December 04, 2006

Learning from Cuba – Part Two

Recently I identified 10 people within walking distance of my Dilbert Den (office cubicle) that choose to drive their cars to work every day, even though they live in a city that has one of the best public transportation systems in the country. Seven (7) of them use SUVs (4 of these feature 8-cylinder engines, and 3 use 6-cylinder engines).

You can guess that this was not a welcomed survey, but I soon discovered that aside from the Enron-prices for fuel, there’s the cost of parking, and the aggressive competition for parking lot spaces close to the office.

One such driver lives 2 blocks away from where she could catch a train that would drop her less than a block away from work. Her reason for driving? Personal safety. She’s afraid of being mugged using public transportation. I mentioned that there’s no record of this sort of thing happening, especially during the working commute hours, but she insisted that it does happen.

I then asked why she doesn’t use the compact-size car that we’ve seen in her pictures, and she again gave “personal safety” as the reason. In case of a traffic accident involving, say, a delivery truck or a bus, she has a better survival rate in her SUV.

Accidents will happen, as Elvis once said, but Cuba’s experience in the 1990s was no accident.

The average Cuban lost more than 20 pounds of bodyweight during Cuba’s “special period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Almost overnight, Cuba lost 80 percent of its export market, and imports fell by 80 percent. Suddenly the challenge for the average Cuban was to get a full meal before bedtime, and enough hot water to bathe. Even those with family in the U.S. wealthy enough to send money had a difficult time.

So what did we do to help? Instead of turning a friendly face towards the island, we tightened the embargo.

Without oil for their old cars, many Cubans had to resort to riding bicycles to work. Many decided to pool their resources, and started growing organic produce in every conceivable space; backyards, gardens, parking lots… This was a collective community effort, not a government program, and the Cubans were able to, again, survive.

Cuba survived an energy famine during the 1990s,” says environmental author Richard Heinberg, “and how it did so constitute one of the most important and hopeful stories of the past few decades.”



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