For the past few weeks, this column has been arguing that constant economic growth is not only un-achievable but also deeply undesirable.
Unachievable because it is impossible to have unlimited growth in a planet of limited resources. With human population creeping close to seven billion, we collectively consume about a quarter of the world’s biomass but this only satisfies about a fifth of our energy and natural resource hunger. So we are happily mining away the non-renewable resources of petroleum, coal, gas, iron and other metals. This is a situation when an overwhelming majority of the world’s human population lives on less than US $ 2 a day or in utter poverty. Imagine the extraction of natural and non-renewable resources if every one of this blessed planet’s seven billion people lived the life of a West European or North American?
It is this craving to live this patently unsustainable life that pushes us, irrespective of our ideologies and politics, to pursue this chimera of constant economic growth. This is leading to an unmanageable and unprecedented ecological catastrophe for the planet and all its resident species. As we reach the technological and availability limits of our natural resources, the class, gender, race, religion, caste and national distinctions and discriminations which mark our human society are deepening as we attempt to fence of for our private use the common resources of this planet.
Our entire civilisation has become so vulnerably dependent on one energy resource – hydrocarbons – that without this energy input we quickly descend into barbarianism. While the end of hydrocarbons is imminent, it has still not impacted our lives in a manner where we would have to deal with the more acute symptoms of its absence. As the previous column had mentioned, hydrocarbons and its derivatives not only fuel our transportation and electricity, but also grow our crops through fertilisers, pump our irrigation water, produce the ubiquitous plastic and are present in various other things like medicines. The end of hydrocarbons will imply a shut-down of our industrial civilisation.
While this has not happened on a global scale, some countries have faced situations where their fuel supplies have been so drastically reduced to almost simulate global conditions of the end of hydrocarbons. These countries are North Korea and Cuba, when their cheap fuel supplies ran out with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90.
Both these countries had similar characteristics. Geographically small with a culturally coherent population, extensive land reforms which had given land to the tillers and removed the landed feudal lords and their oppression. Both were also reasonably advanced in terms of industrial production and mechanised agriculture to compare favourably with the “developed” world. Both also were socialist with a communist party exercising political power. As such, given the form of socialism in the 20th century, formal institutions of democracy were weak. Therefore, it is possible to state that they had similar conditions when they were struck by hydrocarbon scarcity, even though they were on opposite sides of the globe.
After land reforms were implemented, both countries developed their agriculture in similar, Green Revolution, fashion. Their agriculture was geared towards growing a few high-yielding crops through intensive chemical fertiliser and pesticide use coupled with mechanised farm machinery on large scale collective farms.
Before their partition, the northern part of the Korean peninsula had been the more industrialised part while the southern part was the agrarian hub. Even in 1990, the year of the fuel shock in North Korea, per capita energy consumption was about 71 gigajoules, which was double of China. But its energy use was largely dependent on imported oil and after 1990, 90% of Russian oil supplies dried up. Reports indicate that by the mid 1990s, industrial production was about a third of what it was in 1990. Lack of hydrocarbon supplies meant that fertiliser production fell from 800,000 tons to less than 100,000 while only one-fifth of the country’s 70,000 tractors could get diesel to run. Not only did this lead to severe fall in food production, it also meant that food which was produced could not be transported to where it was needed. All in all, this situation led a famine so severe that some estimations put the total mortality at over three million in a country of 23 million!
Cuban agriculture was, like North Korea’s, based on chemical fertilisers, pesticides, mechanised large scale farms and concentration on a few crops which were, unlike North Korea, meant for export. Cuba imported more than half its foodgrain requirements on the basis of income generated through export of cash crops grown through hydrocarbon based agriculture. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s economy too collapsed like North Korea’s. Exports fell by 85 % while imports of fertiliser and animal feed fell by 80 % leading to a 55 % fall in agricultural production. Foodgrain imports too fell by half as the country had no income to buy its food in the international market. As a result of all this, per capita calorie intake of the Cubans fell by a third and severe food rationing had to be implemented.
While the immediate impact of the fuel shock was similar in both countries, today their conditions are vastly different. North Korea remains stuck in a low agricultural productivity regime with massive shortages, hunger and deprivation, while Cuba has managed to increase its food productivity and its population’s food intake to levels near 1990.
Today Cuba has moved from high input fossil fuel dependant farming to low input sustainable agriculture. Almost half the food requirements of its capital Havana are met from urban kitchen gardens and the large collective type farms have been broken up into small holder cooperatives which use biopesticides, organic manure and have integrated animal traction into farming again. Cuba was helped by the fact that its climate is more conducive to agriculture than North Korea’s as well as a lower population density.
But the critical factor in Cuba’s success has been politics. Cuba was willing to think beyond fossil fuels and a fossil fuel led economy of constant growth. Despite the privations which came with the fuel shock, Cuba did not reduce its investments in health, education, science and research. North Korea, on the other hand, moved in the opposite direction with scarce resources being funnelled into the military and its nuclear bomb. In Cuba, communist party members are required to be last in every queue of rationed goods, while in North Korea it is the opposite. For every sacrifice demanded on the Cuban people, the communist party members come first. It is this political climate of vibrant socialism which has allowed Cuba to make these political choices which has made it a pioneer for the entire human race. Today if the world has to learn a lesson on how it should cope with a world of fossil fuel shortage, of whether a educated, healthy and vibrant community can be built without the fetish of constant economic growth, it has the stellar example of Cuba – socialist Cuba.
The agenda of socialism in the 21st century has to foreground an alternative to the fossil fuel based constant economic growth regime of global capitalism. Countries and movements which cannot do that cannot remain socialist, however much they may wave the red flag and mouth communist jargon. The manifesto of socialism in the 21st century perforce has to be an anti-growth manifesto.
~ ~ ~
This was published in my column in The Post on 31 October, 2007.