarded by thousands of daily messages urging them to buy things, much of it junk that doesn’t make us any happier.

Cuba is responsible for only a tiny fraction of global carbon emissions. On its own, Cuba’s energy revolution won’t do much to slow global warming. But Cuba — even with the limitations imposed on it by its history of colonialism, neocolonialism and US economic warfare — provides an example of what could be done to “save the planet”, and how it can be done.