In Harper’s, I wrote about how Cuba—perhaps more than any other country on the planet—stands at the enviable intersection of high human development and low ecological footprint:
In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, currently slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.
Check out the link above to read about rare snails on top of mountains and lush reefs at the island’s remote edge. It was one of the most stimulating stories I’ve ever written, but it was motivated by some pretty grim lines of inquiry. One of my guiding questions was along the lines of: what does Cuba suggest about the likelihood that human societies will choose to live within our planet’s ecological budget when overshooting it is so easy? I found few Cubans who were satisfied with their current level of consumption, and understandably so. Cubans make many sacrifices that us Americans would hardly accept, from forgoing air travel to creatively sourcing toilet paper.
Even some right-wing thinkers have been able to grasp some of the essence of the dilemma. “No free society would do to itself what the [climate justice] agenda requires … The first step to doing that is to remove these nagging freedoms that keep getting in the way,” says one climate denier quoted in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. I think a more optimistic counterargument can be constructed, but Cuba sure is fodder for pessimism.
I’m finally getting to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, on how climate action can be a vehicle for building better social and economic systems. From the intro:
What concerns me less is the mechanics of the transition–the shift from brown to green energy, from sole-rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense and walkable cities–than the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required.
It seems to me that our problem is has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the politics of human power–specifically whether there can be a shift in who wields it, a shift away from corporations and toward communities, which in turn depends on whether or not the great many people who are getting a rotten deal under our current system can build a determined and diverse enough social force to change the balance of power. I have come to understand, over the course of researching this book, that the shift will require rethinking the very nature of humanity’s power–our right to extract ever more without facing consequences, our capacity to bend complex natural systems to our will. This is a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism, a mentality that some call ‘extractivism.’
Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message–spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions–telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.