On a Utopia

The word utopia literally means “not place” or “nowhere” for a reason. Utopias sound great but are not practical, cannot exist, and usually fail because people are people. The perfect place cannot survive if it is controlled or inhabited by imperfect people. Thus, all utopias fail.

Take the story of a town that was built and promoted as a utopia in the jungle of Brazil in the 1920s. This place was set up to provide jobs, housing, food, healthcare, and education for a population of 10,000 Brazilians. The workers in the factories even had their meals provided in large cafeterias. The homes and workplaces were all prefabricated. Everything was to be provided for the people who lived and worked there. The town eventually boasted a golf course, a swimming pool, a large public library, and a first-rate hospital. It sounded too good to be true to the Brazilians who signed up to move there. And, as we all know, if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

For example, the town was designed to provide for everything except what people at that time would call vices. Drinking, smoking, sex outside of marriage, and even the playing of soccer were all forbidden. The town’s police enforced these bans by conducting random raids on people’s homes to insure compliance. So, because these things are part of human nature, a separate place outside of the town was surreptitiously set up to provide a place the residents could safely “debauch” themselves and pursue these distractions. The tension between the town’s managers and the people who engaged in these activities were only part of the issues the utopia faced. For example, all residents were required to wear ID badges, and, as you can imagine, the people hated this concept.

Another issue pertained to the food provided to the inhabitants. You see, the town was set up by Americans, and, sadly, they did not take the traditions and food tastes of the Brazilians into account when they decided what the town’s diet should be. So, the American managers provided American food to the Brazilians with predictable results. At the workers’ cafeterias, American hamburgers were standard fare–a food the Brazilians found distasteful. In the company stores, canned goods lined the shelves, but the managers did not realize that the Brazilians did not know much about canned foods and did not trust food they could not see for themselves.

Interestingly, it was the food that provided the breaking point for this utopia. A revolt broke out among the town’s inhabitants because they hated having to eat these American foods. The people rioted and chased the town’s American managers out of the area. The Brazilian government did not do much to put down the revolt. Soon, it became apparent that the situation was not tenable anymore, that the Americans behind the project should cut their losses and abandon the project.

And so, they did.

Aldous Huxley, in creating his masterpiece, Brave New World, is said to have based his fictional utopia on this specific utopian failure. It’s easy to see the comparison. The town was built to harvest and produce rubber for the burgeoning American automobile industry. However, by the 1930s, synthetic rubber was replacing natural rubber, and the need for the raw rubber produced by the town was going away. So, it made sense to stop financing what was obviously a futile and failed experiment. The main financial backer of the venture was perhaps the most famous of the American automobile manufacturers. He realized the folly of continuing to pour money into this fiasco of a utopia.

He’s why the town was called Fordlandia.


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