By Gustav Cederlöf, author of The Low-Carbon Contradiction: Energy Transition, Geopolitics, and the Infrastructural State in Cuba

When lightning set 40 percent of Cuba’s oil reserves ablaze last year—a thunderstorm hit its main oil storage facility—the thick plume of smoke released incredible amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The fuel was reserved for generating electricity, but with the oil going up in flames, people’s refrigerators and TVs stopped working. Then came Hurricane Ian. The hurricane pummeled Cuba into creating a blackout nationwide, leaving 11 million Cubans in the dark. They experienced one of the paradoxes of our time: there is too much fossil fuel around, but there is also too little.

In the mid-2000s, the WWF released a report that gave one answer to how we might get out of the bind. The conclusion was as interesting as it was controversial. The authors of the report took a conventional measure of human development—the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI)—and combined it with a measure of environmental impact, the Ecological Footprint. “Sustainable development” was a matter of having a HDI over 0.8 and an Ecological Footprint kept within the planetary boundary of 1.8. My eyes popped out when I realized only one country met the sustainability criteria: Cuba.

I was reading the WWF report when I first traveled to Cuba. One day, I found myself on a rooftop in La Víbora, a southern neighborhood of Havana. Up there, with a magnificent view of the worn city and the rolling sea, a group of scientists was carrying out solar-energy experiments to make the city more energy independent. Further west, I rode a horse named Palomo among the rust-red fields of Viñales, the valley dotted with triangular-shaped drying houses for tobacco. Each home I visited had been electrified with a solar panel for the same purpose that they were working toward on that Víbora rooftop—to increase the community’s local autonomy. Imagine my surprise when one woman said it was like the Revolution had never reached them, because they had never been connected to the national grid. Was dependence on the state a better option?

A measure like the WWF’s is inherently simplifying. It doesn’t account for political freedoms, in which case Cuba would score poorly in liberal democratic terms. This contrasts with Costa Rica, for example, which also scores well in sustainability indices. Moreover, it says little about social inequality, histories of colonization and civil conflict, geopolitical blockades, indebtedness, and resilience to climate change. But it still reveals interesting things.

The HDI is a composite of three parts: economic growth, the level of education, and average life expectancy. What makes countries like Cuba and Costa Rica score well is that they excel in terms of education and life expectancy, achieving high social development, even as their levels of income are rather modest. In fact, it looks like once a country has reached a certain HDI, it has maxed out in terms of education and life expectancy. The only variable that can drive its HDI even higher is economic growth. But this is when the Ecological Footprint starts to balloon to unsustainable levels.

When a new Sustainable Development Index (SDI) was developed in 2020, the scholar behind it, Jason Hickel, found that once an economy has reached a certain size, it is statistically almost impossible to expand it any further without overstepping planetary boundaries. Hickel is one of the most vocal advocates of “degrowth,” a call to action radically challenging mainstream, market-based approaches to the climate emergency. The degrowth hypothesis holds that it is physically impossible to sustain an economy based on exponential growth on a planet with a limited biosphere and an unstable climate system. An economy founded on other cultural ideals than growth is needed to create a truly sustainable economy. Based on his finding, Hickel introduced a threshold in the SDI. Up to that level, economic growth renders positive results, but beyond it, it doesn’t impact your score. Dare I say that a controversial Caribbean island again ranked as number one when the SDI was first computed?*

The plot thickens. Having spent much time in Cuba, I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard a Cuban mention the word “degrowth.” More often, you will hear that life amid blackouts is hard: no es fácil, as they say. And the Cuban Communist Party’s goal, of course, is a society of growth and abundance: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” So, how can we make sense of such conflicting perspectives? My new book, The Low-Carbon Contradiction, looks at the paradoxes of Cuba’s environmental politics, and it opens up new questions about the enabling conditions of a socially just low-carbon future.

*After a 2021 update, Cuba scores fifth in the SDI.