Half-Earth Socialism review

‘Half-Earth Socialism’: Half-Baked or Half a Chance?

In the face of the Anthropocene's accelerating Sixth Extinction, can we follow an eco-socialist paradigm toward a sustainable and even utopian future?

Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics
by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, Verso Books: 2022
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The authors of “Half-Earth Socialism” are visionaries, utopians, and planners. In a short book they marshal an argument for what they argue is a way out of the double-bind of a seemingly inevitable capitalism bent on ecocide versus a myopic Left that is stuck on either centralized authoritarianism or ineffective, decentralized anarchist cooperatives: 

The goals of Half-Earth socialism are simple enough: to prevent the Sixth Extinction, practise ‘natural geoengineering’ to draw down carbon through rewilded ecosystems rather than SRM [solar radiation management], and create a fully renewable energy system. Realizing each of these aims requires large expanses of land, which is why we will see again and again that utopia is threatened by the Earth-eating livestock industry. (Pg. 79)

“Half-Earth Socialism” sets out the importance of and necessity to consciously plan our material, economic lives, as opposed to leaving it all to the invisible hand of the market. The authors also argue that we must accept that nature, or global ecology, is the ultimate mystery that we cannot (and should not try to) master, even though we’ve spent two centuries laboring under the hubristic assumption that science will give us the tools and knowledge to do so. 

[More by this reviewer: “‘Scorched Earth’: Fighting Fire with Fire.”]

The authors are committed vegans, and when you get through most of their book they give away their deep belief that “consumerism is the golden shackle that must be cut to achieve true freedom,” a sentiment that, along with their dogged veganism, belies their rootedness in a very particular fraction of the North American left of the past few decades. Unfortunately, this part of the liberal left relies on a moralism that depends on scolding and shaming shopping and consumerism as the root of our problems. 

This particular fraction of the left has long accepted consumer choice as a key determinant of social change, endorsing the capitalist paradigm that we can “vote” with our dollars, and that the choices we make as individual consumers are the key arena of our political agency. It is so deeply embedded in our neoliberal culture that few even question the idea that through the market we make our mark as individuals. 

But the authors of this book haven’t reconciled their moralism with their anti-neoliberalism. They ground their perspective in the works of an obscure German socialist named Otto Neurath. Neurath was involved in the Bavarian Soviet Republic, the short-lived workers’ revolution at the end of WWI that was mercilessly suppressed by the social-democratic government in Berlin. 

On a deeper level, many “scientific socialists” of the time interpreted Marx’s writings (those that were known at the time) as a foundation for economic development, justifying in “scientific” terms the ongoing development of industry, and its concomitant subjugation of nature. Neurath saw his work as part of this, a scientific utopianism, though he was also critical of the stodgy rigidity of Marxist orthodoxy as it became Marxism-Leninism. 

One of his main contributions at the time was to argue for the incommensurability of ecological “costs” and the different areas of human endeavor. He argued against prices and money and even labor hours as universal measurements of economic well-being, or as a basis for calculating economic rationality. 

This put him in direct conflict with the Austrian economics theorist Ludwig von Mises, who developed anti-socialist arguments in favor of free markets. Von Mises is a direct predecessor of Fredreich Hayek and the rest of the Mt. Pèlerin Society, who were in turn the point of origin during the 1930s for the arguments that became the ideological air we breathe: neoliberalism.  

In “Half-Earth Socialism,” the climate crisis, the Sixth Extinction, and the general collapse of ecological systems worldwide, lead Vettese and Pendergrass back to Neurath’s arguments — that we as humans need to make big plans: We have to do our best to ascertain what is going on, knowing that planetary ecology is far too complex to fully grasp or predict or consciously manipulate. Rather than following the neoliberal doctrine of leaving all economic activity to the impenetrably complex “market,” they advocate for the human capacity to determine our economic lives, but to do so in awareness of the mystery of nature, that we cannot control or dominate or subjugate natural systems except to destroy them.

Given this logic, then, they advocate for E.O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” concept, wherein we begin to withdraw human activity and construction from 50% of the Earth’s surface in order to leave space for all the other species to freely exist, develop and evolve.

But not the half-assed “Half-Earth” of Wilson! This would leave capitalism and most of the world as we know it intact. They are arguing for a thoroughgoing socialist transformation of the globe as the only way to avoid a neo-colonial outcome for the Half-Earth plan. 

They look at other non-solutions being promoted by the wing of capitalism that recognizes the global problems we’re facing. The bioenergy carbon-capture-and-sequestration (BECCS) project, solar radiation management as a form of geoengineering, a new push for nuclear energy as a supposedly clean alternative to fossil fuels, all get taken to the woodshed by our Half-Earth socialists. 

And they do a fine job of it, especially their critique of the baffling re-embrace of nuclear power by so many environmentalists, many of whom presumably cut their teeth in the successful anti-nuclear movements of the 1960-80s.

