Friday, December 19, 2008

Dickens' The Chimes

I hadn't known, before people at The Valve started reading The Chimes, that A Christmas Carol had been one of a series. Just like a genre fantasy writer today, Dickens had a success and followed it with another similar book and another until it was played out. The Chimes was the second in this series, out of five. A previous post addressed one of the key aesthetic elements of the work.

It's a political novella. The protagonist, Toby nicknamed Trotty, is a pathetically inoffensive old man, scraping out a living by delivering letters and parcels. The other poor people in his set are Meg, his grown daughter, Richard, her fiance, William Fern, a laborer who he takes in out of sympathy, and Lillian, William's young ward, his sister's daughter. Toby's ghostly vision, given to him in a dream by goblins of the church chimes that he listens to where he waits for work, shows what happens to them nine years later if Toby dies that night; all four are ground down by poverty in four different ways. Richard becomes a drunkard, Lillian a prostitute, William Fern a terrorist, and Meg decides to commit suicide with her baby daughter. These four are schematically opposed to four flat characters who represent the people grinding them down, who in contemporary terms might be described as a nostalgic conservative, a technocratic utilitarian, a social conservative actively oppressing the poor, and an aristocrat.

Many of the people commenting at The Valve don't seem to get the book, dismissing it as overly political, too didactic, not very engaging. (Adam Roberts writes some interesting comments about metallic imagery and hardness/softness, though.) All of that might be true, but it doesn't seem like a very useful way of looking at the book. Why doesn't it work, if it doesn't? I'd say that Dickens is bravely running head-on into the same political problem addressed by Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 -- The Chimes was written and published in 1844 -- the problem of the "hungry forties". Or, as Cherneshevsky would title a novel that inspired a more famous work later, What Is To Be Done?

The first thing that surprised me about the book is how Marxian Dickens sounds, without Marx. Toby is called up before the goblin Chimes for false consciousness. He keeps pathetically apologizing although he doesn't know what he's done, but what he's done is believe that poor people are innately bad, taken in by the newspapers that he reads that transmit upper and middle class ideology. DIckens hammers away at the idea that the people are innately good, and only social conditions are to blame when and if they go bad. The Chimes also inform Toby that they represent historical necessity, and that anyone who goes against them is going to inevitably fall. Of course Dickens, a liberal, is not a Marxist, but there's a lot of rhetoric that I associate with Marxism that seems instead to have been common to various political tendencies of the day.

Where people seem to think that the novella fails as a narrative is that Toby doesn't really do anything. A Christmas Carol has a traditional redemption narrative that middle class people can identify with -- a greedy person changes, and then his own life and the lives of those around him become better, not only emotionally, but in terms of the actual resources that he shares. But Toby has no resources. He was cheerful enough at the beginning of the book, degradingly so to a contemporary sensibility. (I'll return to this later.) He has nothing that we recognize as a personal sin, and no way to change his ways. After his dream, everything is magically all right -- he hasn't fallen down the church tower and died, Meg and Richard haven't been discouraged from their marriage by hateful people telling them they are too poor and / or can do better -- but he didn't bring any of that about, even by word. What did he do?

Here's what he did. His action comes during the dream, not after he wakes up. He sees his daughter Meg about to kill herself, and says:

‘I see the Spirit of the Chimes among you!’ cried the old man, singling out the child, and speaking in some inspiration, which their looks conveyed to him. ‘I know that our inheritance is held in store for us by Time. I know there is a sea of Time to rise one day, before which all who wrong us or oppress us will be swept away like leaves. I see it, on the flow! I know that we must trust and hope, and neither doubt ourselves, nor doubt the good in one another. I have learnt it from the creature dearest to my heart. I clasp her in my arms again. O Spirits, merciful and good, I take your lesson to my breast along with her! O Spirits, merciful and good, I am grateful!’

He has changed from a acceptance, an even cheerful toleration of his fate, to an active hope and faith. He knows, as a fact, he sees, that all who oppress and wrong "us", the poor, will be swept away.

