Date:  July 7

Tonight our topic is the dream world of social and technological Utopias, and our guest is Greg Grandin, Professor of Latin American History at New York University. We’ll be talking with him about his book Fordlandia, describing efforts of Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company to establish a rubber plantation in Brazil.  For Henry Ford, however, this was more than a business venture, as he attempted to export his vision of a utopian midwestern life, architecture, social structure, and work ethic to Brazil. We’ll give you a hint: Henry Ford’s utopia didn’t turn out so well, and historian Greg Grandin will help us understand why.

Utopian Visions: Fiction and World News

The title of our program is taken from Ernest Callender’s 1973 utopian novel describing his version of an ideal society that forms after northern California, Oregon, and Washington secede from the Union to form a more perfect union.

Humankind has liked to write about Utopias for a long period of time.  Plato’s REPUBLIC was one effort to design a perfect society, as was Sir Thomas More’s 1516 genre-naming UTOPIA, about a perfect society created on a Greek Island, as is Ursula LeGuin’s ALWAYS COME HOME, a 1985 novel about a fictional Kesh people living in Northern California.

And there have been and continue to be real-world social communities that function following a particular set of ideas or ideals, including Robert Owen’s “harmonist” society in New Harmony Indiana (1825), the Emersonian transcendental Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841), the Shaker Oneida Community (1848), up to the Branch Davidians in Waco Texas. These have obviously had varying ratios of success and failure, but the impulse to start a society afresh, with new ground rules, no baggage, and a hopeful future persists.

As our guest, Greg Grandin notes, Henry Ford had very clear notions about what was right and wrong with society and made a number of efforts to implement his utopian visions in the U.S. as well as Brazil.

And as Grandin notes, Henry Ford’s efforts at technological and social perfection were not always well received including in his own time. Writing in 1932, Aldous Huxley had little use for Ford’s mass production techniques and thought they would homogenize society. In his novel, BRAVE NEW WORLD,  Ford’s ideas turn to a nightmarish dystopia.   (Note in the that the diety here is called “Our Ford.”)

The Director [of the CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE]  and his students stood for a short time watching a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Twenty children were grouped in a circle round a chrome steel tower. A ball thrown up so as to land on the platform at the top of the tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one or other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught.

“Strange,” mused the Director, as they turned away, “strange to think that even in Our Ford’s day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting. imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption.

Aldous Huxley’s distopian vision the world of “Our Ford” continues. Inside the LONDON CENTRAL HATCHERY, the Director tells his students about the process of Bokanovskification, which leads to the creation of Henry Ford-style assembly-line babies.

“One egg, one embryo, one adult-normality. But a bokanovskified egg will bud, will proliferate, will divide. From eight to ninety-six buds, and every bud will grow into a perfectly formed embryo, and every embryo into a full-sized adult. Making ninety-six human beings grow where only one grew before. Progress. […]  Identical twins–but not in piddling twos and threes as in the old viviparous days [… Imagine:]  Ninety-six identical twins [growing up to work] ninety-six identical machines!” The [Director’s] voice was almost tremulous with enthusiasm. […] He quoted the planetary motto. “Community, Identity, Stability.” Grand words. “If we could bokanovskify indefinitely the whole problem would be solved.”

Utopias do not, of course, have to be set up as isolated communities. They are possible—or at least conceivable—working within the friendly confines and resources of our existing society. Two news stories from the past week illustrate this point.

From the United Kingdom Guardian comes an op-ed by Alan Walker, professor of social policy and social gerontology at the University of Sheffield. Walker claims that “A golden age of aging is no utopian dream”:

As the baby boomer generation matures, a well-chosen ageing policy would improve the education, health and wealth of society as a whole. […] There are now more people aged 65 and over in the UK than children under 16 which has never occurred before. Social change of this type and magnitude is difficult to comprehend, particularly because it is continuous rather than sudden.[…] We need to foster a new idea of old age, as a time of opportunities, and to replace its current, largely passive, dependent and discriminatory associations.

[In Alan Walker’s Utopia, older] people would have a choice about key aspects of their lives, which only a minority enjoy at present, such as retirement and full- or part-time working. The stigma of being an older jobseeker would be removed and a range of part-work part-pension options become available. Preventative health measures in employment would increase the job prospects and proportion of older workers.

A social pension would remove the risk of poverty, while individual pension savings would still afford higher levels of comfort. Advanced old age services would be individually customised and be available in people’s homes. A range of housing options would maximise independence and interdependence within the family and lifelong communities.

As we consider utopian thinking on this edition of Ecotopia, we have this report  from The Australian by Rowan Callick about a “Project Utopia” that will bring together visions of the world through art. He reports:

Australia and Japan are developing together a Utopia Project that would present an arts Olympics every two years in an Asia-Pacific centre. They have enlisted the potential support of eight other countries in planning to stage non-competitive arts shows that would include artists, works and performances from across the region. The project would involve exhibitions, workshops and educational presentations, and would move to a different city each time in order to share the costs and the impact.

Alison Carroll, the arts director at Asialink, which is promoting the project, says: […] “This trend of collaboration in our region is accelerating now. The structures are growing stronger all the time, in education and the arts. Unless we’re proactive, we’ll miss the boat because even now, we are not always viewed as part of the region. So we have to demonstrate our commitment.” […]

“Arts are a great way for countries to scrape away preconceptions and present what’s really happening today. And we too in Australia tend to have an old-fashioned view of Asia and culture.

