Essays & Stories

How Things Change

I used to work Kelly temporaries. In the summer of 1992, I had an assignment in the engineering department of the pulp mill, where they made the brown paper that ends up as shopping bags. For decades they had gotten the pulp by grinding up trees, but with recycling and resistance to clear cutting, they were looking into using paper boxes, “old corrugated cardboard” is the technical term, as their source. They had to expand the plant and buy equipment and set up a new production line. My job was to make spreadsheets that compared the specifications for different digesters and cookers and rollers and driers so the engineers could decide which one to buy.

There were four engineers. Ralph, the plant manager was about sixty. He came from the south where enforcement of regulations at paper mills was even laxer than in Oregon. He never met a rule he didn’t want to get around. He believed in maximum production, and in his mind rules and regulations were just impediments to that goal. The way most of us drive ten miles an hour over the speed limit when we don’t see a cop around, Ralph would cheat on everything that didn’t have an enforcer in the room. And he was proud of it. The only safety rule I ever saw him follow or tell others to follow was to wear ear protection when they were out in the plant.

Guy and Mark were about forty, and they were both devout Christians of a kind we see a lot of in Oregon. They really believed that they had to live their religion in their daily lives, and this meant they followed every rule and every regulation—for safety, for the environment, for accounting—as carefully as they could. Mark even made a sex discrimination complaint to Human Resources once when an equipment salesman working in the engineering office on contract made a snide joke that put down secretaries while another clerical and I were in the room.

Tim grew up in the steel towns of western Pennsylvania and he saw enough of the future to know there would be no steel mill to follow his dad’s footsteps into. He’d graduated from engineering school just a year or two earlier and acted like the young guy who still had a lot to learn.

One day they were talking about the retaining wall around the new addition to the plant. The way you make old cardboard into smooth new paper is to “cook it”, with a strong caustic solution that softens the pulp, but also corrodes anything it comes in contact with. The retaining wall would have to hold back any caustic that might spill out of the cooker if there was ever an accident.

Ralph complained about the height, the cost, the time it would take to build. “Do we have to do it at all?” he asked. “What can we get away with here?” Guy and Mark had the specs out and they told him, “Here’s what the book says. This is what we need to do.”

Then I heard Tim raise his voice. “Do you guys realize what’s out there? We’re surrounded by grass seed fields, and the river is right down the hill. Do you know how much trouble we’ll be in if we have a spill onto that land? We have to build a wall that will do the job. We can’t—we just can’t have a spill. That’s all there is to it.”

In that moment, I realized how a single set of reforms twenty years earlier was so much more than one moment’s gain in the endless tug of war, one that we could lose on the next election round. It’s true that all Ralph saw were the production numbers. Tim, with his view of the land and the river, wasn’t any more moral or thoughtful or nice than Ralph. It’s just that in his time in engineering school, after the environmental protection legislation was passed, he had been required to learn to solve a different set of problems, to take the land and the river into account. He had learned to build protection in as part of the design, not as a technicality or a burden, but as part of the problem that had to be addressed.

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About Katherine Power

I didn’t set out to be a terrorist. As a student activist, I moved from protesting the war in Viet Nam to waging guerrilla war to overthrow the government….

Recent and Upcoming Appearances and Publications
1/15/2014 Complexity and Social Change, Occupy Radio
10/31/2013 Surrender, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR
10/25/2013 Surrender, Taos Community Theater, Taos, NM

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