Oily food culture

As we deplete our fossil fuels, we face one of the largest transitions in humankind: from high energy dependence to a significant reduction in energy supply in society.  But a reduction in energy supply is a not a problem, on the contrary, it is the solution to many of the problems of our society relating to our fuel dependency.  A disabled local food supply system, land degradation,  and green house gas emissions would all be positively addressed by a reduction in energy supply in our society.  However how would we cope as people, with the coming crisis relating to our energy supply is question worth asking.

Food gardens on the outskirts of Havana. Photo by Angela Newberry 2013

Cuba has often been used as an energy descent case study where people are forced to adapt to a low energy reality.  In 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed.  Cuba lost its source of cheap oil and machinery.   The nation had to change from fuel and petrochemical-intensive farming methods to a more localised, labor-intensive, organic mode of production.

Food gardens were established in and around towns and cities during  “El Periodo Especial”.  And within less than half a decade an exemplary local food supply system based on community self-reliance was established.

Cuba needed food, and had to re-learn old, non-mechanical cultivation methods, as well as permaculture, to avoid famine. During my stay in the year 2000 I saw a constant repair of buildings, old household items, and cars.  I envied  the degree of co-operation amongst neighbours however I couldn’t overlook the fact that the degree of co-operation in the neighbourhood had more to do with Cuban culture than with crisis.

Cuba is not the only country in the world that has lived through a peak oil scenario as Dr. Joerg Friedrichs, University of Oxford explains in  How Different Parts of the World would React to a Peak Oil Scenario: 

“In the 1990s, Cuba faced a similar shock to North Korea. Subsidized oil deliveries from the Soviet Bloc were stopped, but the country could not afford buying an equivalent amount of oil on the world market. As a consequence, access to oil also fell by more than 50%.  Cuba is seen by many observers as a Stalinist regime similar to North Korea. However there is an important difference. While Pyongyang relies on the atomization of society for political control, Havana on the contrary relies on grassroots organizations at the neighbourhood level. Ever since 1959, the Cuban regime has heavily invested in social cohesion. This was done for the sake of social control rather than empowerment, and ordinary Cubans were not consulted. Nevertheless, the accumulated social capital could be mobilized to weather the “special period” after the loss of Soviet subsidies. People helped each other at the neighbourhood level, and the wastelands of Havana and other cities were utilized for urban gardening. Unlike North Korea, Cuba did therefore not experience mass starvation despite considerable hardship in the so-called “special period”.

Vinales, Cuba. Photo by Angela Newberry 2013

Seeing the degree of cooperation at a neighbourhood level in Cuba made me wonder what life would be like in Australia if we faced a similar crisis.  As Cuba has succeeded in overcoming those hard years and acquiring a high level of self reliance we may have something to learn from their society.

According to Dr. Joerg Friedrichs, “The shorter and the less a country or society has been exposed to individualism, industrialism and mass consumerism, the more likely there will be a adaptive regression to community-based values and a subsistence lifestyle (as in the case of Cuba). ” 

If Dr. Joerg Friedrichs findings are of any help, it follows that we are far from ready culturally to adapt to necessary cooperative behaviours.  But acknowledging our deficits may strengthen our chances.

We’ve  certainly taken the wrong turn.   In just one generation important basic home food production skills have been lost.   We hardly engage with our neighbours and our gardens are remarkably non-edible.  Our streets are lined with non-fruit bearing trees and we are amongst the world top consumers, commuters, and wasters.

Important basics have been  lost  as seen in Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution program in America, where children asked to identify different vegetables could not tell the difference between a tomato and a potatoe:

There are all sorts of problems related to non localised food supply but perhaps the most revealing is the amount of energy, resources, and research invested into dealing with our problems.  There are all sorts of green technology business emerging.  Take for example the investments made into the problems caused by packaging.   A problem easily solved by us as people who can take action and make choices.  Yet as individuals we choose to remain consumers above all else and rely on authority and industry to solve the problems of our fuel based food supply system.  The documentary by Jeb Berrier, “Bag It”, is good accessible evidence of such heavy investing into the packaging pollution problem.  A problem easily solved by bringing the food production closer to home.

Through established consumer routes  we are easily led to believe that by replacing and buying all manner of new green tech goods we are addressing climate change and peak oil.  Our new cars, light bulbs, and fridges for example are more efficient than their predecessors but a growing demand for more fossil fuel based goods accelerates consumerism and is therefore, not the solution to climate change.  Similarly there is a strong governmental investment into biofuels as part of the governments’ strategies to reduce our carbon emissions, but as long as our current energy use remains high so will our carbon emissions.

Havana. Cars from the 1950s still going in the year 2000

Cuba’s “Periodo Especial” following the collapse of it’s main energy supplier in 1989 was a test to its people.  But it needs to be said that the people were ready, -ready to work together. Neighbourhood cooperation was already established at the time. And when social cogesion and the taking responsibility for food production is no novelty, the ravages of the world outside are lessened

A few years earlier I was living in The Basque Country, in northern Spain.  There was much talk in the area about the impact of Spain joining the European Union in 1986.  It was feared that the establishment of a single market would render local food uncompetitive. Local food production is strong in The Basque Country, with most towns integrating small farms, orchards, and kitchen gardens within the city. Local food production is part of the culture, and that is precisely what saved it.  And so while imported foods did find their way into the supermarket isles, local foods are the consumer preference and represent quality and the choice for many who support local food production. The saving of that local food supply would play an important part in the rebuilding of an extended sustainable food supply system if fuel production was reduced.

Ander gazes over community garden in Corro, The Basque Country, Spain 2012. Photo by Antxon Tejada

Clearly our model of economic growth is at opposite ends with deep, long-term cultural change that is needed to reduce our energy consumption, and develop local resilience.  A more rewarding approach is to develop the skills necessary to decrease our consumption, and decrease our dependence on oil through food, consumer goods, and travel.  Here in Australia where over 70% of people live in free-standing homes with access to land we can begin by growing our food closer to home and contributing to our community creatively through the development of household and community resilience.

Forseeing of a lower energy lifestyle is an opportunity to build stronger, healthier, and more resilient communities ourselves without waiting for governments to tackle climate change and Peak Oil through policy.  However there are cultural changes required that may prove challenging.  Our addiction to a high energy lifestyle (as manifested through our consumerism), our detachment from our food production, as well as our individualism, must all be acknowledged if we are to prepare for a safer energy descent scenario.

Paula Ajuria 2013


Clive Blazely. 2012, Growing your own Heirloom Vegetables. p.13

Choice Magazine 29 Jan 2000 http://www.choice.com.au/reviews-and-tests/food-and-health/food-and-drink/safety/strawberries.aspx8

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  http://www.fao.org/energy/81337/en/

Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGYs4KS_djg

Jay Hakes. 2000, US Energy Information Administration. Long Term World Oil Supply presentation, http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/petroleum/presentations/2000/long_term_supply/sld003.htm

Richard Heinberg.  2007, Peak Everything. New Society Publishers.

Two and a half minute video explains Peak Oil

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