Saying Goodbye to Mario

Mario Alberto Arrastia Avila left this morning from my home at about 4 AM to catch a plane to Miami where he would stay for a few days visiting friends and then return home to Cuba. Originally he was to give a talk at our November 7–9, 2014 conference, “Climate Crisis Solutions: Curtailment and Community.” All the speakers and panelists could, without doubt, be labeled curtailers.

Curtailers are different from consumers or conservers, consumers being those who are blithely devouring and polluting the planet and conservers being those who want to pull back a bit but avoid making big changes in the way they live. Curtailers are those who are concerned with the survival of the human race and other life forms on the earth. They view the climate crisis as the most significant and dangerous event that has happened in the history of the earth. There have been extinctions of species before, occurring some millions of years ago. Some people may have been concerned about extinction in the future, but they typically think about eons ahead. Curtailers have a much shorter time frame. They used to worry about their grandchildren, then their children and now they think about their own longevity.

Being a curtailer in America is not a popular occupation or avocation. The very use of the word in ordinary conversation typically elicits a response that is one of shock or a low level of hostility. Many people have suggested I find another word, pointing out that curtail might be a bit harsh. Some suggest cut back, which is a popular synonym for curtail, but cut back lacks a noun form. One can advocate for curtailment but not for “cutbackment”. There are a few people who have a positive response when they hear the word, a response that has the quality of a sudden insight, what we often refer to as the light bulb turning on. These people seem to be our audience and most of my conversations with them are about how much we have to curtail, or what rate of curtailment is needed, but mostly a discussion of methods.

Talking with Mario was the kind of talk two people have who are on the same path and have been on it for some time. Mario had read my book Plan C, and I had read many of his papers. Much of his written work, his books and papers, were brought from Cuba by my wife, Faith, when she visited there in late 2011. Faith met Mario and told me a lot about him so it was my great pleasure to make this initial face to face contact. We were primed to meet and from the time he arrived we spent hours each day talking. There was a lot of my recent work that interested him, particular the work on the life cycle assessment of food, and I showed him my data. I was eager to learn about recent events in Cuba in the area of energy. Only the day before Mario left Cuba, President Obama announced his establishment of official relations with Cuba, an event that gladdened my heart. Neither Mario nor I expected some great breakthrough and spent little time on the topic. Rather we focused on energy issues and how Cuba was doing in terms of its objectives. I had prepared a long article in partnership with my wife Faith Morgan which was published in the 2013 issue of Worldwatch’s annual State of the World Report. The 2013 Report was entitled “Is Sustainability Still Possible?” and our article on Cuba entitled was entitled Cuba: Lessons from a Forced Decline.

This Worldwatch Report is described as opening with “experts defining clear sustainability metrics and examining various policies and perspectives that could put us on the path to prosperity without diminishing the well-being of future generations.”  It then notes that “…If these approaches fall short, the final chapters explore ways to prepare for drastic environmental change and resource depletion…” Our article on Cuba was in that third section which was entitled “Open in Case of Emergency.”  We closed the article with a final section titled “The Cuba Paradigm,” saying:

“Cuba has a very low per capita income, yet in the non-materialistic, quality-of-life domain, it excels. Thus, Cuba represents a paradox. It is a materially poor country that has First World education, literacy, and healthcare. It is rich in human development resources and low in environmental burdens, but its standard of living, and therefore its fossil fuel use and CO2 emissions are very low. Cuba has maintained its human-service programs (education, old-age support, basic nutrition, and health care) throughout its Special Period. In 2006, Cuba was the only country in the world rated as having “sustainable development” in World Wildlife Fund’s “Living Planet Report.”

Fidel Castro has said that “consumer-based societies are incompatible with the saving of natural resources and energy, which the development and preservation of our species require,” and Cubans simply have less of all material goods than people in developed countries. They have much less square footage in their homes (about 150 – 200 square feet per person in Havana versus the U.S. average of about 1,000 square feet per person). Fewer than 10 percent of Cubans have private cars. They rarely fly. The consumption of common consumer personal goods is very limited. Yet Cubans don’t need to fear cancelled medical insurance. They know their children will be educated without being saddled with student loans. Cubans are not weighed down with enormous debts. They know they will not go hungry or homeless.

