Gregg Mitman on Firestone’s Rubber Empire in Liberia

Empire of Rubber

If you’ve left the house recently—and let’s be honest, most of us aren’t going many places these days—but if you have, you’ve most likely come into contact with this natural resource. No, I’m not talking about sunlight, which we could all use a bit more of. Rather, I’m talking about rubber. It’s a critical material used in countless products, from car tires to shoes and even personal protective equipment, yea those masks that have become almost another appendage, the vast majority use rubber straps. During the pandemic, various media outlets began reporting a massive rubber shortage due, in part, to a combination of factors related to climate change, Covid, disease, and supply chain issues. One expert went so far as to claim “we could be on the cusp of a rubber apocalypse.”[1] As if we needed more things to worry about right now. Part of the conversation has revolved around the United States’ dependence on global markets, most notably Asia, which today supplies 90% of the world’s natural rubber.

The discourse is reminiscent of that of U.S. car and tire manufacturers over a century ago, most notably Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. In this episode, historian and filmmaker Gregg Mitman takes listeners on a journey through Firestone’s quest to secure a reliable source of natural rubber for the U.S.. Thwarted in his efforts to grow in the U.S.-occupied Philippines, Firestone turned his attention to the West African nation of Liberia to launch the Firestone Plantation Company in the mid-1920s. By the 1940s, Firestone had become the largest employer in Liberia and rubber accounted for 90% of Libera’s exports. What follows is a tale of land expropriation, medical racism, and corporate power that stretches from the 1920s to the 2020s.

Check out the episode here!

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and teacher, whose work includes his most recent book, Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power in Liberia, and The Land Beneath Our Feet, a documentary on history, memory, and land rights in Liberia.


[1] Katrina Cornish quoted in Andrea Miller, “What the impending rubber ‘apocalypse’ means for the U.S. economy,” CNBC.com, July 9, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/09/what-the-impending-rubber-apocalypse-means-for-the-us-economy.html.

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