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Saturday, January 30, 2010

South Africa and Sustainability

I don't know if all this doom and gloom about the impending climate change and its likely results are true. On one hand every generation for ages has been predicting the end of ages and the coming of the Apocalypse. Something to do with wanting to feel that "our generation" is somehow special amongst all other generations. (go figure??) On the other hand, civilizations have peaked and declined and more often eventually collapsed completely, to be replaced by goat herders. The death of a civilization seems to be as inevitable as the death of an individual. The primary causes of this seems to be a destruction of the environment, over population and having too many drones in the society (think nobles in an earlier age, bankers in ours). A unsettling thought is that for the first time in history, we have a global civilization and if we have a collapse, it may be the whole thing. Remember the Roman Empire. As far as the old world was concerned, it was the whole world and the whole shooting match collapsed.

Whatever the case, 15 years I spent in South Africa give me some cause for hope. Half the time I lived there was before the end of apartide, half after. It was an interesting society technologically. I sort of expected it to be technologically backward when I went there.  After all, harsh sanctions were applied to South Africa by the world.  The reality was otherwise. I'll give you a few examples.

Most of the cars were pretty old and I drove a rust bucket of a station wagon. One day my alternator burnt out. I asked a friend where I could get a new one. He looked at me rather quizzically and said take it to such and such a place in the next town. I took it in and the desk lady said leave it here. You can pick it up on Friday. And guess what. They simply stripped off the old wire and rewound it.  I suppose you could get this done in modern western societies but I have never heard of it. Generally you scrap the old one and buy either a second hand one salvaged from a wrecked car or buy a new one. In South Africa, the old copper wire was recycled as copper, the perfectly good core of the alternator was utilized and they put in new bearings at the same time making the alternator as good as new.

The same thing happened when the same old car began to bottom out on the bumps. My leaf springs were getting tired. I asked my friend and got the same quizzical look again - and an address. I jacked up the car, put it on blocks and removed the springs. Same thing again. The lady said to come back on Friday. Everything seems to be finished on Friday. The address this time was a Spring Smith (have you ever seen one of these - I hadn't) and he simply re tempered my springs. I was warned by my friend that re tempered springs would only be good for ten years or so. Who cares. By that time the whole body of the car would be a pile of rust.

And once more. I backed out of my garage one day. We lived on a hill and you backed out, with the back of the car down hill and then headed uphill to the town. As I put on the brakes, the front axle pulled loose from the body. Rust again. By now I knew what to do. I drove (very slowly) to the body shop and told him what my problem was. Friday once again. When I returned, he had put the car on his hoist, found some solid metal forward and aft of the rip and welded on a plate which was bent over the axle mounts.

In our town, we had a fantastic general store. It was run by an ancient man, Mr Penchardz and his son. All the blacks and whites shopped there. In one corner was everything you could want for sewing and knitting, in another part, hardware and in a third, food - mainly large sacks of mealie meal, flour, sugar and so forth. All things in bulk and mostly food which didn't need refrigeration. They had sky lights and rarely put the lights on. The money they saved by economy and by owning the store for generations was passed on to their customers. Mr Penchardz father had started the store way back when you could still hear lions roaring at night. In the hardware part you could buy one nail, 5 nails or a kg of nails. Small number he sold by number, large amounts by weight. If you wanted a particular wrench, you bought that wrench - not a whole set when you had simply lost your No13 somewhere in the mess in your work shop. There was no such thing as having to buy a whole set all wrapped up in a plastic container. You bought what you needed.

I think that this whole scenario may be a picture of where we are going if we have a collapse of our globalized society. Each country will be thrown back on its own resources and forced to make do and not a bad thing either. All sorts of meaningful jobs will be created with people using ingenuity to solve problems rather than money. We will eat what is produced locally and perhaps even get back into producing quality goods for sale. It could be worse.

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