Tuesday, February 05, 2008

There, but for a few years, is us.

This letter was sent to urban planner and writer James Howard Kunstler, who is rough around the edges but quite a critic of urban design and the sprawl paradigm, among other things. He receives correspondence from colleagues and admirers of his work located all over the world - including myself. Some of you may remember I have an AAS in architecture, served my year of internship at a government division of long range planning (land use and development), and my husband works there still. I keep an eye on articles about urban planning, urban redevelopment, new urbanism, and emergency planning (even though I'd probably really rather be back on my great-grandfather's old dairy farm).

Jim received this letter from a lady in South Africa, letting him know what had been going on there in her area. If you haven't read Jim's book "The Long Emergency," I recommend it to you, with the caveat that he is quite a pessimist. To me, the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is planning and preventative action. Heading trouble off at the pass is far more effective than trying to deal with it after the fact. I prefer to be pro-active, not re-active. Jim believes there's not really a whole lot that can or will be done, and in many ways he's right. We as individuals can't stop or solve things things from happening, but I believe there are plenty of ways to mitigate them.

I am posting this so you can see what the beginning of the Long Emergency looks like. The Long Emergency is the train wreck of our current economic and currency woes, which collide with peak oil and climate change in a nasty multi-car pileup that will take well over a decade, some say a minimum of 20 years, for us to cycle out of and into an upward swing of the business cycle. There are deep imbalances that have to be worked out - bubbles popping that have been made exponentially worse by the greed, corruption, and the breaking of the social contract at all levels of society.


February 4, 2008
It began with a few potholes in the roads, the odd interruption to the water supply in the suburbs, a couple of days with strike action preventing the delivery of municipal services – no garbage collection, protest action disrupting the mining industry and picketing & toy toying at shopping malls…It continued over the next couple of years, largely with disregard for the disruptions, a little irritation to daily commercial and home life by the lack of service provision in food, gas, water and power.

In recent months, at the receivables end of the supply chain, there was a little aggravation at the delays, the lack of service, the shortage of a few consumer luxuries in the retail shops…, ‘but hey, what the hell, this is a great country, we cannot fault the lifestyle, the weather…’. For a couple of months, perhaps a year back or so, there seemed little or no reason to change our way of life, our lifestyles…a little further down the road and the disruptions become more frequent, we learn to cope, learn to accept the rising cost of living, gas supply shortages in the Winter of 2007, the intermittent water disruptions, the odd power outage and the potholes. Potholes may well be the singular measure of the calamity we are in or about to face.
We accept the transitions in South Africa, but it is all very well passing over these problems in the name of development, infrastructure development, greater housing plans and urbanization as a promised deliverable by the ANC government, together with the balancing of the wealth quotient. Access to finance and the shift of the material wealth are an indication of the success of the plans for economic growth in the New South Africa.

So, there have been interesting times, a few PDI’s (previously disadvantaged individuals), through black economic empowerment, becoming significantly enriched through commerce and business and, dare I say, politics. But the cracks that are now evident are tell tails signs, not only of the effectivity of the New South Africa and an explanation of the path traveled to this point in time, but more of what is promised for the future. And the future may be more a by product of global issues than issues unique and unfortunate to South Africa.

So what do we have at hand, what are the reactions and what are the consequences???

South Africa has been flung full tilt into a Premature Long Emergency. In the up market suburbs, not least to say generally all over the urban landscape, there is not a 1km (1/2 mile) strip of tarred road that is not full of potholes (hugh gapping holes, across which vehicles cannot drive), the roadside curbs are disintegrating, the road maintenance programmes over the last 10 years have failed to maintain the roads in a serviceable and passable state. The nation is gripped in a crisis of rolling power outages caused by the incompetence of highly paid government ministers and their charges. The news of the weekend is that the nation is in dire straits with the supply of clean, drinkable water to households and business alike. We are faced with unusual weather patterns, floods at the moment, high rain fall for the Summer, the expectation of an early, long cold Winter.

The rolling power outages are resulting in about a 25% national power outage per month. The ramifications of this can be related directly to an income loss of the same amount, retail supplies are being interrupted and from a security point of view it is dangerous to shop in malls. The Electricity Supply Commission – ESKOM are indicating a forced reduction on power usage by 10%, further, the mines have been told not to work on Fridays. There are revenue and cost implications here that extend beyond the obvious monthly figures. What of the power saving measures that may in turn lead to greater problems, the mines are unable to pump excess ground water from the shafts, the maintenance programmes are due to suffer. And what of the safety indications, miners are protesting the possibility of being caught under ground or in lift shafts as the random power cuts hit the service grids.

It is not only that ESKOM have not maintained or expanded their operations in the last 15 years, but the next big whammy is that there is no coal to keep the power stations running…at most times, there is a couple of months supply of coal onsite for electricity operations, today there is hardly a few days supply. Incidentally the reason given for this catastrophe is that the trucks delivering the coal have been unable to get to the power stations as the road infrastructure has deteriorated- potholes again. In the Afrikaans language: ‘slaggate’ – a direct translation to ‘slaughter holes’. As this is written, we wait for the next couple of days to see the effect of the ‘coal emergency’.

At some point the effect of the power emergency on water and sanitation supply should be considered and this would be part of the roll out of unexpected events resultant of the collapse of the power supply, but the water board have usurped the power supply with homegrown problems of their own…

So here we have it, 43% of the dams have safety problems and are in danger of collapsing. Further to this, the ground water in Gauteng, the province of Johannesburg, has radioactive contamination from mining operations.

Now, as a matter of interest, Johannesburg is one of the few cities in the world that is built on a hill and water has to be pumped up into the city!!!

And what of the peoples reaction? Complacency does not even come close, the nation is either brain dead or ignorant, or just plain ‘frog in a pot’ of water with the temperature rising.

The first reaction to the power emergency took the form of a rush for candles, refilling of gas bottles and the purchasing of generators (if you could get them). Then the complacency set it, business learnt to sit through power outages, retail shops were forced to close their doors for a few hours a day. There was and is a shortage of food supplies, food went bad in the fridges and had to been thrown away. It was kind of charming in a strange kind of way, to eat dinner by candle light and forgo the ‘soapies’ on TV. Traffic lights were out over a large number of suburbs and delays in getting to business meetings became the norm. The schools are unable to teach a full day’s lesson. The internet service providers and the mobile phone companies’ frequently have service delays or are just plain ‘off line’. The battery runs out on your laptop and that’s the days productive work is over until the power is back on…Patients in ICU or undergoing operations, as the power grid went down, were at risk of and did, die.

As we head into February, it will be interesting to see the economic figures; theoretically the revenue generation for the period should be down by at least 25% or something similar to the power outage percentages. Notwithstanding that the stock market took a bend downwards and followed the USA crash and the antics of the Societé General rogue trader. (Well done on the foresight, James). The South African property market is following suit, as well.

And just as we were wondering how the effect, implications and opinions of an emergency would pan out into daily life, what the tell tail signs would be… it happened, all of this is the short space of about 2-3 weeks, the realization dawns that it has begun, the country is experiencing and living through the beginning of the Long Emergency, rather unexpectedly and certainly too prematurely.

I proffer that the events in South Africa, tragic as they are, as they play themselves out, will give a good indication of the events that the USA and other countries will realize in the years to come as The Long Emergency’ comes to pass.
[Ha! Just as I finish this, guess what… the power is out, the battery life in my laptop is about 5 mins, so at 11am, I cannot be productive for the rest of the day… the networks are down, so this cannot be mailed for the moment.]

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