A Cuban style ‘Special Period’, now for the capitalist world?

Or: is this the 1,5 degree economy?

As the walls fell, back in 1989, the world was in turmoil, and the perspective on a lot of things changed. Not the least the (declining) fear for a nuclear war of course. But even more this kick-started an unprecedented belief in free markets, since major threats disappeared. Governments felt free to go all the way now. As a result everything was overexploited, making our problems for the future to come explode.

One of the victims of that period however was Cuba. The collapse of their economy and trade was immense, most likely they are the country that has experienced the largest changes due to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The point is , they were relying on close ties with Russia, as one of the strongholds for socialism. Socialism was flourishing in the beginning of the twentieth century, but by the end of the century had lost most of its supporters. And now Cuba came to stand alone: their economy largely built on trading with Russia suddenly stopped. From one moment to the other the sugarcane industry export to Russia, and the oil imported the other way was abandoned. And keep in mind that the US already for decades forbid trade with Cuba, and influenced many other industrialized countries to do so as well. Cuba came to stand alone, a more or less isolated island. So, they had to start reorganizing everything. Their land use had to change 180 degrees. Form producing for export to producing for local consumption. And they went through a horrible period, with lack of everything. The period is known as “the special period” . A very interesting read about the period you can find on the ecosur website [1].

What’s striking is that it looks as if today the whole world will face a “special period “ as well. The corona virus might have effect for years, and economy is facing an unprecedented drop, some predict an even deeper recession as in the 1930ties.

Countries are thrown back to live within their borders, they are even closed in many countries. Lack of everything is imminent , as are bankruptcies, huge unemployment, etc. I even see local sewing ateliers pop up, to provide mouth-caps. (see picture home page)

There is two ways to address this; hope for the best, and once possible start producing and consuming like hell, to get economy growing again, compensate for the financial losses and neglect the causes, or reform society into a more resilient society, in balance with what the natural system can cope with without getting overburned.

Since just have a look at the situation from another point of view:

Are we humans, seen as part of an overarching planet system, not a virus ourselves, that has attacked ecosystems? Of which the “immune system” now starts to react, and fights the intruders with antibodies, and a fever?

More and more studies point in the direction that this pandemic is not a stand alone issue. The chances for pandemics to occur have increased for the same reason climate change is occurring: we are destroying ecosystems, burning fossils and biomass, and growing immensely in population, It decreases the habitats of ‘wild nature’, puts pressure on via consuming ever more animals, and increases interaction between animals and people enormously. [2][3]

And nature strikes back. That is, not consciously, but damaged nature systems adapt and react to recover or install a new equilibrium. At a higher temperature level for instance. .

Which looks like the strategy for the human species as well: adapting instead of neglecting or fight by force. And use this “special period” to start reorganizing our behavior to adapt to the new situation.

Its not difficult to recognize some of the directions for solutions out of this mess. We should reduce our built environment, and increase the wild or natural environment again… Which requires us to live more modest, and exploit nature far less as we do now. Both in material resources as in exploiting the living creatures. Which forces us to review the way we live and house people. Can we afford to have everyone in a large mansion, big garden, fully acclimatised? Built from high impact materials? And a built environment that is designed to make life a feast, or should we reserve every m2 to be functional in as an ecosystem in some way, from which we can modestly harvest some energy, food or materials, or even better, make combinations , like nature itself?

The Chances, as Guillaume Habert summarizes it in our discussions, for sustainability are not in ‘construction’ but in our built environment, the way we manage and organize space. Think of local co working spaces, avoiding traffic, offices that can become houses, and find other ways to reduce the need for new construction.

In the end its not social or cultural life that rules the earth, but pure physical processes. The physics should be guiding for how we live and interact with the surroundings. As an example: well know is the aesthetic credo, “form follows function”, to guide the function of ‘housing’.  Solely aimed to design and shape the built environment to accommodate the needs and desires of people. Which is neglecting reality, which is determined by pure physical and biological processes. Form ( and functions to serve us), should follow physics: The right formulation therefore should be: ‘Form follow physics’, in case we want to survive as species, with in short 10 billion people all striving for the same wealth as the 1% rich in the world. (which already  own more as the other 99% together). [4]

Money, and the financial system that has causes this sole focus on the human wealth, will not help us solve this problem. It’s completely alienated from reality , has no physical meaning or relation whatsoever. Its aimed at overexploitation of resources, creating debts on the financial side as well as on the resource side. As I described it in the book: a double pyramid game. [5]

So then what? How should we react in this “ Global Special Period” we are facing? For certain not returning to the old way, trying to compensate for the economic losses we have now. In fact , due to the lockdown, we already see the effects: CO2 emission drop, the sky is clearer, less mortality due to air pollution*. In this respect it is striking to realize what happened after Columbus ‘discovered’ South America: the year after many died of diseases, unknown before on that continent. As a consequence however, 50 years later there is a dip in CO2 levels in the atmosphere: due to the diminished population, agriculture had collapsed, and new forests where growing massively on the continent, capturing an storing CO2…[6]

Of course we can’t afford to have agriculture collapse, but we can of course refrain of a large area of agriculture, if we reduce our meat consumption. If that area is reserved for forests, it has many advantages. CO2 is stored, biodiversity can recover somewhat, and if we manage these forests sustainable. we will have biobased resources available as materials. Besides, research shows we have to change our agriculture system anyhow: In the Netherlands there is a high output production from agriculture, but the input is always kept out of the equation. Its shows that currently the input in energy is 6 times higher as the output in food energy. That’s unsustainable as anyone can see. To have a larger output as input, we have to go back to more nature driven systems, with labor input in stead of fossil fuels. Food forests make a good chance, with high returns on investment (physically., that is…).