The nuclear turn in environmental discussions today is bewildering not only as a matter of technology but also of tactics. After all, environmentalists’ pro-nuclear turn is a strange twist for a social movement that largely emerged through its critical engagement with nuclear science. (Pg. 69)

The nuclear question is one of the few issues that not only unites environmentalists with other social movements but is also capable of wide-scale mobilization. Compared to minority interests such as veganism or the Sixth Extinction, anti-nuclear activism is a majority opinion. It routinely wins referendums: Austria 1978, Italy 1987, Italy 2011, Lithuania 2012. (Pg. 85)

This is a refreshing repudiation of the stupidity of this fake “nuclear renaissance” which involves turning a blind eye to all the critiques made decades ago, and no less valid today. Claims of new “safe” small reactors, that the intractable waste problem has been solved, that the need for centralized security apparatus to protect facilities from potential theft or catastrophic sabotage has diminished, all fail at a glance. The real root of this return of nuclear power is that the activists trying to redirect society don’t think they can expect any currently wealthy countries to figure out how to live with substantially less power than they use today.

This is not a problem for the authors of this book. They are so unafraid of advocating for austerity that they actually admit their plan for “Half-Earth socialism” would look a lot like something that happened in the real world not too long ago:

An economic system resembling Half-Earth socialism can actually be found in recent history: Cuba’s Período Especial. In 1990… Cuba had to decarbonize almost overnight… Getting by without petroleum or petroleum-based products (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides) forced the largest and most compressed experiment in organic and urban gardening in history. Eventually there were 26,000 urban gardens in Havana alone, allowing the city to satisfy its own requirements for fresh vegetables. (Pg. 83)

Maybe ask Cubans how they liked that special period? Not too much, by all accounts. While urban gardeners in capitalist nations have been wildly enthusiastic about the Cubans being forced to engage in urban organic farming, I saw little evidence that that enthusiasm was shared widely in Havana during my visit there in 2015.

And why use that example as a positive one? Why not the Victory Gardens of WWII in North America? In San Francisco alone, a small 49-square-mile city, there were around 70,000 victory gardens! At the end of WWII, U.S. residents were getting 45% of their fresh vegetables and fruit from victory gardens. 

There’s little doubt that we could redesign cities to become far more agriculturally self-reliant, if that was our goal. 

And that brings us to what is very useful about this book: the insistence that Otto Neurath’s approach to “in natura” accounting — that is to measure actual goals and outcomes in their qualitative specificity, rather than by reducing them to a monetary price — is part of our path forward. 

Meeting the needs of nature and humanity is fundamentally a material goal, measured in food and carbon molecules, and seeing the world in natural units allows us to directly confront trade-offs without the obfuscation of money… Neurath argued that plans based on labour time were as pseudorational as capitalist profit-seeking, in that both are based on a universal equivalent that obscures more than it clarifies. This is why Neurath portrayed socialist democracy as choosing one among several competing ‘total plans’ devised by the social engineers . . . ultimately [we face] a Neurathian decision with incommensurate ethical, technical, social, and political dimensions. It is a choice that we must consciously make and revise without recourse to any pseudorational universal metric. (Pp. 100-103)

Buried in that quote is the kernel of the main problem with this book’s approach. In embracing “total plans devised by social engineers,” the authors leave themselves wide open to the obvious critique of top-down totalization characteristic of the failed “socialisms” of the 20th century. They go to great lengths to argue for a democratizing process that would allow any citizen to put forth their own blueprints, their own plans — but ultimately the authors are true believers in The Plan, or at least A Plan.

To be sure, the neoliberal rejection of all social planning is simply an obfuscation of the many five-year plans designed and carried out by private corporations on their own behalf. And China is increasingly putting itself forward as the ultimately successful central planning state — which so far has meant an insane acceleration in coal mining and burning, massive increases in emissions and pollution, along with tens of thousands of miles of high-speed rail, a highway system three times larger than the U.S. interstate system, an exploding private car market, and a substantial reduction in absolute poverty. 

More to the point here, the notion that everyone (or even just everyone who is interested) can and should participate in a planning process that through some unknown future deliberative process will produce a shared global agenda of energy austerity, veganism — and an economy that leaves 50% of the planet off-limits — seems frankly nutty.

They reject, largely on ecological grounds, the Left Accelerationist claim that someday we can all live in Fully Automated Luxury Communism and be as wealthy as today’s billionaires. I welcome that, since the “accelerationist” argument against any inherent natural limits is just plain dumb. 

Neurath was prescient in presenting the problem for human society as one of organizing what we do to provide everyone with a decent life in the context of actual physical reality:

… he stressed as a feature of scientific utopias that they describe ‘a world in which men with their faults and foibles can live as happily as is allowed by the natural base, land and sea, raw materials and climate, numbers of people and spirit of invention, culture and will to work’ (“Calculation in kind and marketless socialism: On Otto Neurath’s utopian economics” by Thomas Uebel, The European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 2008.)

