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23 June 2022

Utopia in the age of climate crisis

Half-Earth Socialism proposes democratic planning to navigate environmental catastrophe, but leaves vital questions unanswered.

By Richard Seymour

Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s Half-Earth Socialism is a manifesto for an exuberant utopia built in dystopian conditions. Its starting point is a finite planet, in which consumption must be restricted. It insists that our knowledge of the natural world, and ability to control it, is intrinsically limited. And it refuses the traditional left-wing catholicon of technological Prometheanism, reminding us that the story of Prometheus is also a story of hubris and pain.

“Half-Earth” refers to the conservationist idea of reserving half of the earth’s territory for wild ecosystems. The goal is to halt the “sixth mass extinction”, in which species are going extinct at anything between 100 and 1,000 times the “background rate” of extinction. As EO Wilson – the American biologist who popularised the half-Earth idea in 2016 – wrote, since the principal reason for extinction was the destruction of wild habitats, most of the planet’s species could be “saved within half the planet’s surface”.

The “half-Earth” arcadia, as Vettese and Pendergrass acknowledge, is riddled with peril. In the hands of governments and scientific bureaucracies, it is likely to be a “colonial” solution in which the poor are displaced from their land; conflict intensifies between governments using military force to conserve territory, private military contractors, poachers, and those driven off the land; and the drivers of resource extraction are left unaddressed. Vettese and Pendergrass’s solution is not to abandon half-Earth, but to radicalise it as part of a socialist reformation of the global economy, in which democratic planning replaces markets and state bureaucracies. The goal of such a transformation is to use “natural geoengineering” through rewilding to “draw down carbon” – thereby avoiding dangerous options such as solar radiation management – and “create a fully renewable energy system”.

[see also: Psychoanalyst Sally Weintrobe: why neoliberalism leads to ecocide]

But the decision to pursue half-Earth creates a dilemma. The classical socialist vision of a free society was based on the goal of a “superabundance” of essential goods: such that they could be distributed and used as if they were free. But essential goods, from foodstuffs to manufactured tools, are energy-intensive, and since energy use will have to be rationed, so will the availability of goods. Conserving half the Earth for rewilding exacerbates the problem. Vettese and Prendergass are flexible about how austere rationing would need to be, but they endorse the goal of a “2,000-watt society“ proposed by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in which no individual uses more than 2,000 watts a year. That’s a drastic reduction for most of Europe and North America, and even China. In 2019, the average citizen of the US used over 9,000 watts, while the average Norwegian used over 10,000 watts. The average in China was just over 3,000 watts.

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There are three obvious approaches to rationing: by price (excellent for the rich, but no one else, and likely to result in black markets), by queue (bureaucratically arbitrary: think of queues for essential operations in the underfunded NHS), or by some democratically agreed plan. Vettese and Pendergrass prefer the latter, reviving a neglected tradition of socialist planning that extends from 20th-century Austrian economist Otto Neurath, to the Nobel Prize-winning Soviet economist Leonid Kantorovich, to Stafford Beer, proponent of the cybernetics organisational theory behind Chile’s socialist project, Cybersyn, which existed between 1971 and 1973.

From Neurath, Half-Earth borrows the critique of “pseudo-rationality”, in which complex social and ecological problems can be reduced to mathematical formulae, using money as a universal equivalent. Such pseudo-rationality is exhibited by global institutions such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose “integrated assessment models” seek to map cost-effective mitigation strategies based on free market assumptions. One problem with this approach, as the climate researcher Adrienne Buller has shown, is that pricing mechanisms to incentivise investment in biodiversity will encourage the least ecologically sustainable, but most profitable, solutions, such as mono-species forestation to draw down carbon.

[see also: IPCC climate report: the arrival of the natural disaster movie age?]

Instead of pricing the planet and its resources, Vettese and Pendergrass call on Neurath’s “in natura” economy, an idea he developed during his time as a planner with the Austrian War Ministry during the First World War. In such an economy, a central administration would use natural, qualitative measurements of goods and services, rather than reducing their worth to some common value. For example, Neurath thought that to calculate the distribution of resources, it was important to know not just the economic value but also the specific conditions such as the size, safety, and warmth of one’s housing.

From Kantorovich, the authors take the discovery of “linear programming”, in which mathematical modelling could be used to optimise any set of outcomes, such as land use or energy consumption, given a set of known variables. The virtue of this method is that it allows any plan to be coordinated in a decentralised system. As long as local committees are properly incentivised to improve land use, or energy consumption, they can be left to get on with it. And as long as the goals have been democratically agreed, a society can be steered towards them. From Beer, they take the commitment to “democratic control systems”, using cybernetic principles such as circular causality, in which the outcomes of past decisions are automatically used to shape future decisions. Based on these principles, Half-Earth Socialism proposes a new global agency, called Gosplant (after the USSR’s Gosplan), to devise plans to meet socially agreed goals such as energy and wildlife conservation.

