From Scarcity to Abundance or What I Learned in Cuba

Modern Testimony from Principle-Centered Leadership by Stephen R. Covey, Ancient Testimony - Mark 4:3-9

July 24, 2011

by Christine Binder

For a while now, I’ve been trying not to read the newspaper. Don’t get me wrong, I like being well read and I like keeping up with current events. I like to know what everyone’s talking about. But sometimes I see the headline and I cannot click on it, because I know if I read the article, I’ll get that awful anxious feeling in my stomach and my chest, and I’ll start to think about all the problems in the world and I’ll just feel like crap for the rest of the day. But recently I’ve had no choice but to read the New York Times. This is for two reasons. One, my new boyfriend reads the news every day and I don’t want him to think I’m an idiot, and two, I’m giving the sermon today so I had better know what’s going on in the world.

For months, even years now, we’ve been hearing about the economic crisis. The economic crisis is why all of those Tea Partiers got elected, which is one reason why I don’t like reading the paper anymore. But it’s also part of why I decided to go to Cuba last month to gain a bit of perspective.

This is the part where I give a brief disclaimer. This sermon draws largely from my observations of Cuba. It is not about whose political and economic systems are better. Don’t think about that right now. We can talk more about that later.

Cubans know all about economic crisis. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Cuba suddenly found itself without a petroleum-rich sugar daddy and fell into an instant, deep depression. No more oil, no more food imports, no more tractors and fertilizers and pesticides, amongst other things. Of course, the U.S. embargo, or “el bloqueo” – the Blockade – as Cubans call it, had been in place since the early 1960s, so basically Cuba could not – and still cannot – do business with anyone who does business with the U.S., which is practically everyone. The Cuban government named this economic depression the “Special Period,” which was at its worst in the early to mid-1990s and declined in severity by the end of the decade. Almost overnight, the country lost 80 percent of its imports and 80 percent of its exports. Cuba’s GDP dropped one-third. Oil use dropped to just 20 percent of what it had been before, making previous practices in agriculture, manufacturing, energy use, and transportation nearly impossible.

Can you imagine this happening in the U.S.? Let’s just think about transportation for now. Granted, we are New Yorkers, we walk, we take public transit, and we make smaller ecological footprints than most Americans. But I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and I know most of you are not native New Yorkers ether. Do you remember when a gallon of gas cost less than a dollar? Today, the price of a gallon hovers just below that dreaded four-dollar mark. Despite this, my parents, like millions of other Americans, God bless them, still insist on driving non-hybrid SUVs down the lovely meandering but inefficient cul-de-sacs and lanes. If suddenly we found ourselves in the same “artificial” peak oil situation as Cuba (or perhaps the rapidly approaching non-artificial peak oil situation) and we found ourselves dealing with physical scarcity and the subsequent astronomical prices at the pump, how do you think would we react? I want you to seriously imagine us in this situation. If it helps to imagine it, you can close your eyes if you’d like. Would everyone rush to the closest gas station? Would there be riots? What would the government do? Who would continue to drive and who would not? What destinations would merit using a car? What about carpooling, relocating to be closer to work, or telecommuting? We’d undoubtedly rely on public transportation, but how much would the MTA charge you for a Metrocard? Who would be able to afford a taxi anymore? Who would be able to afford much of anything anymore when so much of what we consume comes from halfway around the world? Could you, like a Cuban in early 90s, wait three hours for a bus? Could you – in this triple-digit heat – survive regular 16-hour blackouts? I’m talking no air conditioning, no refrigerator. But here’s the real question I’m asking: Were some situation like this to occur, what would we focus on? Would we spend more energy fixating on the scarcity – that is, trying to get ahead by acquiring more oil – or would we break from this scarcity mindset and tune into the potential abundance – innovating long-term sustainable solutions that benefit everyone? And, how long would it take for us to realize which of these is the correct answer?

In 1991, Cubans didn’t have the luxury of choosing a scarcity mentality. With no imports coming in from the Soviet Union, famine and daily hunger became a reality for the first time since before the Cuban Revolution. After just a few weeks of the food shortage, malnutrition in children under five became evident. The death rate amongst the elderly increased. During the Special Period, the average Cuban involuntarily lost about twenty pounds. So, as you can see, the situation was dire. Fortunately, the Cuban government got real. Instead of clinging to the scarcity mindset and trying to acquire more oil, they looked to the resources they actually had at their disposal and started to farm organically.

I know I just painted you some really dismal pictures: a hypothetical sudden fuel shortage in the U.S. and the actual sudden fuel shortage that Cuba had in the 1990s. But, if I manage not to bungle my first sermon too badly, you’ll see that today’s message is actually one of great hope and potential.

So, organic farming in Cuba. Contrary to popular belief, I did not go to Cuba last month to smoke Cuban cigars, drink two-dollar mojitos, or gorge myself on ripe mangoes. Admittedly, I did do all of these things, and it was awesome. You should all find an excuse – I mean, legitimate reason - to visit. But the real reason I went to Cuba was to see all of the amazing things they are doing with organic agriculture over there and bring back some knowledge and insights to share. Actually, sharing what I learned in Cuba is technically one of the conditions of my research visa, so thank you Judson for the opportunity.