Is this a revolutionary conviction? It can't be, given Dickens' politics. For there is another sort of ghost haunting the novella, going by the name of William Fern. William Fern goes to London to look for work, falls asleep in a shed, and is arrested for vagrancy. He is called "a turbulent and rebellious spirit" by the authorities; they decide to make an example of him. In Toby's dream vision, here is how he ends up:

‘What have you done?’ she [Meg] asked again.

‘There’ll be a Fire to–night,’ he said, removing from her. ‘There’ll be Fires this winter–time, to light the dark nights, East, West, North, and South. When you see the distant sky red, they’ll be blazing. When you see the distant sky red, think of me no more; or, if you do, remember what a Hell was lighted up inside of me, and think you see its flames reflected in the clouds. Good night. Good bye!’

This seems to have been a reference to rick-burning. But Fern has no political program as such. He's simply been tormented into striking out.

Fern is the locus of Toby's earlier action, the real action that he takes in the book. At the start, Toby is such a servile character that I would think it's easy for a contemporary reader to despise him. Doesn't he have any revolutionary or class consciousness? Any simple fatherly pride? The oppressors insult his daughter, and say she's worthless and shouldn't get married, right in front of him, and he doesn't even have the dignity to get angry. Instead he just takes their money to deliver a letter. He doesn't even do it grudgingly, secretly resentful; he just believes them. You can't help but hate him.

But the letter is from one oppressor to another, and they discuss it right in front of him -- he's harmless -- how they plan to make an example of William Fern. Toby then happens to meet Fern. And he doesn't hesitate for an instant to warn Fern about the letter, and tell him not to visit the person he was going to visit to ask for mercy, who is going to throw him in jail. Indeed, Toby takes Fern and his daughter in, gives them shelter, and feeds them out of his meager funds. He isn't harmless after all. Although his thoughts are pretty despicable, his actions are not. If Fern was a member of a revolutionary movement and Toby was a sympathizer, he wouldn't have done anything different.

So, for Dickens, this is the revolution -- the revolution of kindness. Embittered violence, for Dickens, is self-destructive, and in any case will not succeed. Instead, people have to help each other. But it can't be merely on impulse, unthought, as Toby does. It has to be accompanied by the active faith that what is happening is wrong, that they are correcting a wrong, and that someday all that wrong will be swept away. That faith itself is what is going to sweep it away -- otherwise, individual acts of kindness are possible, but they do not add up to an overall refusal of the system.

Is that politically incoherent? Yes, more or less. As a political program, it looks like quietism. As a work of art, it doesn't quite hang together. Dickens' lower-class people can be cheery, but his Victorian sentimentality means that he can't really depict them as proud, and really what Toby needs is some pride, of a certain happy sort. But despite its incoherence, its lack of any analysis or any active plan, has it really done so badly, historically, compared to the alternatives? Certainly I wouldn't want Toby as my labor organizer. On the whole, though, Dickens' mushy liberalism at least avoids some world-class failures. Unfortunately, no one really did any better.

the Tower

At The Valve people are reading one of Dickens' lesser-known Christmas books, The Chimes. I'll be writing more about the book itself shortly, but first, Dickens really did get the atmospherics of ascending the inside of a church-tower right. They are odd, liminal spaces, human constructions that rarely have a human presence, yet (unlike the inside of a large machine) are supposed to be accessible. This post is a bit about my own trip up a church-tower, with some not very interesting pictures.

The Tower, as an archetypal symbol in tarot decks, generally shows a tower being struck by lightning, with people falling out of it. Dickens makes use of it in The Chimes in much the same way; his protagonist ascends in dream-voyage, and has his worldview shattered and remade. To quote wiki, " The Tower is struck by lightning when Reality does not conform to expectation."

