This five part series was written for a newspaper column to expose the contradictions which underpin our constant desire for higher, faster, stronger – whether in the economy or otherwise. These articles foreground the deep link between unending economic growth and predatory capitalism and tries to show its unsustainability. Socialism has floundered (also) because it could not critique this ideology of growth, and the agenda before us is to build an alternative which does so.
This is an unchanged version of the manifesto written in 2007. Some statistics and contexts have changed since then.
Aniket Alam is a historian and journalist who presently works with the Economic and Political Weekly.
He can be contacted at [email protected]
Aniket’s insightful social-political commentaries can be found on his blog:
Sherlock Holmes, that immortal detective of Victorian England is perhaps among the best teachers of the methodology of research. As he proceeded to unravel one crime after the other, Mr Holmes left behind a treasure-trove of tools of investigation that stand any social scientist in good stead when he investigates human society. In the famous novel, Hound of the Baskervilles, Holmes says, “The world is full of obvious things, which nobody by any chance ever observes,” and in Boscombe Valley Mystery, he observes, “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”Let me begin today’s column with one such obvious thing, as we try to investigate the ideology of the cancer cell.
Economic growth has been the foundation of the mind-boggling advances human beings have made in the past two centuries or so. Compared to a few hundred years ago, human life today is an unparalleled achievement. The advances in science and technology, the expansion of our knowledge, the spread of the idea of democracy and social justice have all been predicated on this massive expansion of wealth led by constant economic growth. In the past few centuries, global GDP, or the sum total of all human productive activities, has risen so phenomenally that our world would be unrecognisable to our forefathers from 1800 AD. The desirability of economic growth is rarely ever contested and is among the few ideas where there is general agreement between the left and the right. Their quibble is on how and why the wealth generated by this constant economic growth is to be shared.
But the deceptive ‘obvious fact’, which rarely anybody ever acknowledges, is that constant growth in a planet of limited resources is an impossibility. Sooner or later, such growth will reach the material, physical limits of planet Earth. Only the cancer cell displays such unrelenting, single-minded, absolute growth, an unregulated growth that does not know when to stop and ends up killing its biological host by diverting all resources to its single-minded pursuit of bigger and bigger.
As that somewhat eccentric US environmental activist, Edward Abbey, had famously pointed out, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
In the first decades of the Industrial Revolution, which set this pattern of unrelenting economic growth, the limit to economic growth was not visible. The imprint of human activity was yet relatively small compared to the size of the planet and its resources. There were some people even then who spoke against economic growth and its baneful influence on the planet but these were, invariably, romantics out of touch with reality and based their critiques of industrialisation and economic growth on a desire to retain the status quo of feudal stagnation and hierarchy.
The unrelenting growth of the economy unleashed by capitalism, especially in its industrial phase, has been responsible for the flowering of the productive and creative powers of the human race. It is not merely reactionary, but futile, to talk about a return to the pre-industrial past. Yet, one cannot escape the obvious fact that limitless growth is not possible in a planet of limited resources. The point is to be able, using the very technological and intellectual tools provided by the sustained economic growth of the past two centuries, to determine how this growth has impacted its biological host and whether we have reached the limits of such growth.
I would argue, based not on some longing for a return to an innocent pastoral utopia but on hard material reality, that we may not only have reached this limit, but are mindlessly breaching it, imperilling our very existence.
Today the world has close to seven billion human beings. To sustain our large numbers, human beings consume close to a quarter of the world’s Net Primary Production (NPP). NPP means the total biomass produced on planet Earth in a given period of time. On this NPP survive the million of species of living organisms that call Earth their home. Today one species, homo sapiens, consumes almost a quarter of the primary production that is available on Earth for the sustenance of all living creatures. This figure in itself indicates the high level of unsustainability of our present economic system.
The industrial revolution released us from the shackles of agriculture and primary production. Humans harnessed the power of coal and petroleum (and later the atom) to fuel industries and the industrial economy. It is estimated that today only about 20 percent of the energy requirements of human beings are met from primary production. The other 80 percent comes from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are primarily massive stores of the NPP from millions of years ago. They are a fixed deposit that cannot be replenished. One litre of petrol comes from more than 23 tonnes of prehistoric plant matter and is, as we all keep chanting, non-renewable.
So that is the present balance sheet of the growth of the human economy. We consume 23.5 percent of the Earth’s NPP, but that satisfies only about 20 percent of our energy needs. The rest comes from a ‘non-renewable’ bank of prehistoric NPP, which we are consuming at an ever faster rate. To stand up against further economic growth is not merely correct in terms of ethics and morality, it is the only option we have if we are to survive as a biological species and let our biological host, planet Earth, survive too. These levels of resource and energy consumption are nothing but a cancer on the body of this planet.
