Burning out and burning up: lessons in sustainable management from Henry Ford’s mad utopia

The way many businesses treat their workers echoes the way we trash the planet. Time to rethink the outdated management approach common to both.

Deep in the Amazon rainforest, nearly 200 miles south of the Brazilian city of Santarem, lies abandoned one of the strangest chapters in the history of the American dream. Visitors to the area today, after making the long journey down the Tapajos river, would know they had arrived by the sight of a Michigan water tower peering through the jungle canopy. That classic image of 1920s Americana stands watch, like a long-legged UFO, above a town that a century ago heralded the future. Only that future never arrived; and today, only ruins remain. This should be remembered as one of the great cautionary tales of 20th-century management, and yet few have ever heard of it. This is Fordlandia.

Fitzcarraldo Fordism

Henry Ford was many things, but today he is chiefly remembered as the father of modern industrial manufacturing. The Model-T, and the assembly lines that built it, created the template for the mass production of consumer goods. It also heralded the first great wave of scientific management, through which leadership became a game of standardisation, systematisation, and relentless efficiency.

Less well-known is the story of Ford’s ill-fated attempt to build a utopia of control in the heart of the Amazon. In the 1920s, frustrated by his firm’s dependence upon the British-dominated rubber market, Ford bought 2.5 million acres of jungle from the Brazilian government, upon which he began the construction of a perfectly planned industrial town. Rubber plantations, warehouses, housing for workers, schools, and hospitals, and even a golf course – all arranged for maximum efficiency and production. With the promise of high wages, locals signed up to live and work there; and as the merchant ships arrived (bearing the water tower, alongside everything else) construction began.

What looked perfect on paper, back in Detroit, soon unravelled in the face of local realities. Ford’s managers, who looked at the environment through the same eyes with which they designed car factories, planted rubber trees in tight ordered plantations – which made them horribly vulnerable to disease and pests. Malaria and yellow fever began to take their toll on the workforce, who naturally resented being made to work through the midday heat (when the trees were also least productive) by foreigners with no interest in more effective traditional methods. Management even imposed Ford’s strict personal morality – banning alcohol, tobacco, and even football inside workers’ prefab American houses.

Finally, the local Brazilians had had enough. The cafeteria – which served up an alien cuisine of hamburgers and imported American canned food, of course – became the scene of a revolt by the locals, and Ford’s middlemen were forced to flee into the jungle. The army was called in and repression was restored, but the damage was done. By 1934 the project was abandoned and finally sold back to the local government at a huge loss. Fordlandia had failed, as it was always going to.

Burning out and burning up

This misadventure in western management has been on my mind ever since I spoke to Professor Dan Cable for an episode of Conversations on Climate. Dan is funny and honest – a great combination in a guest – and also happens to be a world expert in the subject of motivation and purpose. His book Alive at Work is a cracking read, and I really recommend it to anyone who wants to help get the best out of their colleagues.

During our conversation, I asked Dan what he saw as the link between the way we manage people and the way we manage the planet, in light of the problems he identifies with traditional leadership.

The first thing he said: ‘It’s about burnout.’

The second: is that Henry Ford was ‘kind of a jerk.’

‘That system of industrial management – where we invented management, in a way – started with the assumption that people are expendable,’ Dan explained. In other words, people (or human resources) are commodifiable, standardisable units of production. That is the logic of the assembly line, and it works by applying ever tighter control from the top by motivating the fear centres of the human brain.

This Fordist model, Dan explained, had its uses. But today it has simply gone too far. ‘Along the way we hijacked a system, and allowed the metrics of the system to create its own logic. We allowed ourselves to become slaves to it.’ The result is a world of burned-out employees, ground down in the pursuit of ever more efficient profit-making systems.

When we think about sustainability, we must include the human element. If people feel more alive at work – if they are less stressed, able to be their individual selves, and follow their ‘seeking systems’ to innovate and find creative solutions to the problems we face – then they are much more likely to look after the planet too.

Two rivers, one source

Dan’s right about that, but I also think he’s hit on something deeper still – and the story of Fordlandia illustrates it perfectly. The same ideas that have created the modern epidemic of burnout are also partly responsible for our burning planet.

  • This system treats humans and the natural world alike as commodities, in which each is the same as any other. A worker is a worker; a forest is a forest.
  • The truth is found in abstract quantification of people and places from a distance, rather than in embedded knowing of their individual natures.
  • This system looks upon the labour force, and the land, only as a source of endlessly exploitable resources, logically organised for maximum extraction.
  • Once the productive capacity of that place or person is exhausted, it is discarded without any sense of responsibility for its future condition. All are expendable.
  • Standardised patterns of control that have worked in one location should be copied and repeated everywhere, regardless of local conditions. It is a colonial mindset.
  • If an output can be attained once, it can be attained always. Any sign of strain or slowing in the system means that something is no longer working hard enough, and should be met with a renewal of ever-tighter top-down control.

This worked for a time. In the early 20th century technological change was slower, there was more slack in the system, labour was more organised and the natural world still had buffers and sinks to absorb the strain. Today, we are long past the point at which it is sustainable, on a human or planetary level. Mental health epidemics, strikes, low labour force participation, mass extinction, zoonotic epidemics, and climate chaos are the result.

Rescuing ourselves from Fordlandia

Fortunately, we have plenty of other models for creating healthy relationships with each other and with the planet, and brilliant people like Professor Dan Cable are working hard to get these new ways of thinking out into the collective conversation. Creating management systems that look to help people and places flourish according to their individual strengths – rather than enforce standardisation – is one part of it. Bringing decision-making to more local levels is another, as this is the scale where people have the greatest stake in maintaining healthy communities and environments for the long run. Dan is also a big believer in the power of creativity and motivating people according through natural curiosity rather than fear.

There is probably a place for the old model of industrial management to help face the climate crisis. For example, we know of some technologies (such as solar panels) that we are going to want to produce in huge numbers, as quickly and cheaply as possible. The lessons of Fordism may serve us well in this phase of the decarbonisation journey. That said, the reality is that facing climate change largely means doing things differently, rather than squeezing out ever more of the same.

We must also recognise that we can’t separate how we manage people and how we manage nature. Trying to combat climate change by working people into the ground will eventually fail, as firms break down under the weight. Fearful people can’t invent a hopeful future. Conversely, we can’t fix burnout without dealing with climate change – because a lot of the disillusionment in modern workforces is subconsciously related to an awareness that much of modern work is purposeless at best, and downright destructive at worst. And without healthy food, air, and space, the conditions for healthy labour don’t exist anyway.

At heart, the twin problems of burnout and burnup are consequences of disconnection. It won’t surprise you to hear that Henry Ford never once visited his tropical utopia. Today’s challenge, on the other hand, is to bring economy and ecology back into true relation – with workers as whole people, and places as complex ecosystems, each known to the other in the fullness of their individuality.

To watch all of the episodes in the series go to the Conversations on Climate YouTube channel.


Written by Chris Caldwell CEO of United Renewables, originally published on Linkedin on December 13 2022.


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