In Cuba, I witnessed a variety of organic farming techniques: semi-protective coverings to shield plants from the harsh summer sun, and raised beds that prevent the loss of nutrients in the soil – both Cuban innovations. At Havana’s premier urban garden, we learned that the farmers use a closed-loop system, where plant waste is fed to cows, which produce manure, which worms turn into incredible fertilizer for the plants, the leftovers of which are fed to the cows. We also learned about the government’s extensive support for organic agriculture: academic research, policies benefitting farmers, the organization of cooperatives and farmers markets, or resource and education centers for Cubans wanting to do their own urban gardening. And I know that this is silly, but what struck me the most was all of the creative ways urban gardeners in Cuba would plant their plants: in old soda cans, old cooking oil cans, empty government-produced soy yogurt bags, or even hanging planters made out of the discarded front grills of old electric fans. They managed to take everyday trash, fill it with dirt and seeds, and with some love and care, grow it into a thriving plant. On the front of your bulletin, you’ll see photos of these things, of life springing out of garbage. I think I loved those repurposed planters so much because to me, they symbolized what I found so admirable and positive and inspiring about the Cuban people: effort, resourcefulness, taking nothing for granted, and more than anything else, taking something so small and insignificant, seemingly nothing, and turning it into something beautiful and useful and valuable. I don’t think someone stuck in a scarcity mentality could do the things I saw Cubans doing – taking what little they have and turning it into more - nourishing their bodies, making life more beautiful, and sharing this with a stranger like me.

We had the chance to speak with an agricultural engineer who told us “the best thing that happened to Cuba was being forced to move towards organic and sustainable agriculture.” It sounded funny at first, that someone could be so positive about a situation like Cuba’s, but the more I witnessed and the more I thought about what he said, it really made sense to me. Cuba, over the past two decades, has undergone an organic revolution. In 1989, Cuban farmers used 250,000 tons of pesticide. In 2010, they used 15,000 tons, just six percent of that previous total. Cuba now manages to grow 60% of the food it needs. The remaining 40% is imported from countries like Vietnam and Mexico. Their goal is to someday reach 90%. I think they can do it. When that day comes, they’ll be eating healthier and more sustainable food than us, and they won’t be nearly as dependent on volatile world markets as the rest of us – both very, very good things.

So how does this relate to today’s ancient testimony?

Traditionally, the Parable of the Sower is interpreted as an allegory in which the soil conditions are symbolic for our fitness to receive the Word of God, the Good News, Love, what have you. If the seeds (the Word of God/Good News/Love, etc.) fall along the path, or on rocky soil, or amongst the weeds and thorns, it’s a no-go. But, if the seed falls on good soil (a receptive listener), the plants multiply 30, 60, or 100 times. Good deal.

I’d like to propose an alternative interpretation, however. I’d like to focus a bit less on us and a bit more on the Big Farmer in the Sky. Why exactly is this Farmer throwing seeds everywhere? Isn’t that a waste of seeds? Wouldn’t it make more sense to avoid the path and the rocks and the thorns – all unlikely places for a plant to flourish – and plant the seeds exclusively on the good soil? Maybe – if you only had a limited supply of seeds. But, these are allegorical seeds; they are infinitely abundant and you can have as many as you want. In Cuba, I saw a farm built on top of what was previously a garbage dump. I saw grapes growing on the roof of someone’s house. I saw all sorts of weird containers being repurposed as planters. Sowing seeds in these non-conventional and potentially challenging places leads to greater abundance. Isn’t it amazing that nobody is forgotten or passed over, and that everyone gets some love from that Big Farmer in the Sky, that no matter your readiness, the Big Farmer has continual faith in you, that someday the seeds will take root and that something beautiful will grow?

What’s even more beautiful is that we can all be sowers as well. Once we become plants, we also produce seeds, and it’s up to us to decide whether to treat them as if they’re scarce or abundant.

I know I’m starting to stretch this metaphor really thin, so I’ll begin to wrap things up.

Two Sundays ago, Emily Brown also spoke to us about scarcity and abundance and the Great Burrito Riot of ‘06. The passage she chose from Isaiah reminds us that God provides for us in abundance. There will always be enough grace to go around. If we can remember this, trust this, and have faith in this, we can choose love and generosity and abundance over fear and scarcity. Gandhi said, “There's enough on this planet for everyone's needs but not for everyone's greed.”

I think about this a lot. Every time I read the news, there’s another example of our politicians fixating on scarcity instead of embracing abundance. I’m talking to you Eric Cantor. You too, John Boehner. I’m not naïve; I know that money exists and that it’s important, but I can’t help but wonder what would happen if our politicians could agree to plant seeds instead of fighting over who gets them.

Besides organic agriculture, Cuba does two other things particularly well: healthcare and education. It’s free, it’s high quality, and everyone gets it. Not only that, it’s a good investment. Health, education, and environmental sustainability are good seeds to sow. They create a snowball of abundance. It’s been proven, all over the globe, that they lift people out of poverty. The world progressively becomes a better and better place.

I read recently that the UN projects the world population will top ten billion by the end of this century. It’s clear that we’re going to need to figure out how to share and how to create abundance, or else things are not going to be pretty. It will be the Great Burrito Riot of ’06 all over again, but on a global scale.

So my sermon is almost over, and you’re probably thinking, “That’s great, Christine, but how do I do all of this? How can I do my part to save the world and bring God’s Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth, plus get home in time to eat dinner, watch the Daily Show, and maybe, if I’m lucky, make it to the gym?” Well, I wish I had a good answer for you, but after contemplating scarcity and abundance for the past two weeks, I think my take-home message is this: Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep signing petitions, attending rallies, praying, and donating your time and resources to good causes. But, do so with a mentality of abundance. Have faith that the Big Farmer in the Sky has provided us with everything we need. Be aware of when that scarcity mentality creeps back in. Strive to find win-win solutions. After all, nobody is winning unless we are all winning. You are smart. You are creative. You are innovative. You are brave, perseverant, and loving. People will see how amazing you are and they will follow in your footsteps. I believe in you and so does the Big Farmer in the Sky. Now go, and plant your seeds everywhere. Beautiful things will grow. Amen.

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