Marxists and other left critics of capitalism have spoken out against the exploitation, oppression and waste inherent in this economic system based on private property. They have produced robust and resilient critiques of the system and identified alternatives that are non-exploitative and humane. But even the most Marxist of the critiques, including Karl Marx himself, were unable or unwilling to challenge the idea of unrelenting economic growth. The entire burden of their critiques has been on the redistribution of wealth and the fruits of economic growth. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, economic growth and human consumption had not reached levels that would imperil the very existence of the Earth’s biosphere and humans as a species. But today the warnings are stark.
Today it is, I would argue, impossible to build a critique of capitalism that does not recognise this obvious fact. Unless we question the need and desirability of further economic growth, the left will fall into the trap of hunting for more energy and more resources. The unlimited nature of human desires is a self-serving myth of market economies. Today we have achieved productive powers and generated wealth that can sustain human beings in comfort, health and freedom if properly distributed. Therefore, the battle for the proper distribution of wealth and resources is crucial. But while that is the necessary battle, it is not sufficient. We need to take a stand against unrelenting, unstoppable growth. Unless the left finds the political and intellectual resources to do that, its battle for redistribution will remain trapped in the capitalist logic of continuously expanding the economy, irrespective of the human and environmental costs.
The environmental limits to economic growth provide the left with the material conditions on which to build its politics in the present century.
PART- II: THE NEED FOR SPEED
The two week absence of the Left~write column was caused by the sudden death of my brother-in-law in a road accident in the city of Baroda (India). A young man of 42, he leaves behind an uncomprehending daughter who is not yet seven, a distressed wife and distraught parents. It is difficult to come to terms with the hurt and loss this has caused, especially since it seems so avoidable and inexplicable. ‘Why?’ is the question in everyone’s mind. But even in our moment of sadness it is sobering to realise that close to a 100,000 people die in similar road accidents in India each year. Each death a catastrophe for the family. Globally close to 800,000 people die annually in road accidents, a figure that is expected to touch a million by 2010.
While it is impossible to answer this question, ‘why this loss?’ at a personal level, at the larger, global, level it is not difficult to identify that these lives are lost to the demon of speed and recklessness, a demon nourished by our constant urge to go faster, reach our destination quicker and outdo the competition.
Modern industrial civilisation is almost obsessed with the need for speed, of constantly going faster, higher, and stronger than earlier. This need for speed is not merely in terms of travel, but has now permeated almost all local cultures and ideologies. This idea of going faster, reaching higher and becoming stronger is not context-driven or based on the specific needs of the particular situation. It is universally present in the mental architectures of people across national boundaries, political affiliations, social relations and cultural mores. It is one of the truly global ideologies and one that is rarely, if ever, questioned. And it is rarely, if ever, questioned because this universalisation of the context-less desire for faster, higher, and stronger is the psychological counterpart of the ideology of constant, context-less economic growth, it is the true ideology of the cancer cell.
To speak against the ideology of faster, higher, and stronger is not to argue that there is never any need to increase speed, reduce the time taken for a particular process nor is it a call to secede from industrial society and return to some agricultural/pastoral idyll. I am not arguing that there is never a need for increasing the speed of processes, travel or communication. Nor am I saying that there never is a need to go beyond what has previously been achieved. But this has to be context-driven. This context-less longing for faster, higher, and stronger is merely the expression in mass psychology of the economic imperative of constant growth, which itself is based on capitalism’s need for extended reproduction. Not only does the material base of such an economic regime foster the psychology of faster, higher and stronger, but the embedding of this desire is also central in nurturing human beings who can function efficiently within such an economic structure.
Human societies have all been marked by the intense desire to excel, to increase our knowledge of the world and to better the achievements of the previous generations. This innate desire is almost what makes us human. All human achievements, the very achievement of becoming human from ape is a testament to this desire to actualise fully the potential hidden within us – both individually and as a community. There can be no argument against this, and neither does this column do that. This desire has been present in all human societies and has been expressed in various ways. Unfortunately, human history is also the story of how we have – both individually and in our community – curtailed the possibilities for us to actualise our potential. Shackles of low technology, ignorance, patriarchy, social stratification and hierarchy, religious and caste discrimination, etc., have curtailed the possibility of its members achieving their full human potential possible.