Once, at a UU church in L.A. -- only in L.A. could a church built early 20th century seem reasonably old, but it did -- I decided to climb the church tower during the service. I can no longer remember why I did this. Perhaps I excused it on the basis that most of the church members were reasonably old, and someone should check out this space to see if anything was going wrong with it in some obscure way. But really, I think, it was a treasure hunt, a chance to see a space in the middle of a packed city that no one had been in in years. So I borrowed the key and started up. As the rest of the church sat through a service, I was going to climb.

This being L.A. in the daytime, the atmosphere was hardly the one Dickens' used, of wind and cold. Everything was drenched in sun. But I quickly realized that perhaps I shouldn't be making this climb in my good shoes. The first room featured rusty iron braces set into the cinderblock as a ladder, up through which one went through a hole in the floor of the room above:

Which led to a long, free-standing ladder:

It was at this point that I started to wonder what I was doing. I was neither especially athletic, nor young, nor fond of heights. If I fell down one of these 15-foot spaces onto concrete, I could easily break something, and I wasn't really sure if anyone knew where I'd gone. The top of the ladder had a hatch-cover that had to be pushed quite hard to get it to move, and I didn't know if I could shift it with one hand -- using two would require having none on the ladder, and bracing myself against something I was moving. But of course this was a self-test of sorts, now:

The space above that featured a bird's nest, one of the many details Dickens included that mark this kind of structure as an oddity. No one had even been bird-watching this bird, at least not on its nest. It had a sort of privacy, right in the middle of the city:

And the space above is where I stopped. I'd heard that if you kept going up, there were old, disused bells of some kind. But in the picture above you can see that there's another heavy hatch-cover. And to push up on it, I had to stand on a sort of platform, tacked across the top of the room with two thin steel beams. Pushing up on the hatch meant pushing down on the platform with equal force; I thought I could feel it creak a little. Also, I'd heard that years back, the last time anyone had been up here, the maintenance crew the church had hired had found the top room covered in inches of guano. I had visions of finally raising the hatch against the excess weight lying on top of it, only to be showered in bird poop -- surely the opposite of glory.

So I never exerted my full strength against that last hatch. In this parody of a vision quest, I'd found out who I was -- I was a person who would finally, sensibly give up. I made my way down the hatches and ladders and wall-set braces, returned to helping to raise my then one-year-old child, and bought life insurance.

The view from near the top, though, was good:

This risible adventure, though, did make me appreciate Dickens' use of the space. When Toby or Trotty in his story finds himself at the top of the dark tower, and wonders whether he's going to climb down or fall down, that's a realistic fear. Which makes them a particular kind of psychological place as well. These spaces are the closest many city-dwellers get to the inaccessible, to, if not the religiously numinous, at least the unobserved, the tower of one's own mind.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Saint-Gobain, Northampton, MA

The fallout from the USA Today report mentioned in the last post is still settling, with politicians and Federal and state regulators promising various responses. I've heard that there's the usual rush of facilities, after a TRI report like this is released, to correct their reporting errors and/or explain their reports. But I'm getting involved with this locally too; a school that I've often biked past, and that some of my friends' kids go to, is listed as the third most potentially polluted from these industrial sources in Massachusetts.

Update: after new information was supplied by the facility, this is probably nothing to worry about: see below.

Looking at the site, 99% of the estimated risk is from a single polluter here, a Saint-Gobain facility. Looking up their TRI data here, as well as their RSEI data, it's clear that the estimated risk is due to their report of an air release of chromium compounds.

I've seen many, many facilities get themselves bad publicity by reporting in the way that this facility did, when they report something like chromium compounds or diisocyanates, something with a high toxicity or carcinogenicity. They reported an air release using a release range: 11-499 pounds. EPA routinely transforms this into the midpoint of the range: 250 pounds. That's a lot of chromium. In addition, EPA doesn't have respondents distinguish between hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen (and the chemical that Erin Brockovich campaigned against), and trivalent chromium, which isn't anywhere near as bad.

