In 1927, Henry Ford purchased 5,000 square miles of Brazilian rainforest, ostensibly to found a rubber plantation. But his motives were grander than that: the industrialist-philosopher conceived of "Fordlandia" as an oasis of civilisation in the jungle, a model city underpinned by his puritan values. It was, perhaps inevitably, a catastrophe – the community was riven by social unrest, the rubber trees ravaged by insects and disease – and abandoned in 1945.
Greg Grandin's study is strikingly well-written, and full of fascinating anecdotes that evoke the futility of Ford's enterprise. The centrepiece is a chapter in which a company manager pursues two errant employees upriver into the wilderness: it's a story that could sustain a whole book of its own, echoing Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo.
The author never overstates the symbolic significance of Fordlandia, however. This story could have been reduced to a parable of how brute nature will inevitably foil humanity's efforts to subdue it. But as Grandin states, this would ignore the fact that the Amazon is increasingly fragile, threatened by a deforestation that makes Ford's project seem relatively benign.