The dawn of the industrial age, with its harnessing of the power of hydrocarbons, removed the material shackles on achieving our potential as humans. But the fact that this industrial revolution, perhaps necessarily, happened in the context of private property meant that industrialisation could not be divorced from capitalism. And capitalism is not only a method of organising economic life, it subverts all other facets of human existence to the economic. The economic bedrock of capitalism is the need to make a profit. Without the drive towards profit, there can be no capitalist economy. But as economists have shown, there is a tendency for the rate of profit to constantly fall, unless the size and the scale of production is simultaneously, constantly increased. To keep profits in the pocket from falling, there needs to be constant increase in production scale and size – what Karl Marx called extended reproduction. It is this extended reproduction which is at the root of capitalism’s spiral of constant economic growth, which itself is the origin of this mass psychology of faster, higher, and stronger.
From the moment that industrial capitalism emerged, there have been people and movements that have railed against the ‘dehumanising’ and ‘soul-sapping’ speed of modern life. Unfortunately, these ‘philosophies’ and ‘religious cults’ that speak against this demon of speed, who reject these twinned desires of faster, higher, and stronger, are those that consciously cut themselves off from the material world. They posit some a-historical, non-industrial idyll that is unachievable and thus become no more than an asylum for the self-consciously slow, those who have accepted defeat in the rat race of life. This is not an alternative to the world of faster, higher, and stronger since these can never become the ‘way of life’ for all people, not even for the majority of the people, as these ‘idylls’ survive on the material foundation of industrial societies. They are parasitical on industrial capitalism not only for their physical survival, but also provide a safety valve to capitalism by offering an ‘idyll’ to those who do not like to continue in this rat race. They block possibilities for real change in the material conditions of life, which make this desire for faster, higher, and stronger so universal and impose the ideology of constant, context-less economic growth on this planet of limited resources.
There is, at present, no materialist ideology that is self-conscious in its rejection of the ideology of constant economic growth and its cultural/psychological expression. Karl Marx and his ideas, as they have developed in these many decades of study and struggle, provide the starting point for building an ideology that can counter the ideology of faster, higher, and stronger and the ideology of constant, context-less economic growth. But it is not enough. We cannot remain hidebound in the knowledge discovered and given to us by Marx. We need to move on.
As Ernesto Che Guevara, that brilliant revolutionary, said
One ought to be ‘Marxist’ with the same naturalness with which one is ‘Newtonian’ in physics, or ‘Pasteurian’ in biology, considering that if facts determine new concepts, these new concepts will never divest themselves of that portion of truth possessed by the older concepts they have outdated. Such is the case, for example, of Einsteinian relativity or of Planck’s quantum theory with respect to the discoveries of Newton; they take nothing at all away from the greatness of the learned Englishman.
PART-III: TECHNOLOGY THE UNIVERSAL SOLVENT
Irrespective of the particular religious affiliation we profess, all of us are in reality worshippers at the temple of technology. From the Osama bin Ladens in the Tora Bora caves to the Christian fundamentalist Bushies ensconced in arrogant Washington, from the smug liberal to the all-sacrificing communist, there is hardly a person in our world who does not bow down in reverence to the all powerful deity of technology and its omniscient promise of providing a solution to all our troubles in this problem-ridden world.
Let us look at the post-World War II history for some examples. When food production was unable to keep pace with growing populations, especially in newly independent countries of the South, it was technology that helped us ‘solve’ the problem with hydro-carbon infused, water-intensive, chemicalised agriculture. In the countries of the North, it was technology again that delivered the creature comforts for their consumerist society, which claims, again, to have ‘solved’ all the problems of human want.
The pollution and ecological degradations caused by the technological solution to food scarcity are again sought to be further ‘solved’ by new doses of technology, just like global climate change – caused by the depredations of the consumerist society – is to be solved by 21st century technology.
It is not merely for these large issues where we seek solutions from technology. We have the technology of flyovers and larger, better roads to solve the problems of growing traffic. We have the technology of washing machines, vacuum cleaners and dishwashers to solve the problems of bored, over-worked housewives, just like we have the technology of electronic surveillance and improved locks to solve the problems of crime.
Let us look at each of these examples to see what ‘solution’ does technology provide.
Crime, specially urban and industrial, is a direct consequence of extreme inequality. Our cities are now composed of an ever-increasing urban slum with its millions of people forced to eke out a bare existence on stale crumbs thrown from the high table urban rich with their vulgar displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption. Rather than addressing this issue of inequality, we turn to technology to provide security and safety.