The Half-Earth Socialists offer us an updated version of William Morris’s News From Nowhere as their penultimate chapter. If this was supposed to get me excited, I’m afraid it didn’t. 

Soon after “waking” into this world, their William Guest of 2047 finds himself in a Massachusetts settlement that will eventually be dismantled and returned to the wild. In the meantime it’s a thriving ecovillage of communal kitchens, classrooms, scientific laboratories, small factories, farm fields, and more. Quickly taken under the guidance of a local, Guest finds himself in a lab with one of the resident planners who is happy to show him how it works:

‘Once we figure out the plans we’d like to follow,’ she began, ‘the central planners collaborate with mathematicians and worker-representatives to devise a dense group of interlinked differential equations modeling how industry, construction, and agriculture will need to change over time to meet the goals of the global plan.’ … She turned back to the screen. ‘The Half-Earth system model will need to simulate the resource flows required to build thousands of kilometers of track and construct millions of batteries, calculating throughout the impact on environmental systems … ‘We’re always making new blueprints for the future,’ Edith replied. ‘That’s the nature of democracy: permanent dissatisfaction with the present…’ (Pp. 150-151)

Wow! Blueprints and dissatisfaction! What a vision! It’s all quite odd since near the end of their book they argue that planning will ultimately be so successful—on a planet-wide scale no less!—that politics as we know it will just disappear.

The state is still political—conscious control over the economy means the politicization of everything—but once equality is achieved through the universal recognition of each other’s worth and the natural world is stabilized, then statecraft will be reduced to mere administration. It will ‘wither away’ in the sense that politics will eventually be as mundane as devising bus routes. Instead of succumbing to fervid nationalist passions, the international socialist can relate to broader humanity as they were fellow bus passengers. (Pp. 175)

If anyone thinks ‘fervid nationalist passions’ are going to wane because of the enormous satisfaction of recognizing our universal humanity, or that lovers of hamburgers and steaks are going to convert to veganism out of a newly-discovered moral fortitude, they are part of a religious fantasy that I can’t understand. 

I’m left wishing this argument for “Half-Earth Socialism” took a page out of the Luxury Communism playbook and recognized that if you want people to change, you have to offer them something tangibly better than what they have now. The best the Half-Earth socialists can offer sounds like something a Christian back-to-the-land collective might promise its adherents:

A bounty of beauty, safety, and stability will come from the thousands of species that will be protected, the gigatonnes of carbon sequestered, the promise of meaningful work and social security, for Half-Earth socialism will be a rich society too. Even if it means figs and beans for dessert. (Pg. 88)

I share the goals that these authors are arguing for, and am probably more sympathetic to their arguments than most people, and yet this vision sounds so bleak and uninspired that I have a viscerally negative reaction.

I can readily identify with the pleasure I’d derive from knowing that thousands of endangered species were protected, and that the climate was stabilized, and that everyone on Earth would be guaranteed the conditions for a good life. 

But I’m deeply unconvinced by the presentation of it here. Not that I don’t think we’ll have to redistribute wealth, energy, and political power in a radical way, not that I’m against trying our best to plan and bring about the world we want, and not that I think leaving it to the market is in any way acceptable. 

But in my experience, there is no way to bring new people to these goals by telling them they’ll have to give things up directly.

I prefer an approach in which we start out by promising everyone everything. If we can all agree that everyone gets everything, THEN we can start a process together in which we decide together how to bring that about, incorporating a critical appraisal of the ecological limits that will shape the reality of generalized abundance. 

It may end up in a similar place (I doubt it would be vegan!), but there’s no way we’ll ever be able to make a plan and have everyone accept it if they haven’t freely chosen it themselves, facing the trade-offs that such a process would entail. 

I think the authors would readily agree with me. They, too, invoke in several places the political process of evaluating and making trade-offs. It still remains a wild dream to imagine a global agreement on anything approaching this. But it’s ok to dream, isn’t it?

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Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson

Chris Carlsson, co-director of the “history from below” project Shaping San Francisco (shapingsf.org) and its incomparable archive FoundSF.org, is a writer, publisher, editor, photographer, public speaker, and occasional professor. He was one of the founders in 1981 of the infamous underground San Francisco magazine Processed World. In 1992 Carlsson co-founded Critical Mass in San Francisco, which both led to a local bicycling boom and helped to incubate transformative urban movements in hundreds of cities, large and small, worldwide. Carlsson has written three books: Hidden San Francisco: A Guide to Lost Landscapes, Unsung Heroes, and Radical Histories (Pluto Press: 2020); his 2004 novel set in a future “post-economic” San Francisco, After the Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004); and his groundbreaking look at class and work in Nowtopia (AK Press: 2008) which uniquely examined how hard and pleasantly we work when we’re not at our official jobs. He has also edited six books. He has given hundreds of public presentations, and has appeared dozens of times in radio, television and on the internet.

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