John Tully


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

Cover Interview of April 17, 2011


When a friend read the manuscript of the book, she commented that she would never again look at rubber the same way.  In fact, like most people, she’d never paid it much attention, except perhaps when she suffered a punctured automobile tire.  I hope that the book will have a similar effect on other readers.

Rubber is something we cannot do without.  The average automobile contains hundreds of rubber parts in addition to the tires.  The electric age would have been unthinkable without it.  Airplanes rely on rubber.  Rubber has proven invaluable in the form of the condom in the fight against the AIDS pandemic.  In short, our society would soon grind to a halt without rubber.

The story of rubber is also, for better and worse, inextricably bound up with the history of modernity.  Rubber was only brought to Europe following the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New World.

Writing The Devil’s Milk also underlined for me the interconnectedness of everything in the world.  It is no accident that the big rubber companies were among the world’s first transnational corporations. The story of rubber is thus an international story and it follows that the solutions to the problems exemplified by rubber can only be resolved at the level of international action.

The Devil’s Milk, I think, has significance because I have approached rubber from the standpoint enunciated by Vicki Baum.  Rubber is an endlessly fascinating substance, but the history of what it has done to human beings in forests, plantations and factories is more fascinating still.

My approach follows Marx’s analysis of commodities as things with a dual nature.  Like Marx, too, I like to think that progress towards a more humane and rational use of that commodity can come from that contradiction.  The very first bill signed into law by the incoming US President Barack Obama resulted from a long campaign waged by a retired rubber worker.

© 2011 John Tully