Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview

16
PLANET U.S.A.

In 1925, automobiles rolled off the Ford Motor Company's Highland Park assembly line, outside of Detroit, at the rapid-fire pace of one every 10 seconds. Without rubber for tires, not one of them was going anywhere. The demand for rubber skyrocketed in the 1920s, the product of increasing numbers of cars and the Goodyear company's introduction of the balloon tire, an innovation that offered Americans a more comfortable ride at the cost of 30 percent more rubber than the high-pressure tires used earlier. U.S. automakers faced just one problem: Southeast Asian plantations, controlled by the British and Dutch, had virtually cornered the rubber market.

In 1927, Henry Ford set out to break the Asia rubber monopoly by purchasing, for a miniscule sum, rights to land greater than the size of the state of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. Rubber had long been grown here; indeed, the Hevea species first evolved in this region before Europeans commandeered it for use on their Asian plantations. Ford and his associates named the massive new rubber plantation—what else?—Fordlandia. Workers set to work building roads, railroads, a port, schools, churches, tennis courts, even a golf course sculpted right into the middle of the jungle. By 1929, nearly 1,500 acres of rainforest had been cleared and planted with rubber trees. Trouble, however, broke out almost immediately. Malaria, yellow fever, hookworm, and labor riots plagued the Ford complex. The most serious threat came from leaf blight, a fungal menace that the rubber trees had once adapted to by growing in a scattered fashion across the forest floor. But the imperatives of capitalist production demanded the concentration of rubber trees, allowing laborers to tap the latex without having to travel much as they went from tree to tree. Five years into the project leaf blight traumatized Fordlandia. Ford and his associates moved to a new site, but again things went wrong. Drought struck in 1938 and in 1942 swarms of caterpillars descended on the trees. In 1945, Ford, a legend in American business history, bailed out of the project, stopped in his tracks by bugs and fungi. 1

Ford failed in his foray into the Amazon. But for every such disaster there were hundreds of success stories, projects that together have transformed the ecology of the planet. It seems safe to say that when it comes to global ecological change no country has had more far-reaching impact than the United States. Yet as Ford's travails suggest, there was nothing predestined about the success of American companies abroad. It was the product of a set of conditions that crystallized in the aftermath of World War II, a massive global economic restructuring that created an environment extremely congenial to U.S. companies wishing to do business overseas.

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