Commentary: Sustainable Development And Energy In Cuba

Jun 15, 2017

All the nations of the world need to make decisions about how to use resources but in developing countries, trade-offs between economic growth and spending on health and education are especially challenging. On Friday, President Donald Trump is expected to announce changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Commentator Bob Brecha was in Cuba early this month and has some thoughts about how the Cuban government is making choices about economic growth and sustainability.

Sustainable development can mean many different things depending on who you are talking to.  A simplistic view is that we have to consider social, economic and environmental issues all in parallel.  After returning from a trip to Cuba, I’ve thought even more about how the relative importance of nature, society and the economy relates to sustainability.

Before going to Cuba last year and then again this year, I did a little homework.  According to the United Nations Development Programme, Cuba is ranked relatively highly in the Human Development Index, similar to Costa Rica and higher than Mexico or Brazil.  The Human Development Index measures wealth, educational achievement, and health and longevity.  The remarkable thing to me about Cuba’s high ranking is that they’ve achieved it in spite of sixty years of an increasingly aggressive economic blockade by the US. Usually, the amount of energy a country uses tells us a lot about their standard of living, at least for developing countries; but Cuba is an exception, with less energy use than other countries and a decent level of well-being. Many other countries in Latin America have much poorer results for their people even with decades of support from the US and while using much more energy.

How do we reconcile the relatively low energy use and economic productivity of Cuba with a relatively high index of overall well-being?  It actually appears to be pretty simple.  If you have few resources, where do you put them?  In the case of Cuba, it’s well known that for the last two generations a strong focus has been on ensuring quality education and health care for everyone – period.  All societies make choices about how we express our values.  In measures of life expectancy, infant mortality, and literacy Cuba ranks at the same level as the US internationally while having an economic output per person that is three times lower.   Which measure of well-being is most important – wealth, health, or educational opportunity?  Or, a better question might be, how best should we strike a balance between competing needs?

One of the ways Cuba has distributed resources is that they have made sure there is electricity available in all parts of the country, even the most remote ones.  For example, a concerted effort was made to install solar panels and batteries for all rural schools.  Access to even small amounts of electricity can be critical to developing nations, and small solar photovoltaic systems can satisfy that need, even though they might seem too expensive by some measures.  Although having access to electricity seems obvious to us, many countries in Latin America are still struggling to achieve this basic goal.

It’s not clear whether the U.S. will continue to allow more access to the island, as it has over the past couple of years.  Investors would like to take advantage of an untapped market and an extremely beautiful landscape, but it’s almost certain that there will be a lot of tension between maintaining government control over natural ecosystems and the desire to let foreign investors to earn a lot of money quickly by selling out to multinational corporations.  It will be very interesting to see how the Cubans are able to plan their future – will long-term sustainability or short-term income win out?

One thing is clear: Sustainable development doesn’t mean privileging economic gains above societal needs and environmental protection.  In fact, real sustainable development means recognizing that we have only one natural world, one earth, one common home, and that the societies we construct, including our economic systems, have to respect the limits of nature to absorb our impacts.  Once we’ve got that down, we have to actively work to decide if we value economic gains or social responsibility more, and these decisions will require collectively making some important choices – not only in Cuba, but in the US as well.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha