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Environmentalism in Cuba

Okay, so I admit that I’ve been back from Cuba for a week without writing anything. I’ve just been too busy. But I’m kind of glad that I didn’t pass on my impressions right away; they’ve had some time to percolate. Keep in mind that this isn’t my normal heavily researched sort of post; it all comes from just a week there. I’m by no means an expert.

One of the many many classic cars in Havana.

My guidebook had said (yes, I am Ms. Guidebook) that Cuba is quite environmentally conscious. While the country might not have a good record of preserving its natural resources, its energy use is low. Globally, the three major sources of carbon emissions are transportation, heating/cooling, and meat production, and people in Cuba are generally parsimonious with all three.

  • Transportation – Cars are either from before 1959 or imported from Europe/Russia/China, and there aren’t that many of them. Very few cars means that most everybody takes public transportation or walks. The bus system in Havana is extensive, with new articulated buses from China to meet the demand. I don’t know how often they run, but every bus stop was crowded with waiting people and the buses always seemed filled to capacity—or more. I even saw people hanging out open doorways as buses drove away. I never actually rode in one, but truthfully I’m not sure I’d want to. Even at the worst rush hour in Boston I’ve never seen the subway that packed.
  • Heating/Cooling – Havana is warm enough that heating doesn’t seem to be an issue. Everyone kept apologizing that it was winter, but that really just meant I needed to wear a long-sleeved shirt outside at night. I’m sure it gets really hot in the summer, but the majority of the buildings seem to be 50 years old, thus before air conditioning. So they’re built to be naturally cooler than boxier modern buildings. Ceilings were higher—to draw hot air away from people—and it seemed that every floor had a balcony to act as a warm-weather living room, catching the ocean breeze. I wonder if it’s actually comfortable in the summer.
  • Meat – I was worried that as a vegetarian I’d have a hard time in Cuba, but not at all. Beans and rice seem to be a staple, cooked in different ways and with side dishes of tostones (fried plantains) or yucca. Pork was also a regular feature at a lot of meals—once, a whole roast pig—but I was able to avoid it. I’m not sure if this is how Cubans eat on a day-to-day basis, but I was told it was traditional.

From all this, I assume that the average Cuban would have a far tinier carbon footprint than the average American (including me). However, it seems to be by necessity rather than by choice. While we might want to encourage public transportation use, natural cooling, and diets light on meat, we have to find a way to convince people who have the ability to choose otherwise.

Of course there are many environmental issues, too. For one, tourism is a major business, and if my experience is common, the source of a lot of carbon emissions. I drank bottled water the whole time, to avoid parasites in the tap water. I also took taxis, usually older cars followed by noxious clouds of exhaust. And my hotel room was a boxy building that was overly air conditioned.

All in all, it was a really interesting trip, one that made me both grateful for what we have and horrified at what we waste.

One year ago: Squeegees—Not Just for Windshields Anymore


Pingback from Pragmatic Environmentalism
Time December 17, 2010 at 5:44 pm

[…] off, the heat and the stress of my first day in Cuba overwhelmed it, and I had to switch to an antiperspirant. (You’re welcome, Roya and Debbie!) […]

Pingback from Pragmatic Environmentalism
Time June 9, 2012 at 12:00 pm

[…] Cuba Can Teach Us About Food and Climate Change – Slate. When I wrote about environmentalism in Cuba, I never even considered the farming […]

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