“We need a global energy revolution,” Mario had said earlier, “But in order for this to happen, we also need a revolution in consciousness.” A clear revolution of consciousness would involve the acknowledgement, strongly resisted by richer nations, that CO2 emissions are directly related to material consumption. Cuba represents an alternative, where material success as measured by energy consumption is secondary while other quality-of-life issues are given priority. The message from Cuba is that humanity will survive if it adopts the Cuban material standard of living, and thrive if it adopts the Cuban priorities of providing health care, education, and basic food for everyone.

We have long been aware of Mario’s work so his presentation here in Yellow Springs the evening of Martin Luther King Day was not new to us but more of an update. That’s not to say that the updates are not major — Cuba’s commitment to solar PVs is amazing. This is clear from Mario’s presentation which can be downloaded on Vimeo at [link]. But the important thing that came up in our time together starts with his statement quoted above which says “But in order for this to happen (a global energy revolution) we also need a revolution in consciousness.” My meeting with him this trip and particularly our final conversation was to talk about a revolution in consciousness.

I am never quite clear what the word consciousness means in terms of humans. It seems to be some kind of awareness. Maybe it could be construed as a different set of values. Or it could mean a radical change to a culture, as happened to Cuba. Cuba made major changes to its society when faced with the threat of starvation and even survival as a people. The Special Period in Cuba (discussed in detail in our Worldwatch article) was to some extent a type of trial that countries go through who have lost a war. And Cuba’s survival is still in question as the American blockade (Cuba’s term for the U.S. embargo) continues. But today Cuba’s survival is not so much what the U.S. does to it directly but rather what the U.S. and other industrialized nations are doing to the planet. If the U.S. lifts the blockade against Cuba, but continues to put 18 metric tons of CO2 per capita into the atmosphere every year, we are severely jeopardizing Cuba and other island nations. If the blockade is lifted but the sea level rises and fresh water becomes limited for Cubans, or if climate change turns their section of the biosphere into a tropical desert,  we all lose.

Sometime after Mario and I went to bed, I considered what my lifestyle was doing to his lifestyle. Politically we have similar views and technically we share a scientific background and we both believe in the importance of curtailment. But my driving a Prius is very different from Mario’s lack of a car, with no desire or opportunity to ever own one, and his frequent hour’s wait for the next bus. My 2000-square-foot house with its thick walls and good insulation and mini-split heat pump is very different from Mario’s 400-500-square-foot, one-room apartment with a few fans at best to ward off the Cuban summer heat. My diet is rich and varied compared to his. And although I am a vegetarian, I could afford meat should I decide to change, while a Cuban’s chances of an American meat diet are small, since meat is very expensive. I am well below the average American’s 17.4 metric tons of CO2 generated annually but I am far away from the 2.4 metric tons Mario generates each year.

At the conference in November, I presented a new approach to the problem by proposing a Curtailer’s Emissions Guide, a way to develop a CO2 budget for our personal emissions. It’s a way to deeply understand our effect and to see the CO2created for all of our activities. It’s not abstract like an environmental footprint, but can be a practical methodology for making personal change. My hope is to provide different levels of curtailment tactics for each classification of CO2, the big ones being housing, cars, and food, and the 20 or so subcategories being a breakdown like a family budget. I realized after talking with Mario that it could also be quite useful for him. Doing Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of food was new to him, and I think he will take some of the food LCA papers I gave him and apply it in Cuba. But will it be useful without the personal and political will to make a fundamental change in the way I live? Mario made many of his choices because of the blockade – deep reductions were forced on all Cubans. I must make similar choices from some other motivation. I hesitate to even begin to describe that motivation; words stick in my throat as I try to express them. In modern America to speak of shame for my way of living that has been so damaging will have me driven from polite conversation. I turn to the words of Wendell Berry who says that we must do what is necessary (and my term is to curtail deeply) not because we can have a hope of success but rather so that we can maintain the values that make us human.

Thank you Mario, my friend, for the reminder,