The facility should clarify this so that everyone can get a better idea of how much concern there should be. I called their TRI public contact on the phone, left a message, and got no response -- that's no surprise; I've been working with TRI data since 1991 and have never, ever gotten a response from a public contact. So I sent the following Email to their technical contact:

Dear Mr. (redacted):

I am Emailing you because you are listed as the TRI (Toxic Release Inventory) technical contact for the Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials facility in Northampton. I am an independent researcher living in Northampton who has worked with TRI data for some time, as well as the RSEI data used to make the USA Today report that references your facility at:

As you can see from this USA Today report, the Saint-Gobain facility causes the Montessori School of Northampton to rank in the top two percentile of schools nationwide in terms of schools whose air is potentially polluted by industrial facilities, as well as potentially affecting other Northampton schools. Looking at your TRI report at:

and at the RSEI data, it is clear that the potential pollution in question is listed in your report as a release range of 11-499 pounds of chromium and chromium compounds to the air in 2005. EPA routinely treats release ranges of this sort as being equivalent to the midpoint of the range: 250 pounds.

I have some questions about your TRI report and the facility's operations:

1. Do you have a better idea of how much chromium and / or chromium in compounds is actually released than 11-499 pounds? Getting a more accurate number could affect the RSEI risk screening calculation quite dramatically.

2. Do you have an idea, through testing or other means, of how much of the chromium is hexavalent chromium -- a known human carcinogen -- vs how much is trivalent [note: I originally wrote this as "chromium trioxide", oops.]? That would also lead to a better understanding of the potential risk involved.

3. Are there any plans possible or underway to reduce use of, or emissions of, chromium? Your 2006 TRI report, the latest publicly available, shows the same chromium release as in 2005.

Thank you for your attention to this request for information. I plan on sharing your reply with other people who may be concerned about the chromium emissions from the Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials facility. If you wish to contact me, I can be reached through Email, or by phone at xxx-xxx-xxxx.

Best regards,

Rich Puchalsky

cc: (redacted), Montessori School of Northampton

I'll see what I response I get. Given that Saint-Gobain is a multinational, I'd guess that my missive may well get passed up quite a chain. But I plan on continuing to pursue this.

My guess is that the range reporting may well have inflated their reported number to be greater than what they actually released. But there's no way to know without asking them.

Update (12/12/2008): The facility says that the level of hexavalent chromium in the chromium they use is very low, so I'd think that this means there's no reason for undue concern. Their reply was:

We produce various ceramic powders used by our customers in coating applications.  One of our products is trivalent chromium oxide used in wear resistance applications.  This chromium product contains well over 99% trivalent chromium oxide.  We have tested for hexavalent chromium oxide and the concentration tends to be around 50ppm in our product.  As stated in the USA Today website that you reference “Chromium 3 (trivalent) is an essential nutrient and helps the body process proteins, sugars, and fats.”

We believe that the emission values that you reference are a conservative estimate and the actual values are likely much less. The trivalenet chromium is present as a small particle like dust. We process our internal process air through “dust collectors” that are designed to remove 99.99% of the dust in the air. This treated air is then vented back into the building. We also utilize a plant wide central vacuum system for cleaning floors and equipment to minimize dust generation during cleaning. Therefore any trivalent chromium emissions are simply any minimal dust that may escape through open doors.  As you can imagine the actual number would be difficult to measure, but we feel that the actual number is closer to 11 lbs than to 499 lbs per year.

My reply was:

Thank you for your reply. The RSEI model used to estimate the risk from your facility's chromium emissions assumes that air emissions of chromium are particulates, as is the case for your facility, but it also assumes, based on industry averages, that the percentage of hexavalent chromium in the chromium released would be 34%. An actual hexavalent chromium percentage of 1% (to round up) would then reduce the estimated risk to 1/34 of the original calculation. That would lower the concern about emissions from your facility to the point where the Montessori school, and other schools in Northampton, would no longer score high on a nationwide or statewide comparison of the kind used in the USA Today report.

I should mention, however, that as far as I know, TRI estimates of releases are supposed to be made for the amount leaving the facility, not the amount "released" internally and then recollected before it reaches the outside. It's good to know that you have processes in place to reduce emissions, but the 11-499 pound estimate is presumably your estimate for the amount released to the air after your emission-control equipment has worked, not before.