No amount of washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, microwaves, cooking ranges or home-entertainment systems can solve the drudgery of domestic chores for the bored housewife. If at all, this can happen by destroying our present patriarchal families and building new forms of emotional nurturing units.
Similar to the bored, yet over-worked housewife is the fast, yet furiously log-jammed traffic of our cities and highways. And just like household gadgets are no solution, similarly flyovers, restricted access roads and sexier cars are no solution. It is like loosening one’s belt to deal with an expanding waistline! The solution lies in moving away from personal transport towards public transport, in addressing the issues of residence and work areas and in building democratic urban communities.
While the ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s did increase food productivity, it was at a huge cost of irretrievably chemicalising the entire eco-system, it requires ever-increasing doses of hydro-carbon derived fertilisers and huge government subsidies to sustain itself. In India itself, the province of West Bengal showed an alternate path to increasing food productivity through re-distributing zamindar’s land to the peasants and politically empowering them. The really unfortunate aspect of this is that even those who pioneered this technology-bereft rise of food productivity – the communists who run the Government of West Bengal – have not built a critique of the ‘green revolution’ and often buy into the story of its supposed success.
These are but a few, random examples of the preponderance of technology as a universal solvent. I am sure you will be able to find examples of your own in every aspect of life if you so apply your mind to it. But will you? The ideological hold of technology is so strong that we are, more often than not, rendered incapable of identifying the technological fix for what it is – a denial of human agency. Let me explain.
Technology is the practical application of our knowledge of the natural world. In other words, technology is the practical side of science. In that sense, technology is not only inevitable, but desirable. It has been the companion of human beings from pre-history. Successful technology itself creates the material conditions for the furtherance of science. But there is a crucial difference between science and technology. Science, as a method of understanding the world and our reality, is based largely on the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Technology is, by definition, utilitarian and practical. It is the application of the knowledge we gain through science.
In the examples we used above, it is true that technological advances are useful, desirable and often urgently needed. Even with high levels of income distribution and equity, it is quite conceivable that crime would remain. Similarly, some of the gadgets of domestic use have the potential to free people from domestic chores and spend their time on more creative and productive activities. Also, better roads are surely needed and flyovers too may be required at places. Fertilisers, too, are not to be denied a priori.
The trouble with our present technology regime is that technology is accepted as a solution a priori. Technology plays two crucial roles in our present industrial society based on private property, which has transformed its very nature and its relation with human beings.
First, continuous expansion of technology, both in terms of physical spread and improvement, is crucial for the success of extended reproduction, which this column had discussed last week. Extended reproduction refers to the continuous need to expand the scale and size of production in the capitalist system. This is necessary since the rate of profit has a tendency to fall and if the industrialist wants to sustain or increase his levels of profit, he will perforce need to continually increase productivity and expand the scale of production. This continual increase in productivity is possible only with a parallel continual improvement of technology. This gives technology primacy and puts a heavy discount on science, which has no use. The disinterested pursuit of knowledge is seen as a mere waste!
Second, technology has a political function in capitalist society. It removes problems from the arena of public action and participatory political decision-making. In each of the examples given above, the alternative to technology is radical political action. Political action, which is deeply democratic as it has to involve maximum people in its ambit for its success and which requires the rich and the powerful to forego their privileges and perks. Therefore, the use of technology is, more often than not, an anti-democratic measure. It is a happy co-incidence that technological solutions to problems of life also contribute to the profits of the capitalist, thus feeding into point one above.
Unless the primacy of the political is asserted each and every time there is a problem we are faced with, it would be difficult to break out of the trap of technology. By providing a-political solutions to problems that are essentially the result of how we structure our society, technology dissolves the political community so essential for democracy to function. In that sense, technology is the universal solvent of our times.
PART- IV: THE ENERGY TRAP
As this column has pointed out a few times in the past, hydrocarbons have been the material foundation on which continuous and limitless economic growth – so characteristic of our industrial societies – is based. It may be useful to recap the main points before we move further.
Hydrocarbons provide concentrated energy in small packets. One litre of petroleum concentrates the energy from 23 tonnes of prehistoric plant matter. Coal, though less energy efficient, is still far superior to charcoal or fresh wood as an energy source. Not only do these hydrocarbons provide high levels of energy, being carbon-based, they are useful for a range of other products for our use like fertilisers, plastics, textiles, medicines and cosmetics, among others. Further, hydrocarbons are easily transportable and storable over time, while at the same time being available in sufficient quantities for globally pervasive, if unequal, use for a few centuries before they run out.