How did the Cubans deal with their special period? One of the partners in discussion, Fernando Martirena, heavily involved in those transformations as a Building Professor, wrote a book on that period together with Kurt Rhyner Pozak. A few interesting parts I will cite here, but I can recommend to read the whole e-book .[1]

It forced Cuba to” shift from centralized, highly industrialized manufacture, to small-scale, local production of construction materials”.

Also important was that “In the worst moment of the crisis, the Cuban government decided to “go green”, that is, to acknowledge that preserving the environment should be a high priority in the new development model. A legal framework for the protection of the environment obliged all players in the economy and society to protect the environment.

Since oil was scarce, ways of transport had to change fast as well, and bicycles became fast a major mode of transport.

Another interesting move was that the local governments were given the task of mobilizing their own local resources. “The shortage of resources prompted a wave of decentralization that placed the municipalities in the center of local development. Local initiatives like urban agriculture, the program for the production of “low energy consumption materials”, and the forum for spare parts became milestones of decentralization and made a great contribution to the society, thereby helping Cubans to cope with the crisis.

Urban farming became a necessity, at some point 1/3 of all vegetables for the city of Havana was grown inside the citie’s built environment. “The traditional Cuban diet of rice and beans and pork, changed to a healthier diet of fish and vegetables”.

And though repairing stuff was already important in the Cuban society, in this special period it became a basic necessity and grew enormously. Its “repair shops” XL ! As well as the establishment of a national Spare Parts Forum, to support industry. Interesting is that as we speak Cubans use 3D printers to locally produce parts for the ventilation units used in the IC for corona patients. (Cuba is still under an import export ban). From a building point of view, an important change was that towards Low embodied energy materials locally produced, and still being researched and developed today. Clay, mud and bamboo construction revived.

There is a lot to learn, on how to face this Global special period we are in. From Examples such as Cuba we can learn that solution relate to key words like: local, decentralized, repairing, low energy, green**. Other countries regarded a sustainable, like Costa Rica and Bhutan, show the same trends. Remember ‘Small is beautiful’, a book by Schumacher, writes Fernando Martirena, which guided his institutes sustainability strategy. The translation into for instance Europe will of course not be in the same way, but the direction of changes might be the same. Interesting to keep in mind that a collapsing complex society will not imply the extinction of communities, ( though it may cost lives), but it will imply transition into far less complex systems, that have to live from local available resources, and societal contacts.[5] Think again of the previously mentioned sewing ateliers.  Its complexity that is lost. While social structures may grow, as we already noticed: Positive cases of solidarity have emerged even at most conservatives societies. Neighbors have had the chance to meet each other (and help). Communities have been strengthened; this all contributes to decentralization and autarky. At the same time, The Corona virus makes no distinctions in people. And something happening on a poor country can immediately have a direct impact on a rich one and otherwise. This could (hopefully) have an impact on the way rich and poor countries relate with each other.

Changes are not only for a temporal special period ahead of us, but as changes expected here to stay, to build a more resilient society balanced with physical capacity of the system, and avoiding big clashes with nature itself, the system that should sustain us. It’s never wise to insult the one that feeds you…. Go with the flow, but this time the physical flows….

this article was written inspired by input from discussions with Prof Fernando Martirena from Santa Clara, Cuba, and Prof. Guillaume Habert from Zurich Switzerland. Though the text is my personal interpretation.

additional comments by Fernando Martirena:  “Interestingly, because of the “independence” that Cuba was forced to seek for, we are coping very well with COVID-19, with own developed medication, community based and reliable health care system, hand made face masks and 3D printed spare parts for the IC ventilators which we are ban to purchase from US related companies… and so on… there is life beyond COVID-19, but it should be ANOTHER kind of life!!”

*Maybe its imagination, but (loosely) quarantined I feel more or less back in the sixties: lots of free time, and also boring time, where you start doing new things… And on Sundays, we just hung around, and in the evenings we played a game… : the 1,5 degree life…  (but to keep on that track we even need to do more, or better: less….)

**One of the important decisions of Castro in their ‘Special Period “ was to maintain the social system, that is, no concessions to health care and education, both free accessible for all, and maintain a basic income for all, that is in kind, in food.

[1] http://www.english.ecosur.org/


http://www.english.ecosur.org/index.php/when-the-flow-of-oil-stopped (start at bottom)

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/18/tip-of-the-iceberg-is-our-destruction-of-nature-responsible-for-covid-19-aoe



[3] https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/coronaviruses-are-they-here-stay

[4] oxfam https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/richest-1-will-own-more-all-rest-2016

[5] People vs Resources, restoring a world out of balance. Eburon publishers

[6] The Human Planet, How we created the Anthropocene, Lewis and Maslin, 2018, Pelican.

Author: ronald rovers