06 March 2008

Plan Be Unplugged

Fit the First

Unless you're living in South Africa, you're probably unaware that the country is in the midst of an Energy Crisis. Rolling blackouts are the order of the day; even the mines -- traditionally the mainstay of the economy[1] -- are having to deal with major power-cuts.  Stories abound of commuter trains stranded, traffic snarl-ups due to non-funtioning traffic lights, hospital patients dependent on breathing machines having to be "breathed" by manual labour, telephones and network connections that stop working because the local telephone exchange exhausts its backup power. Nobody is untouched. Every one of us has a story of somebody we know being affected in a life- or income-threatening way.

My youngest brother, Richard, owns a factory that produces sugar sticks -- great lumps of crystalised sugar at the end of a stick, for stirring into coffee (or even -- ugh, gods forbid! -- tea!) Signpost to the pointymost peak of Peak Everything Civilisation, I suppose, but there it is. Trouble is, the process of producing a sugar stick takes 3 days. Three days of pernickity temperature differentials, maddeningly-critical evaporation rates and inexplicably unstable solution-flow rates. Three days. Unless the power fails. Then you get to throw away an entire batch -- 5 tonnes -- of sugar solution, and start again, hoping against hope that the power stays up long enough to make a living. It would be one thing if the business were a well-established one, with a stable, understanding and patient customer base, but it's not. They're still a startup. They produce the best quality sugar sticks in the world, at one third the price of their closest competitors, but they're The New Kids on the Block. They've signed some great customers. But those customers will evaporate if they can't deliver the goods. The fact of power-cuts every second day will produce sympathy from the individuals involved who understand the whys and wherefores; but the fact remains... the customers will go away.

The "current" energy problems are totally the responsibility of the government. Despite the public anger at Eskom, the state-owned-and-run electricity monopoly. More than ten years ago (in 1998, to be exact,) Eskom was warning government that, given government's economic growth targets, Eskom would need to build several more baseload power stations to meet the demand. Given that it takes about ten years to build a significant baseload power-station -- not to mention the getting through all the Environmental Impact Assessments and Community Consultation and Planning requirements. At the time, it was Not Politically Convenient to hear this message, so Mbeki's cabinet ignored it. So we sit with Economically Significant Power Cuts.

Recently some government schmuck tried to suggest that the power shortage was a result of Apartheid-Era Planning -- The Usual Scapegoat. Oh how we laugh! (I'll bet it was my "friend" Arshole Alec, the Arithmetically Challenged Minister Who Has Shot His Bolt. Whilst the apartheid regime certainly left us with lots of horrible legacy, this particular clusterfuck came about on the ANC's watch. The Old Nats (may they rot in hell) would never have permitted such sloppy planning! (whatever else they may have turned a blind-eye to...)

Premonition of the Great Unwinding. We South Africans are the Pathfinders. We are the first to glimpse the course of Energy Descent. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, we go.

Fit the Second

For the couple of years I've had DSL internet service, it has been great. In the face of country-wide complaints (verging on rioting, mayhem and life-threats to Telkom's management) about the Totally Fucking Useless National Telco I have been a lone voice in the wilderness saying what a great DSL service I get. Well bite my shiny metal ass blow me down. A major service outage about ten days ago. Two days of frustration and stress and hours (literally!) on hold. "Thank You For Your Patience. Your Call ''Will'' Be Answered As Soon As A Customer Service Agent Is Available." It wears a little thin after an hour, I'll tell you! This, right at the time when the small flow of money I'm earning is totally dependent on that thin strand of copper I call "The Internet." It all came right in the end, only to be followed by another failure last Friday. The line is still down.

Fit the Future

So this is the face of the powerdown. Not in a cataclysmic implosion, does our civilization die, but little piece by little piece. Some things will undoubtedly get better even as other parts of the technological iceberg disintegrate. Not a single all-in-one unravelling of the Jersey of Warm Fuzziness, but one loose thread at a time.

Even as cellphone service improves and prices fall, fixed-line service goes down the toilet. Even as our air-force's latest toys scream by overhead, petrol prices are at an all-time high, and people are wondering why food prices seem to have skyrocketted, too. Can there really be such a disconnect in peoples' understanding?

'Tis the season for Growing Corn in Rheenendal, and never before have I seen as much acreage[2] dedicated to growing Maize. Most of it, I am guessing, contracted to American biofuel companies. Why do I not feel Warm and Fuzzy like this is a reasonable and sustainable way to provide the energy needs of 6 or 10 or 12 billion people striving to live a first-world lifestyle, driving their Hummers to collect the kids from school[4], annual holidays in another hemisphere and fresh Canadian Salmon for Summer Snacks?

The Unterste Schürer[5]

In a low-energy future -- and we're going to have one, whether we like it or not -- the planet cannot sustainably support so many of us. I realise that I risk the wrath of feminists everywhere (and The Pope[7]) but we face simple choice: reduce our numbers in a managed way, or have Gaia reduce them in an unmanaged way.

What's your choice?

[1] South Africa still produces something like 50% of the world's gold each year, not to mention a host of rare and obscure minerals that turn out to be totally essential to modern industry. Stuff like Cadmium and Tantalum, Vanadium, Ytterbium[3]. In recent years, though, tourism has generated more jobs and revenue to than even gold mining.

[2] Somehow "hectarage" just doesn't sound the same.

[3] http://www.privatehand.com/flash/elements.html

[4] I couldn't make it up if I tried. Not to mention that home and school are the daunting distance of some 800m apart! I sure that Little Darling's legs would break if they walked that far.

[5] Yiddish[6]. "The Bottom Line".

[6] Spelling optional.

[7] Not noted for his Feminist sympathies, I'll note[8].

[8] "A note? A-Flat[9], I'm sure.  My Mother gave the gift of perfect pitch, you know!"

[9] ...or, given the state of the electrically-disconnected South African gold mines, A-Flat-Minor!

No comments:

Post a Comment

You might also like

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...