Cuba and COP26: Forbidden Thoughts

What happens when the independent filmmaker finishes a film and begins the business of getting it out, hustling for screenings and posting on social media to reach the audience you’ve made it for? You start to have to think about the conditions for its reception, or what marketing people reductively call targeting – only you don’t have a marketing budget. The problem is the law of the internet: the network you want to reach is always further away than the network you’re able to reach from the network where you start off. This is where we’re at with our new documentary, Cuba: Living Between Hurricanes, about ecology and the prospects for sustainable development in this Communist Caribbean island. Premiered in Havana last December, the film is a collaboration with a Cuban NGO for the environment (the Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez). The result, showing a picture of Cuba very different from what is normally seen abroad, is intended to support the work of the Fundación within Cuba and connect it to an international audience geared up to thinking globally and acting locally. Viewers from outside Cuba who have seen it are moved to comment on how it makes them think about local issues in their own countries. A Spanish viewer mentions the vulnerability of tourism-dependent areas of Spain such as the Canary Islands, another in Argentina speaks of the problems of small towns in the interior, an English viewer of the threat of rising sea levels around the British coast.

But although this debate is now universal, the political conditions for its conduct vary from country to country. In the UK, a new right-wing government drunk on a landslide single-issue election victory, and a prime minister who competes with the impeached US President in his wayward attitude towards truth, are not auspicious. De Pfeffel promised in his victory speech “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme”. Of course every country must do everything possible – and the UK, as the world’s fifth richest country, can do a great deal – but the phrase is vacuous when you consider that weather systems do not respect borders, and action must be taken on the basis that no country can go it alone and become ‘the greenest on earth’. 

This needs leadership of a kind that de Pfeffel is clearly incapable of, but it’s not a parochial issue of Brexiting Britain. The next UN climate conference, COP26, is scheduled to take place under British auspices in Glasgow in November this year, but a few days ago, he sacked the woman who had been appointed to run it, Claire O’Neill. The excuse? O’Neill, formerly an energy minister under Theresa May, is no longer an MP, and the job should be held by a government minister. [Update: the job has now been given to Rishi Sunak] The truth? O’Neill is somewhat unusual for a Conservative politician in the strength of her commitment to dealing with the climate emergency, as revealed in a letter she wrote to the Prime Minister after he sacked her: 

‘Almost 50 per cent of our collective emissions have been pumped out since the first meeting of global leaders on climate at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and emissions are 4 per cent higher than in 2015 when the Paris agreement was signed at COP21. Global scientists are clear that unless we break this trend now and start sustained reduction in global emissions with a clear net zero landing zone by 2050 or shortly afterwards, we will be dealing with unprecedented climate conditions and vast economic and human consequences within decades, not centuries.’
Claire O’Neill to PM, February 3rd 2020

The tone of the letter is entirely dismissive of the Government’s lack of efforts and policy while the planet is already suffering unprecedented climate conditions with vast economic and human consequences. But contrast the confusion that now besets COP26 with the joined-up thinking of the Cuban approach, recently formulated in a national plan called Tarea Vida (Project Life), launched in 2017, for which the main impediment is lack of resources in Cuba’s cash-strapped economy. The climate crisis is something Cuba has been aware of for a very long time, in fact since the Rio Earth Summit, where Fidel Castro made what must be his shortest speech on record. 

‘An important biological species’, he began, ‘is at risk of disappearing through the rapid and progressive liquidation of its natural conditions of life: the human being. We are now becoming aware of this problem when it is almost too late to prevent it.’ 

Now, almost three decades later, comes a surprising piece of news, that according to the Sustainable Development Index (SDI), Cuba is the most sustainably developing country in the world. The index (designed by the anthropologist Jason Hickel) corrects the established Human Development Index (HDI) in which the most developed countries come out top. But the HDI ignores the problem of environmental impact, which is nearly always highest in the most developed countries, which should perhaps on this account be called over-developed. The new index turns the old one on its head. If you take the statistics on life expectancy, schooling and income, and then take account of the per capita carbon footprint, then Cuba comes at the top of the list, far outperforming advanced capitalist countries like Britain (which ranks at 131) and the United States (159). 

How it is that Cuba comes at the top of the SDI is not a simple story, but the result of a particular conjuncture. In the economic crisis following the collapse of Communism in Europe, when Cuba’s economy contracted by almost 40% over four or five years, a beleaguered and imperfect communist system nevertheless protected the well-being of the population through universal health-care and education, as well as measures like food rationing. At the same time, agriculture was forced through lack of accustomed fertiliser to adopt organic methods, small-scale farming was encouraged, and new food markets appeared. Today, following various economic reforms, the system remains precarious but there have also been significant moves towards sustainability. These are some of the initiatives we look at in the last part of the film, along with the problems created by the huge growth of tourism since the 1990s to replace foreign earnings lost by the collapse of the sugar industry. (The first part of the film looks at Cuba’s ecological history, and the second focusses on the fishing port of Caibarién where Hurricane Irma made landfall in 2017.)

One should always be cautious about statistics and the way they’re compiled, but the SDI seems to me a nice affirmation of the argument Castro made in his Rio speech that it is the consumer societies of the old colonial and imperial metropolises and their imperialist policies that are fundamentally responsible for the atrocious destruction of the environment, while the vast majority of humanity is plagued by backwardness and poverty. 

Castro himself spelled out succinctly the implications of this argument, which go far beyond what practically any of the current crop of politicians, nor the vast majority of mainstream pundits, are prepared to admit.

The solution cannot lie in impeding the development of those who most need it. If you want to save humanity from self-destruction, you have to better distribute the wealth and technologies available on the planet. Less luxury and less waste in a few countries so that there is less poverty and less hunger across the Earth. No more transfer to the Third World of lifestyles and consumption habits that ruin the environment… Pay the ecological debt and not the external debt. Let hunger disappear and not humankind.

This also makes me think of the interview I filmed with the Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa way back in 1983, when he spoke of how the societies of the great metropolis are marked by an economy of waste, and to this economy of waste there corresponds a culture of waste. ‘A diabolical system induces people to think that to make the most of their lives they have to be wasteful of things.’ Even in the underdeveloped world, he said, ‘which suffers so much scarcity, people still often think than they have to achieve the same levels of consumption as the developed countries, and that’s a lie. We cannot — the world cannot — aspire to such levels of consumption.’

It seems to me that these are still forbidden thoughts, but if the powers-that-be continue to shirk their responsibility to act then the catastrophe that follows will inevitably provide its own solution. 

  Find out more about the film and watch it at Cuba: Living Between Hurricanes.

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