The use of alternative economic models constitute a rare and imaginative attempt to concretise socialist thinking about the transition to an ecologically sustainable society. But these models of planning – which also form the basis for an online game that accompanies the book – have never been properly implemented. Neurath was subject to a powerful intellectual challenge from neoliberals such as Ludwig von Mises, while Kantorovich’s solution was scarcely even road-tested in a Stalinist command economy in which the ruling class had no incentive to hand over control to a decentralised planning system. Cybersyn, meanwhile, was shut down while it was still in its infancy, as a result of a US-backed military coup that overthrew Salvador Allende’s government in 1973. Cybersyn’s project of accumulating inputs from every household to enable policy planning would today be called “big data“, which suggests how things might have gone differently.

There are also technical issues that Vettese and Prendergass don’t address.

Some have raised serious questions about the technical feasibility of Kantorovich’s idea of linear programming. There is also a tension between the book’s political commitment to planning and its philosophical commitment to drawing a “veil of ignorance” over nature. This phrase is taken from Friedrich von Hayek. For him, to draw a “veil of ignorance” over the economy was to acknowledge that it was too vast and complex to be understood, let alone planned. But Half-Earth Socialism suggests the economy can be controlled; nature can’t. Technological solutions to control one problem, such as spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere to reduce global warming, risk causing new problems.

However, an economic plan is a biospheric plan. It requires a great deal of accurate knowledge about the physical constraints on production. While the “veil of ignorance” is useful as a warning against technological hubris, it could also be a form of defeatism. There are political problems, too. Vettese and Pendergrass are clear that any planning must be democratic and answerable to a “global parliament”, a phrase which expediently glosses over exactly how popular desire is to be aggregated. Even if goals were agreed, the question of “how” is yet to be solved.

The most difficult question for this book, however, is about values. Of any utopia, we can ask: what is so utopian about that? Vettese and Pendergrass build a plausible case for half-Earth conservationism: it is the most rational way to halt mass extinction while drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. They make a similar case for global veganism, or at least drastically curtailed carnivory, as the best way to live within our restricted land and energy budgets. Finally, they argue for abandoning “humanity’s unnatural domination of animals”. Taking vaccine inventor Edward Jenner as their inspiration, they build a case that the domination of other species and limitless destruction of wildlife is the major cause of disease and the rising threat of global pandemics.

[see also: Peter Singer: Why the case for veganism is stronger than ever]

But what they don’t do is explain why the preferred scenario of vegan ecosocialism is utopian. They say that its proposed sacrifices are “more attractive” than the “demi-utopias” offered by the mainstream environmental movement, based on the use of nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, and “a colonial half-Earth”. But this raises the question: even if the political means were secured, and the planning methods worked, what if the majority did not opt for a half-Earth, or anything like it? What if the ingrained cultural weight of carnivory prevailed? What if the majority – or a big enough minority to sustain black markets – preferred the risks and damage associated with higher consumption to more sustainable living? What if people aren’t sufficiently moved by the goal of saving the majority of species?

Their proposal clearly is utopian, and not only in its promise of a fully equal, participatory world in which we are no longer dominated by corporations driving us to disaster. Instead of a “red plenty” based on a superabundance of goods, it proposes a world of abundant, flourishing life. Biodiversity is a value, one embraced by global institutions and in most climate politics. But beyond referring to our “beautiful world”, Vettese and Pendergrass don’t show what there is to be enjoyed, revered and valued in a conserved, biodiverse world. The point of a utopia is to secure pleasurable living, not just survival.

The book’s repudiation of Prometheanism is also ambiguous. If Prometheanism means Trotsky’s excitable claim that humanity under communism could “cut down mountains and move them”, Boris Lyubimov’s proposal to warm Russia by damming the Bering Strait, or Mikhail Budyko’s plan to inject sulphur into the stratosphere to cool the planet, then it is hubris. But what this book proposes is an enormously creative project for social reconstruction. And for all its warnings against the “humanisation” of nature, it does presuppose a far more extensive and responsible human stewardship than exists under capitalism. This is Promethean by any normal definition.

If Half-Earth Socialism embraces the hardest choices, the most exacting ecological constraints, and thinks with them to reinvent climate utopianism, it also leaves a lot of work for future utopians to complete.

Half-Earth Socialism
Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass
Verso, 240pp, £14.99

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