John Tully

 

On his book The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber

Cover Interview of April 18, 2011

In a nutshell

I was somewhat disconcerted to learn, while researching for The Devil’s Milk, that another author had recently published another book about rubber.  The question arose: would I just be duplicating what he had done? It sure gave me some sleepless nights!  However, once I starting reading the other book, that is John Loadman’s Tears of the Tree, it became pretty clear that I had something else in mind.

My idea was to write a history of a commodity, rather than of a substance.  To be sure, rubber is a remarkable substance.  It is the only material in nature which will bounce back almost to the height from which it was dropped and which will return to its original shape when stretched or squeezed.  These properties, among others, have made it absolutely essential for the modern industrial world.

Paul W. Litchfield, a former president of Goodyear Tire & Rubber, illustrated its importance well when he said, think of industry as a living thing, the skeleton of which is steel and cement, the arterial system of which carries oil, and the muscles and sinews of which are composed of rubber.

There can be no denying rubber’s incredible utility value. However, while I don’t gloss over these matters, my purpose was to dig underneath the surface of this apparently mundane substance.  I go to the buried world of social relations that lie behind the extraction, manufacture, and use of rubber.

It isn’t a pretty story, this history of a Janus-faced commodity, which has been both a blessing and a curse for humanity.  Walter Benjamin once wrote that behind every great invention lies great barbarism. Vulcanized rubber is of course an invention, and its history bears out Benjamin’s observation.  Nor has the barbarism—social and ecological—stopped: the rubber factories which once sprang up in America and Europe now sprout like Dickensian weeds in the Third World.

So, in a way, The Devil’s Milk is a history of modernity, of industrial capitalism and imperialism, by way of a case study of the history of a crucial commodity.