Way back in 1989, when people like me were more focused on the joys of American college privilege — smoking pot, making art, hanging out at the river, uh, I guess maybe learning some stuff — in an area of the world we weren’t paying much attention to, Cuba faced a crisis called the “Special Period.”
The Special Period was when the Soviet Union collapsed and the island country of Cuba, part of the former’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or COMECON, lost half or more of its oil supply essentially overnight.
So what’s in a name? Why the “Special Period?” The question is, Was it really that special?
Just think about it. Island…isolated…all of the sudden no energy supply…”Ay yay yay,” as Cuban comic heartthrob Desi Arnaz might’ve sung!
The Special Period was either actually special or…especially cray cray! You be the judge:
When any society, like, for example, OURS, is utterly dependent on a few precious resources, say, uh, oil, the precipitous withdrawal of that resource kinda, well, spells major disaster. Fast like.
Such was the case in Cuba during the Special Period. And it could’ve gotten ugly. Strange thing is that during the Special Period…it didn’t. Get ugly, that is.
I mean, I’m not saying there was NO pain when all the oil dried up and Cuba was left all on its lonesome to fend for itself. It’s not like the US was willing to help.
Plenty of pain among the Cuban people was catalogued by researchers and historians alike. Food shortages, while not leading to starvation, did rack the population as it adjusted downward. This was felt especially hard among the sick, young children, and the elderly.
But the amazing and unexpected thing was that The Special Period for Cuba actually prompted a kind of renaissance in the wake of this instantaneous resource disruption, the result of which may be part of what we’re seeing in renewed efforts at opening Cuban-American relations some three decades later. It’s not a direct line, but clearly the Special Period marked when definitive change was injected into the Cuban trajectory.
Trip to Havana, anyone?
As chronicled in the classic documentary film, The Power of Community; How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, Cuba had no intention of simply giving up and going down after its Ruskie Commie benefactor hit the skids. In fact, the opposite was what happened; Cuba experienced a flowering of community, culture, resilience, opportunity, and identity as a direct result of its loss of a reliable and abundant energy supply.
Sure, there was still Castro, and the later Elian Gonzales affair to enflame US-Cuban relations, immigration issues, humanitarian crises, not-so-latent racism, and must-see TV. But where the lens wasn’t trained, a lot of positive change was happening for our nearby island neighbor.
For starters, without mindless oil to consume, cars were perma-parked and bus lines were long. Seriously, hours long.
Cubans started walking and biking a whole lot more, resulting in widespread weight loss. That made them healthier.
Imports ground to a halt, inspiring a revival in local agriculture. That gave them more jobs!
But more than that, because fossil fuels and their derivative fertilizers were in short supply, Cuba became one of the leading producers of sustainable and organic farming. That made them more food secure and healthier.
They increased their reliance on distributed (rooftop) solar power and thus managed to begin movement toward pockets of a more clean-energy based economy.
I could go on and on but you should just watch the movie since it’s an important canary in the coal mine concerning any society’s outsized dependence on one resource. (Cough cough, America pay attention here, cough cough.)
The real takeaway from the Special Period is that almost every Cuban industry was revived or revitalized in a new and meaningful and, more importantly, simple way, while that which was no longer practicable faded into a minor role.
It took a crisis, which could have been a lot more painful had the people been unwilling to move with and adapt to the apparent downturn, to actually inject something new, positively challenging, and even revivifying into the Cuban way of life, economy, and culture.
And I’d argue that the same should happen for our American cohorts in Puerto Rico, our brethren so recently ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
Only in their case it shouldn’t happen alone. It should happen with the help of their fellow citizens. With us.
There’s no doubt that right now the mission critical thing for Puerto Rico is aid — flood buckets, MRIs, generators, medicine, clean water, blankets, refugee-like temporary tent encampments, chaos-management strategy, counseling, communication zones, child care, etc. No question.
That is to say, all this should happen if we the American people were actually talking about Puerto Rico. But, as I predicted in my essay a few weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey, We Yawn in Your Direction, we’re not. We’re yawning.
Privileged people — YES, privileged people, put it in perspective folks — are talking about football, protests, and concerts right now and the national conversation doesn’t actually currently appear big enough to remember our American friends and family in Puerto Rico who are inches away from a gaping, toxic abyss.
I’m not saying football, protests, and concerts aren’t important, too. It’s just, well…
Okay, let’s NOT talk about Puerto Rico. I’m hoping if we all agree NOT to, we will all actually end up actually talking about it more. Psychologists tell us we won’t be able to help it.
And if we did talk about Puerto Rico, then what? Might we have to talk about global warming, energy shortages, our own life style, our own consumption patterns, eco refugees, real patriotism, people of color, and, perhaps worst of all, actual problem solving? By grown-ups and stuff?
It’s so much more American to talk about “feelings” and “rights” and “fairness” right now. And binge watching. Boy have we got first world problems!
I mean, don’t get me wrong. I totally support the First Amendment as demonstrated by the NFL and what it’s trying to do with our societal negligence on #BlackLivesMatter. But Puerto Rico literally has bigger fish to fry right now. Like, if it had any fish to fry. Or a way to fry them!
I DO want to talk about Puerto Rico and perhaps have that conversation before they have widespread dysentery and cholera and malaria and civil strife and martial law and…worse.
