Fordlandia / The Rise And Fall Of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City / Greg Grandin

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University. In this book he presents a fascinating account of Henry Ford’s attempt to create a plantation to grow rubber in the Brazilian Amazon. In 1927, Ford bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware where he built a city that became to be known as Fordlandia. It represented an early attempt to tame the jungle by developing an American town, complete with a golf course, ice-cream shops, indoor plumbing, and paved streets.

From its start, this settlement became the site of an epic clash. On the one hand, there was the car magnate who had revolutionized industrial production, armed with a fortune to achieve his dream of applying a system of regimented mass production on an inhospitable landscape. Yet despite his expensive attempt to force his will on the natural world, the Amazon emerged the victor in this particular contest.

While Grandin’s account of the creation of Fordlandia and its surrounding plantation is gripping, so too are the parts of the book that focus on Ford and his life story. Despite his invention of the assembly line, which caused a great urban migration in America, Ford represented a deep strain of midwestern Puritanism that hoped to preserve an earlier time period in American history. While his invention of the assembly line led to the destruction of the world he knew in his childhood, throughout his life Ford wanted to put the genie back into the bottle. As he aged, Ford longed for a return to simpler times.

A complex figure, Ford opposed war and yet used his factories to produce armaments in both World Wars. He was a conservative who was an early Nazi supporter, and while he claimed his workers were content with the wages paid them, he was strongly anti-union and used armed goon squads to keep his employees in line. Late in life, he became even more determined to try to create a utopian society that fit his political beliefs.

As this account shows, truth is often stranger than fiction. Fordlandia is an unforgettable account on one man’s attempt to create an industrial utopia in an inhospitable landscape. Highly readable, Grandin’s book still has sad resonance today as the Amazon continues to face an industry’s relentless onslaught. Ford’s cultural crusade to export the American way of life to the Brazilian jungle in the 1930s might have proved a failure, but the seeds of his exploitation continue to take root to this day. This little known episode highlights the results of one man’s hubris, highlighting how such efforts can unleash ecological forces that no amount of industrial ingenuity can control. It is a book that I highly recommend to anyone interested in the effects of global warming. Ford may have failed in his attempt to create a Brazilian utopia, but the footprints he left were just the first steps of a journey we are still on today.

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