A friend of mine, the Fenkell and Dexter Community Coalition, and the Motor City Horsemen organize monthly horse rides and gardening workshops on this corner in Central Detroit. The goal is to build community and put vacant land–of which Detroit has 20 plus square miles–to good use.
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.
Havana cityscape, 2010. The upside of not fixing crumbling buildings? Less carbon emissions.
This century, nine billion of us humans are going to have to try to figure out how to maintain the basic material comforts of modern life without totally wrecking the planet we live on.
There’s still a lot more economic growing to do, and one group of scientists has identified four key ways in which we are already undermining the planetary systems that sustain us: we are emitting too much carbon, driving too many species to extinction, causing too much nitrogen runoff, cutting down too many trees.
In the rich world, no country has figured out how to deliver prosperity while at the same time using the earth’s resources sustainably. We would need more than two Earths worth of resources even if we all consumed like Norway, among the greenest of European countries.
Lately I’ve been asking myself: which of the world’s nations has the highest sustainable quality of life? If we define sustainability in terms of hectares per capita biocapacity usage, what countries provide realistic examples of how humans can thrive within environmental limits? I used data from the Happy Planet Index and Global Footprint Network to try and find some contenders.
Like the forward-thinking European countries, Costa Rica has earned some deserved praise for its progress toward sustainability. Its bounty of hydropower even allowed Costa Rica to power its entire electric grid with renewable sources for three months this year. Costa Ricans also live long lives and are among the happiest people in the world.
But similar to countries like Norway, we tend to conflate Costa Rica’s relative enlightenment with actual environmental sustainability. Costa Ricans each need 2.5 hectares of land to neutralize their impact on the planet, well above the sustainable threshold of 1.8 hectares of biocapacity.
The World Bank considers Vietnam a “lower middle income” country. Its residents each earn about $2,000 per year, and can expect to live to be 76. Vietnam’s citizens each use 1.4 hectares of biocapacity, well below the per capita sustainable share of about 1.8. Vietnam’s future is uncertain though, as the nation’s booming capitalist economy has meant a steadily increasing environmental footprint since the 1990s.
A number of countries have similar profiles—Albania, Syria, Sri Lanka, Tunisia, Armenia, Nicaragua, Colombia, Georgia, Jamaica, Guatemala. These countries are not quite as wealthy or as healthy as we in the West are, but deliver relatively comfortable lives to most of their citizens. In general, the greatest sustainability challenge these countries face is that their economies and populations are growing rapidly. In a few decades they are likely to enjoy much more of our affluent and unsustainable western lifestyles.
The United Nations considers Cuba a country with “very high human development,” due to health and education indicators that in many cases best those of the US. The UN Human Development Index suggests that Cubans enjoy a quality of life higher than any of the countries mentioned above, and they do it at least in the ballpark of sustainable limits at 1.9 hectares per capita biocapacity usage. Cuba’s uniquely sustainable development has been noticed by at least a few academics.
The downsides of life in Cuba are pretty well known, and are reflected in the data that suggest Cubans are less happy than many of the other countries listed in this post. But because of the nation’s success with the raw numbers, I’m planning on doing some more research on the implications Cuba has for sustainable development in the rest of the world.