It is the harnessing of the energy of hydrocarbons that is the secret of our industrial age. Whether it is James Watt’s steam engine, the colonisation of Africa or the diesel armies of World War II, it was the power of hydrocarbons that propelled them. While it is possible to show the origin of the markets and modern economic institutions to the pre-hydrocarbon age, the industrial revolution is solely predicated on the successful capturing of the energy stored in a block of coal to move heavy machinery. About a hundred years after the discovery of coal’s ability to power our industries, came the invention of the internal combustion engine to convert ancient plant matter into pure energy. It is not surprising that it was only after this invention that human beings were able to achieve their millennia old ambition to fly in the sky. Motor cars, submarines and airplanes landed on human history at about the same time, and that time was after the harnessing of petroleum for energy. It was also the spread of hydrocarbon technology, particularly that of petroleum, which has propelled the consumerist boom of the past few decades. The disposable plastic commodity (a by-product of petroleum) has become the leitmotif of our ‘use and throw’ generation.
Hydrocarbons are all pervasive and indispensable. From our easy transportation based on cars, busses, trains and planes all running on the internal combustion engine, to our food dependent on hydrocarbon-based fertilisers and hydrocarbon-based transport to reach our plates, to our household goods made of plastic, to a myriad other things of modern life, hydrocarbons are everywhere. The keys of this computer I am typing my column on are made of plastic, which is also there on the wires that transport these bits and bytes to the offices of The Post. The ink with which your newspapers are printed is also derived from petroleum as is the frame, and perhaps even the lens, of the spectacles you wear to read my ominous words.
But hydrocarbons are non-renewable. What happens when they run out? The era of cheap oil, even for the US and their close allies is now history. The most optimistic of global forecasts on oil supplies, authored – not surprisingly – by the US government, states that oil supplies will start declining within the next four decades. This is the most optimistic time schedule for petroleum supplies. Other, more cautionary sources, reckon that by 2020 or so we will start seeing a decline in global oil supplies due to our total global oil reserves starting to finish. Yet others argue that we are already at the global peak of oil supplies and from here onwards it is a steep downhill ride for all of us. This means that the present day school and college students will live to see the end of oil.
It is a situation that most people would not even be able to imagine. A simple back of the envelope listing of the times one has encountered hydrocarbons and their derivatives in living our life even for a day, would indicate how deeply we are dependent on them. An end of hydrocarbons is, therefore, unthinkable since it would be akin to Armageddon. The end of the world as we know it.
The power that hydrocarbons have given us over nature for the past two centuries has helped us forget our human frailties and vulnerabilities. It has addicted us to an economic regime of constant growth and an unshakable belief in the deliverance of technology. When faced with the prospect of the end of oil and coal as the central energy source of modern, industrial societies’ people – whether expert or common citizen – invariably lean on the ability of technology to deliver us from our predicament. Energy sources alternative to hydrocarbons are listed off with ease – hydrogen, nuclear power, solar power, wind power, geo-thermal power, etc. Some even pin their hopes on the fairytale of a perpetual motion machine, waiting for technology to deliver us from the tyranny of Einstein’s e=mc˛!
Even a cursory look at each of these ‘alternative’ sources of energy would only deepen our despair. Nuclear power, apart from its immensely hazardous consequences, is also a non-renewable resource. Hydrogen requires electricity to produce energy while solar and wind power cannot produce the same amount of energy as hydrocarbons do with the same time and space, nor are they are easily transportable. Further, they all produce energy in the form of electricity that is not easily storable. None of them can provide us with the fertilisers, plastics, medicines and other derivatives that petroleum gives. Yet there is this naďve belief in the inevitability of technology freeing us from our hydrocarbon shackles. Unfortunately for us, the concept of inevitability does not apply to science and its practical application – technology.
There is nothing inevitable about finding a technological solution to the end of oil and coal. From the present position of science knowledge and technological skills, it appears that there will be no replacement energy source for hydrocarbons, once we have consumed them off. As of now, the world has been spared the depredations consequent to the end of hydrocarbon technology. Except in two small corners of our planet – North Korea and Cuba. With the fall of the Soviet Union, both these countries lost, overnight, their access to hydrocarbon resources. The subsequent histories of both these countries is, at once, a testament to the ability of humans to find a solution outside the fetish of technology, as well as a morality tale of how we can push ourselves deeper into the abyss. Next week we travel to these two countries to see two alternate ways in which we may possibly approach the end of hydrocarbons.
PART- V: THE RELEVANCE OF SOCIALISM
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.