Rob Sherren works in the energy sector, and is an occasional contributor to the Montreal Review of Books.
When I was a boy growing up in small-town New Brunswick, I used to run to the dining-room window to look at the stack plume from the pulp mill because it would tell me the weather. If it was blowing down river, it was a normal day, but if the plume was blowing toward town, it was going to rain. Locals had a name for the stench from the mill’s evaporators: “The smell of money.” The way it hung over the town and permeated everything, well, I thought the mill actually made the rain.
The mill gave us everything else. Nackawic was a town of only 1,400, but we had a golf course, an arena, tennis courts, three schools; we were a model industrial community, built to house the mill workers who were supposed to concentrate there from the agricultural land that was flooded for a nearby hydro dam. When the price of pulp was up it was high times. One summer, the mill gave summer “jobs” to any employee’s child who was going to university or college – what amounted to a $5,000 bursary, which in the late eighties paid almost a year of postsecondary education. There must have been more than a hundred of us in there one summer. The next year, the price of pulp was down and I don’t think they hired a single student.
There was security and vulnerability in relying so completely on that one product. New mills were being built all over New England and Eastern Canada. Then we began to hear of monster mills in the tropics, where trees grow to cutting size in six or eight years. By that point, I was working for a pulp and paper research and development facility in Montreal. We were trying to find technologies that would allow the company’s New England mills to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules governing air and water pollution, and we also needed to find improvements to compete with the tropical producers. There were concepts for diversification in products: valuable chemicals to be distilled or cracked from the complex organic byproducts, but we could never make the projects pay back – there was just too much competition driving down the pulp price.
In the early 2000s, I was at a conference at the University of Maine where they were talking dispassionately about paper-industry rationalization – the process whereby the marketplace pushes out non-competitive producers. I knew the business fundamentals for high-cost mills and yet I argued against rationalization saying: “It has to be about more than market realities! What about the investments by companies and governments – mills, schools, tennis courts? What about the people who have made their lives there who have nothing else?”
Soon after that, the owners closed the mill in my hometown and a group of workers – guys I used to play hockey with – refused to leave. They occupied the pulp warehouse in an act of confused rebellion that attempted to say the same things I had at that conference in Maine. And their statement was received as indifferently as mine was. When you sell a commodity that’s relatively expensive to produce and hard to get to market, where you have little or no competitive advantage, there’s not much for the market to work with. It’s confusing as hell for those who build their lives on the commodity. The impression is that people and communities don’t matter. They do, of course. They are the most important things, it’s just that the market doesn’t have any way to price that in. It’s hard to fight a global oversupply problem with more supply.
All over New Brunswick, they closed mills. They knocked them down in Miramichi, Bathurst and Dalhousie. I actually watched them demolish a mill I tried to save in New Hampshire, and as I watched that infrastructure crash to the ground in twisted piles of scrap, I wondered why we put all our eggs in one basket. It’s not complicated: Our system pushes us toward specialization and economies of scale, but on a more basic level, nobody complains when the basket is full. I recognize the frustration in the voices coming out of Alberta right now: “The government has to do something to save our industry! People’s lives are more important than market realities!” I hope things turn around, but market rationalization is a deaf and merciless force.
It’s hard to believe that families who choked on the mill smell for decades would ever want those jobs back, but as they say back home: “No smoke, no baloney.” You might say something similar about jobs on coal faces, or assembly lines; economists predict rationalization in many markets, all the more frequent as the pace of technological development increases. They reopened the mill in my town and converted it to make rayon feedstock. But the north shore of New Brunswick is still trying to recover from the demolition of their mills and this is 10 years on. An evolving marketplace will provide new opportunities, unfortunately they are currently hidden on the far side of economic and social calamity.