“We seem to think that contemporary art only happens in New York or Venice, but it’s happening all around us. That’s a shame, because in some respects we know more about Asia than any other Western country does. If we don’t take advantage of that, it’s our loss.”,25197,25736386-16947,00.html

Our Questions for Greg Grandin

Our guest on this edition of Ecotopia is Greg Grandin, professor of Latin American history at New York University and author of a new book called Fordlandia. It describes a community or “factory town” created in Brazil in the 1920s by Henry Ford, ostensibly as a rubber plantation, but also as a means of exporting of some of Henry Ford’s ideas about his views of the American Way of Life.  Welcome Greg.

  • Your subtitle is: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten City. Please tell us a little of the background story. What was Fordlandia?  How did Henry Ford come to create it?
  • What happened in the early years at Fordlandia? What were some of the obstacles that the Ford employees encountered (and created) when they brought Dearborn, Michigan to the Amazon?
  • Henry Ford had some very clear (if sometimes apparently contradictory) social theories—he is legendary for imposing his values on his employees through threat as well as example. What values did he try to bring to Fordlandia?
  • Your book has photographs of Cape Code-style houses in Fordlandia (and its sibling Belterra) showing neat rows of bungalows And you have a pair of photos showing virtually identical Ford-built Cape Cod houses in Alberta, Michigan and  in Brazil. What does this tell us about Ford and his attitudes?
  • Please tell us about the factory whistle at Fordlandia and what it represented. And the time clocks, which the workers came to destroy in the riot of 1930. (Why did they riot?)
  • You have visited Fordlandia. What does it look like today?
  • You’ve also talked to both Brazilians and Americans who worked at Fordlandia. What did you learn from them?
  • You detail many reasons for the failure of Fordlandia, but most prominent among them seems to be not so much the imposition of Ford’s social model as his attempt to farm rubber trees on an kind of factory farming model. Please explain what happened. Aren’t rubber trees native to Brazil in the first place?
  • You offer some insights into Henry Ford’s oft-cited but seldom explained, “History is bunk.” Why wasn’t Ford interested in history?  Do you suppose he would put your book in the “bunk” category?
  • There are many “morals” or “lessons” to be learned from the Fordlandia experiment? At the risk of asking you to oversimplify, please tell us a few of the conclusions you’ve drawn about the implications of Fordlandia. What can we learn from it?
  • In the Epilogue, you also offer some comments on current ecological and social problems in Brazil and add that in comparision, “Henry Ford’s vision of an Emersonian arcadia rising from the jungle canopy, though preposterous, now seems relatively benign.” Please explain.
  • Our program title, Ecotopia, is taken from Ernest Callender’s utopian sci fi novel about a utopian nation established in the Pacific northwest. And the US has a long history of utopian experiments (as well as company towns). Stepping outside your role as historian, what do you think of the dream of planned communities that might solve some our pressing economic and social problems (including, perhaps Obama Nation)?
  • What’s your next book?

Thank you Greg Grandin, Professor of Latin American History at NYU. Greg is author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten City, published by Metropolitan Books, a division of Henry Holt and Company.

Do-It-Yourself Utopianism

We come now to the do-it-yourself part of the program, and we want to give you a few down-to-earth utopian ideas about the concept of “permaculture,” a term generally popularized by  David Holmgren of Australia.

In his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Homgren has developed a set of principles about sustainable community living. Here are those principles as practiced by Heathcote, an intentional community living on about 100 acres in Freeland, Maryland.

The people at Heathcote say that “Permaculture principles are derived from observing nature. […] The[se principles] are things we see happening in natural ecosystems that we want to copy. We observe nature and try to mimic what it does. They have seven principles:

Conservation – Use only what is needed.

Stacking functions – In permaculture we speak about getting many yields (outputs) from one element (thing) in your system.

Repeating functions – We meet every need in multiple ways.

Reciprocity – Utilize the yields of each element to meet the needs of other elements in the system.

Appropriate scale – What we design should be on a human scale and doable with the available time, skills, and money that we have

Diversity – [creating] resilience by utilizing many elements.

Give away the surplus – Create systems that are abundant and share the abundance rather than hoarding it for ourselves.

Of course, you can also see many of these principles in operation in the Northstate. For example, we have the Gardners’ Swap meet, which takes place tomorrow evening, 6-8 pm at the Peace and Justice Center and at other times and locations around town. Utopia and Permaculture are not that far away.

The people at Heathcote have two (only)  wonderful activities for you to practice:

1. Think of something in your life that illustrates each of the seven principles.

2. If you can’t think of something you are already doing that illustrates each principle, think of something you could do.

Playlist for Ecotopia #40: Utopia and Fordlandia

1. Working On A Dream     3:30    Bruce Springsteen  Working On A Dream

2. Utopia        4:58    Alanis Morissette  Under Rug Swept

3. riding to utopia     4:04    Lillian  Van Der Bascule

4. Utopia        6:23    Collide  Two Headed Monster

5. Love Is the Answer          4:18    Utopia  Oops! Wrong Planet

6. Weave Me the Sunshine           4:28    Peter, Paul And Mary          The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

7. A Place Called Home     3:43    PJ Harvey  Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea