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In Africa, Outages Stifle a Boom

Sarah Childress , Wall Street Journal
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The global commodities boom is claiming another casualty: Africa’s already-shaky power grid.

With the continent’s power-hungry mining sector booming and the economy along with it, national electricity grids are fraying. Higher prices for coal and oil are only intensifying the strain on electricity companies.

The poor in South Africa’s sprawling townships have long been used to power cuts. Now, upscale shoppers here browse darkened malls, while moviegoers are accustomed to outages disrupting shows. In nearby Botswana, plans to bring electricity to rural villages are threatened as the government struggles to maintain power at the nation’s diamond mines.

Frequent and disruptive power outages plague about 35 of sub-Saharan Africa’s 53 countries, according to the World Bank. The situation is triggering violence and threatening deeper instability across a region already wracked by unrest.
(17 April 2008)
Contributor Carl Etnier writes:
The article starkly illustrates many issues related to resource price increases and shortages. High oil and coal prices lead to steep electricity price hikes and outages, which leads to reductions in the supply of commodities like gold and platinum as mines reduce outpout. Botswana, which is 70% dependent on foreign (South African) electricity, is facing a 50% cut in its imports by 2010. A family invests in a lighted coop and freezer for commercial chicken farming, but unreliable electricity leaves the chickens in the semi-darkness of paraffin lanterns, and the slaughtered chickens are sold locally, without being frozen.

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Adored, Deplored and Ubiquitous

Natalie Angier, New York Times
Come next Tuesday, in a move flagrantly timed to coincide with Earth Day, the Whole Foods supermarket chain will no longer offer its customers the plastic bag option. Seeing that “it can take more than 1,000 years for a plastic bag to break down in a landfill” and that “in the U.S. alone, about 100 billion plastic bags are thrown away each year,” the company said it could not in good conscience contribute to the crisis.

Bravo. Now tell me this: What am I supposed to line my garbage cans with?

… Glancing around my office, I see how difficult it would be for me to live plastic-free. I’m typing on a computer keyboard made partly of molded polyvinyl chloride, which also serves as the source material for that ultimate plastic item, the credit card.

…. The reason petroleum so often serves as the foundation for plastics production is that it offers an ultraconcentrated source of carbon, but carbon is carbon and with the right manipulations other handier biosources like lawn litter will do. Add chlorine to your carbon backbone for hardness and heat resistance. Tack little methyl groups to the carbon backbone for durability, compactness and a ropy indifference to chemical abuse. Extrude your melted mixture through die holes to form pipes, hoses, drinking straws and fibers. Inject it into moldings shaped like Barbie, Ken or a comb. Blow it out like a balloon and you’ve got a new bag. When you’re done, hand it over: I will put it to use.
(15 April 2008)
A surprising lack of ecological awareness on the part of the New York Time’s lead science reporter. OTOH, the science background on plastics is interesting. -BA