John Tully


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

Cover Interview of April 17, 2011

A close-up

Few people today except dentists will have heard of gutta-percha, but one hundred years ago it was a household word.  A close cousin of rubber extracted from wild trees in Southeast Asia, gutta-percha was used for a bewildering variety of industrial and domestic uses.  Gutta-percha was used for the soles and heels of shoes, roofing tiles, ear trumpets, and dental fillings (the latter one of its remaining uses today).

Gutta-percha was an example of a crucial ingredient of a high-tech industry dependent on a primitive “mode of extraction.”  If rubber is natural “gum elastic,” then gutta-percha is “gum inelastic”: it won’t bounce and it’s hard at normal temperatures.  However, it is eminently pliable when softened in hot water.

The Malays used gutta-percha for knife handles, whips and so forth, but it took industrial capitalism to realize its amazing potential.  Gutta-percha is a better insulator than rubber and it is watertight.  For this reason it was used to insulate the hundreds of thousands of miles of undersea telegraphic cables in the 19th century world: cables which were essential for European control of the far flung colonial empires.

Curiously, gutta-percha was only found in the Asian colonies; the Dutch Indies and Malaya in particular. My chapter discusses all of these matters but also focuses on the enormous ecological cost of the extraction of gutta-percha.  Obtained by primitive and wasteful means from the taban tree in tropical rain forests, its extraction involved killing the trees; all for a couple of pounds of gum.

The industry was so voracious and wasteful and millions upon millions of trees were destroyed and supplies began to dry up.  Eventually, methods were devised to extract the gum from plantation trees and in time gutta-percha was supplanted by plastics.

The fate of the taban trees was a harbinger of the wholesale assault on tropical rainforests today and is a paradigm of the distorted relationship between Man and Nature.  Arguably, until such time as humans cease to regard themselves as conquerors standing outside of Nature, we will be condemned to repeat such errors.  This exemplifies the ecological aspects of commodity production mentioned earlier.