This is a paper machine. My husband ran one in the 1990s. I’ve often said it’s the only job he ever had where I actually could say what the heck he did all day. He made paper.
A paper machine is a huge hunk of equipment. The whole machine usually extends about a thousand feet from one end to the other, so it’s about the length of an urban city block. It has lots of parts that whizz and hiss and rumble and make noises so loud you need ear protection, and sometimes the paper coming off the end of it breaks and sends clouds of fuzzy confetti flying everywhere. It looks like controlled chaos, managed power, in action. It’s really kind of cool.
Despite looking so impressive, paper machines do something that’s basically pretty simple: they take a slurry of water and paper pulp, and they suck out the water and squash the pulp together to turn it into paper. There are several steps to the process, and sometimes there’s lotion or scent or something that gets introduced into it along the way, but fundamentally, that’s what the paper machine does. Evaporate and squash.
As you might imagine, a machine this size has tons of controls — levers and inputs and electronic doodads, and the technicians who run the thing have to be pretty well trained to keep it all working. But fundamentally, all the pieces that they can manipulate do one of two things: they take water out, or they squash paper fibers together.
We tend too often to think of our local economies as paper machines. We have a handful of lever and dials that we know that we can push or pull, and we assume (or tell ourselves) that we can get the outcomes we want for our local economies by twiddling those controls. Sometimes we call those controls incentives, sometimes they’re sewer lines or land that we can sell at a deep discount, sometimes they’re slick marketing materials designed to show potential businesses that “Hey!!! We are awesome!!!”
The problem is, our communities aren’t much like paper machines at all. They’re more like forests or farms or gardens.
For a plant to grow requires a wide range of conditions — the right soils, the right amount of rain, the right amount of sun or shade, the right pollinating insects and the absence of the right kind of pests. Some plants have higher ranges of tolerances than others — some of the flowers in my yard, for example, wilt when the temperature gets above 90, while the weeds could apparently survive a nuclear blast.
The main thing that makes a garden different from a paper machine, though, is the degree to which we lack direct control over many of those factors. I can’t change the number of hours in a day that the sun shines, and I can’t ensure enough of a supply of the pollinators that my fruit trees want if something in the next yard over keeps eating them.
Not only do we lack direct control, we have to accept the fact that we lack direct control. Berating the sun to stay in the sky longer, or trying to pollinate each apple blossom by hand, don’t sound like helpful solutions.