I encourage you to develop a better estimate of how much chromium is actually released, sufficient for you to report to TRI with your best estimate in pounds rather than as a range. Until that is done, the public can only assume that 250 pounds is the best guess, which leads to more concern about your facility than is warranted if the true number is actually much lower. Hexavalent chromium is by far the primary concern for air emissions, but there are some environmental processes that can change trivalent to hexavalent chromium under some conditions, so it's still of interest to people to know how much is being released.

And that is that. Really what is needed is some way to change TRI reporting to discourage this kind of report from happening -- reporting chromium speciation would be good (people already report dioxin speciation to TRI, so it can be done), and there might be a category of highly toxic chemicals that range reporting is not used for, or at least warned about. I'm going to take this up with EPA once the new administration is in place.
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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Toxic air and America's schools

There's an excellent report by USA Today that uses EPA reported pollution data and air modeling to estimate air quality at schools nationwide. It has a good database-backed Web site, too, that lets you look up your school, the schools with the worst air quality from those sources in your state, and so on.

I was involved very tangentially in this project -- I helped to work on data for PERI that USA Today used. I'm impressed by what USA Today did with it; it's better than the usual environmental toxics story. What PERI did was a bit complicated to explain, but I'll make the attempt -- there's a database, TRI, in which large industrial sources report their toxic pollution. A project within EPA, RSEI, takes the reported pounds of air pollution from each facility and runs an air model to see where the chemicals are going, geographically. They can then use Census data to see how many people live in each area affected by the pollution. They add all of this up into an overall risk screening score for each facility. PERI realized that these data could be obtained for each location on the ground, instead of being all added up to a single score for each facility. That lets you find the contribution of each polluter to a particular place where people live. (Or, in this case, where a school is.)

I only wish that I had the resources that USA Today does; their database-backed Web site is significantly more polished and user-friendly than I can generally make mine in the time that I have available to work on them. Learning how to embed databases into Google Maps is something I'm going to have to pick up. But there is one map graphic they created that I particularly wanted to call attention to: this -- or as a screenshot rather than an interactive map, so that I can show it here, the map below.

Compare this with the map of electric power generation by fuel source that I copied from eGRID for this earlier post. Or, for that matter, compare it with Joel Garreau's division of North America into "nine nations":

Industrial pollution near schools seems to be heavily concentrated in the areas of the country that Garreau refers to as Dixie and the Foundry. That's surprising, in some ways. Other places such as California certainly have industrial pollution too, but perhaps it's more spread out, or further away from city centers. Of course, this particular pollution map doesn't include non-point sources such as cars -- Los Angeles' smog problem gives it much worse overall air quality throughout its region than the vast majority of point-source-polluted sites. And this map doesn't include all sorts of other sources. But it's an example of how pollution is largely affected by regional patterns of development. If you were mapping environmental damage from mining waste, you'd get a different region of the U.S. highlighted -- national solutions to these problems often come down to regional politics.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Deciding right now

"The incoming administration is deciding right now how ambitious they can be on climate and energy policy."

That's the first line in a mass Email sent out by Repower America (a good organization that you should sign up as a supporter of if you're in the U.S.). That's pretty much what I'd expected. Somewhere in the background some transition team plus Congressional staff is putting together what may become policy for the next few years. It's probably going to be cap-and-trade, since that's what Obama has said. That's highly preferable to nothing, but it's not really an infrastructure-replacement plan (like Repower America's). The acid rain program has cap-and-trade, and they have for their latest year of data 40% more pollution permits than they have pollution. In other words, the program is currently doing nothing -- people put better scrubbers on their electric power plants because of Clean Air Act requirements, easily reduced their pollution to below what the cap requires, and the neoliberal trading scheme is just sitting there, giving people a nice glow of faith in the market or something.

I'll be posting more on eGRID soon. Going through a database is a lot like work.