Why We (Still) Can’t Live Without Rubber

As global car sales soar, the demand for tires is transforming Southeast Asia’s landscape. New plantations of rubber trees are lifting some out of poverty—but may also spark an ecological disaster.

Sometimes you just want to spend a few hours washing your truck. It’s a beautiful day, all of northern Thailand vibrant in the spring sun, so you drive your new Isuzu into the stream that runs through your village, Tung Nha Noi. Cows and people walk by as you stand in the water, a 21-year-old guy with a hot ride, sponging it so clean that the vehicle gleams like hope in the sun.

Not so long ago the chances that someone like Piyawot Anurakbranpot—“Chin” to his friends—would have a fancy truck at such a young age would have been close to zero. People in remote villages like Tung Nha Noi didn’t have the money. But recently families like Chin’s have become much more prosperous. The reason is visible in the hills behind him. Ten years ago they were covered with dense tropical forest—a profuse tangle of native vegetation. Now most of the slopes have been shaved as clean as a drill instructor’s chin and replanted with a single species: Hevea brasiliensis, the Pará rubber tree. Night after night, Chin’s family and tens of thousands of others in Southeast Asia go into plantations and tap their rubber trees, maple-syrup style. Thick white latex drips into buckets. The goo is coagulated into solids that are pressed into sheets and transported to factories, where they are processed into O-rings, belts, gaskets, insulation, and tires—lots and lots of tires. About three-quarters of the world’s rubber harvest goes to make automobile, truck, and airplane tires—almost two billion a year.

Because rubber is so common, so unobtrusive, so dull, it may not seem worth a second glance. This would be a mistake. Rubber has played a largely hidden role in global political and environmental history for more than 150 years. You say you want an industrial revolution? If so, you need three raw materials: iron, to make steel for machinery; fossil fuels, to power that machinery; and rubber, to connect and protect all the moving parts. Try running an automobile without a fan belt or a radiator hose; very bad things will happen within a minute. Want to send coolant around an engine using a rigid metal tube instead of a flexible rubber hose? Good luck keeping it from vibrating to pieces. Having enough steel and coal to make and drive industrial machinery means nothing if the engines fry because you can’t cool them.

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