I can’t help here but draw a parallel between Cuba in the Special Period and Puerto Rico in the Maria Period.
And on that score, I actually wonder how much effort should be made to restore modernity to Puerto Rico at billion dollar expenses and massive infrastructure, and how much effort should be made to eschew it? It’s a cost-benefits analysis that goes beyond the regular columns of dollars and cents to encompass something bigger and more important about our times.
Does an island which, as part of the Mesoamericas, for millennia lived very lightly and very simply in relation to the land, the omnipresence of the ocean, the seasons, the climate, the weather, and local foodstuffs, really owe its greatest allegiance to an anomalous and time-limited modern fossil fuel era which can be reduced to rubble, chaos, disease, and collapse in the wake of one storm?
Where is the resilience? Puerto Rico will face future storms, as early as next year. Or this. This issue isn’t going away.
As painful as it is, Puerto Rico is an object lesson for us all on the inherent vulnerabilities of modern systems which overwhelmingly rely on centralized networks, single inputs, and irreplaceable resources.
Puerto Rico may not be known for its cutting edge grid technology but in all honesty, its grid’s epic failure is due far less to its MacGyvered system than to its utility-scale centralization.
As much as we put faith in consolidated efforts, any large scale, centrally-organized, non-redundant system is subject to the same propensity toward failure — whether from a monster storm, a stray branch, vandals, hackers, or terrorists.
Puerto Rico after Maria makes no case so sparklingly clear as the case for distributed, rooftop, battery-backed solar power, the kind of 21st century technology which, while still far from perfect, can likely weather storms and other vagaries with more agility than can groaning, aging, domino-stacked behemoths of the fossil-fuel-centric paradigm.
This means Puerto Rico could retain the best of modernity and do it one better.
Peak energy analysts have written that it’s an incomparable difference between zero power and 10% power. If one is able to simply keep refrigeration going, boil water, run nighttime lights, or fuel air conditioning or heat, even if one is forced to choose between these, that is lived as an experience that is infinitely better than no power at all.
In some cases — as in an oxygen machine or using communications to reach outside help — this can be the difference between life and death.
For America — and Puerto Rico is part of America — right now we have the tragic but inspiring opportunity in the wake of Maria to remake this island paradise into an example for the whole nation, of which PR is a part. #StatehoodforPuertoRico
Sun, Sea, and Salsa
Under the right leadership, and, let’s face it, that’s NOT likely to come from P Grump and the Crazy Train while there’s NFL kneeling to deride or North Korea to taunt, Puerto Rico could serve as an example of revolutionary transformation in energy, transportation, sanitation, and communications. They could go from their current 2% solar/clean energy profile to 50, 75, or 100%. Costa Rica has nearly 100% clean energy and it has 1.5 million more people than Puerto Rico.
Sure would be nice if the Puerto Rican crisis wasn’t happening when such an addled, indifferent, unfocused, uncaring, simplistic, and in all probability racist man was occupying the White House. He can’t be bothered to care and even if he could, he doesn’t have the intellectual and curiosity heft, or the insight and compassion to rise to the historic moment.
So can we bypass the Grump Admin and call in bigger and better guns? Maybe the Bill Gateses and Elon Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world. Money, brains, compassion, will, and enterprise?
Puerto Rico is surely on its own…but for us.
Can you envision a 100-mile long island
territory (state) as an American exemplar of distributed, battery-backed solar power and other clean energy? What about tidal power?
Can you envision that island enjoying an historic revitalization that looked to its roots for inspiration in agriculture, cooking, architecture, aesthetics, hospitality, and lifestyle and curried in simpler versions of its past to entice travelers as well as to build up the local population?
Can you envision a “slow-culture” movement that relied on traditional transportation and milder versions of modern transport so that the ideal of fast cars and bustling airports were less important than “living into place?”
Can you envision a revival in indigenous crafts, entertainments, and offerings that made living in or coming to Puerto Rico not merely an American getaway to…more America…Burger King and all…but an American getaway to something that enlightened us to something as yet unknown or unexperienced in the general American vernacular? Something uniquely Puerto Rican and something uniquely island-based?
If insanity is defined by doing the same thing again only expecting a different result, then to attempt to rebuild Puerto Rico (providing we are paying attention to its acute needs at all) in the calcified image of the present is to court a straightjacket and a rubber room.
Puerto Rico is decimated beyond all reckoning. A horrific humanitarian and historic tragedy in the era of global warming, peak fossil fuels, and intellectual delusion can go one of two ways: More of the same. Or a new path. Let’s choose the latter.
Out of tragedy can be born — is often born — triumph.
On Puerto Rico after Maria, I pray for something mindblowing. A clean, distributed energy model for example that we all watch being born, witness to the possible.
And the degree to which we can agree to follow this story on the mainland, to support it, to live into it, with it, with our Puerto Rican American contemporaries, without yawning and growing bored, is the degree to which we can write our own story too by witnessing theirs.
From tragedy, triumph, and a new way forward. A model for when global warming delivers this same thing again, in other coastal communities. These are our people. This is our story. The future is now and we can build it.
How hard is that if our priorities are straight? How hard is that?
— Lindsay Curren, Average American
*This essay is dedicated to one of my best friends from high school, a great lady with deep familial ties to Puerto Rico.