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Utopian musings on an endangered world

An interview with ‘Half-Earth Socialism’ author Troy Vettese, followed by an excerpt from the book

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Seen off the road near Murdo, South Dakota. Photo by Susan Lueck/Flickr.

Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan To Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese (Verso 2022) sets forth a unique ecosocialist vision that centres the preservation of the fullness of the natural world at a time when the dawning Holocene extinction, driven primarily by capitalism and consumption patterns in the Global North, is putting life on the line.

In its approach to the ecological catastrophe, the Left generally focuses narrowly on climate change, sidestepping or understating the gravity of the extermination crisis, which many distinguished scientists deem an existential threat not only to all the non-human species being annihilated but also to humanity. Half-Earth Socialism is a refreshing exception to this troubling oversight. In its attempt to chart a meaningful socialist response to the extinction crisis, the book advocates central planning, veganism and natural geoengineering (rewilding) as the pillars of an avowedly utopian land-and life-sparing project and concludes with a sketch of the possible transition that riffs on William Morris’s News from Nowhere.

Below is an interview with Troy Vettese by CD’s Andrea Levy, followed by an excerpt from the book.

Andrea Levy: While the Left has been very strong on analyzing and underscoring the urgency of the climate catastrophe, it has, for the most part, ignored the biodiversity crisis, failing to acknowledge its equal gravity even from the vantage point of humanity’s enlightened self-interest. How do you account for that glaring and arguably willful blind spot to which your book is a crucial and welcome corrective? Might it have something to do with the inescapable conclusions regarding animal agriculture?

Troy Vettese: I remember going to London in 2019 for Historical Materialism’s annual conference—one of the premier events for the Left—and I was especially excited because that year’s theme was “extinction capitalism.” I organized two panels on animals and socialism, which was probably a first for HM. At the plenary sessions, however, I was upset to find that there was a lot of talk about climate change but nothing about the biodiversity crisis or animal rights. Even when I and the few other vegan Marxists there pointedly asked about these issues, the presenters did their best to ignore them during the Q&A.

To be blunt, I’d say that socialists are typical of society at large in that most don’t really care about animals or ecology. There might be a sense of dread regarding climate change, but it rarely translates into delving into the scientific literature or changing how one lives. Socialists tend to approach climate change as a technical problem best managed by a socialist society, but one that doesn’t require a deep questioning of humanity’s relationship to nature. We just need to rationally regulate CO2 emissions through technological fixes like CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) or geoengineering. Moreover, the Left’s interest in the environment rarely extends to issues like desertification, deforestation, eutrophication, invasive species, zoonoses, air pollution, and so on. I think this is because the Left shies away from the very idea that there could be limits to growth because the “realm of freedom” requires material abundance. Socialists also see the prescription of behavioural changes—such as getting rid of cars or banning meat—as constraining human freedom or as vaguely “neoliberal” for being a form of consumer-based politics. I find such attitudes incredibly frustrating. I think socialists have a brilliant critical apparatus in the form of Marxism, but when it comes to imagining socialism itself many of them suddenly become naïve libertarians, as if our actions do not affect other people or species. I would add that too many socialists see the exclusive aim as emancipating workers from class domination, and thus they see any other considerations, such as anti-racism or feminism—let alone animal rights—as either distractions or politically suspect. Of course, such class-reductionism is Marxism at its most vulgar, something that we push against in our book.

AL: How did you come to write the book? Give us a little background.

TV: We wanted to write a book that would be different from most environmental and socialist books that we have read over the years. We were frustrated that so many authors were unjustifiably optimistic—in the case of environmentalist writers—or that others offered only a maddeningly vague vision of socialism. Why are such books still being written when fascism is on the march and the biosphere is on the verge of collapse? It’s not the 1990s when we can delude ourselves that time is a luxury we can still afford. If we don’t imagine real alternatives to capitalism now, then what are we waiting for? We wanted to address some hard questions that have more or less become taboos for the Left. For example, what is socialism? Do we merely want to revive Keynesian post-war welfare states, or does the Left aim for something more ambitious? How could Marxism, with its congenital desire to dominate nature, be reconstructed to aid us in an age of ecological collapses? How would a socialist economy function—with or without markets? What is socialist democracy or socialist international relations?

It sounds strange, but in our book we often use neoliberalism as a foil to answer these questions about socialism. Let me explain. My main work as a scholar is not on conserving biodiversity, but on the history of neoliberal environmental thought, which was the subject of my PhD dissertation. Half-Earth Socialism contributes to the century-long Socialist Calculation Debate, an exchange between socialists and neoliberals that dates back to 1919 when Otto Neurath—a utopian socialist and important influence on our thinking—penned his memorandum on planning for the Bavarian Soviet Republic. As a scholar of neoliberalism, I respect that current of thought more than most Marxists, who either think ideas have little bearing on the course of history or believe that conservative ideas in particular are not worth examining because they are mere palaver for whatever capitalists want. I would counter that, in order to defeat our enemy, it is useful to understand their plans, and perhaps even learn from them. Neoliberals, after all, have succeeded in remaking the world in their image. They are well organized, intellectually eclectic, and ruthless. They also have a powerful epistemic critique of socialism based on the difficulty of concentrating the necessary knowledge that is dispersed throughout society—they think that only the market efficiently captures such information in the form of price. The Left must refute this critique at some point to restore faith in planning. In Half-Earth Socialism we engage with this critique but also imitate the neoliberals’ focus on epistemology in our attempt to revive socialist thought in an age of environmental collapse. Like the neoliberals, we ask “what can we know?” to delineate the boundaries of politics. Contrary to the neoliberals, we argue that nature is far more unknowable than the economy, and thus the latter should be controlled to sustain ecological processes we depend on but do not fully understand. This is why socialism must be ecological, and environmentalism requires a planned economy.

As for the story of how we came to write this book, Drew, who was an undergrad in physics at the time, wrote to me after reading my essay for the New Left Review, “To Freeze the Thames,” which integrated the problems of biodiversity, renewable energy, and geoengineering within a single framework of land-scarcity. We were both at Harvard so we met for coffee to chat about perhaps collaborating on a model that we could then publish in a scientific journal. Around this time I was talking to Verso about turning the New Left Review article into a book, and I proposed to Drew that we write the book together instead of writing an article and amazingly—since we barely knew each other—he agreed. It was a rewarding collaboration because while we share Marxism as a common language we complement each other’s strengths. Not only could Drew write compellingly about atmospheric chemistry and linear programming in a way that I could not, but he also is a talented novelist and wrote the fourth chapter, which is a sci-fi short story. Drew—who is only twenty-four—is now working on his PhD in environmental engineering, writing a novel, and another book on planning. He’s a real prodigy.

AL: Could you talk a little bit about the centrality of land in your analysis, which sets Half-Earth Socialism apart from many other left discussions of the ecological catastrophe?

TV: I began working on this project years ago after reading about “natural geoengineering” through rewilding as outlined by Oswald Schmitz, E.O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” vision, and Vaclav Smil’s concept of “power density.” All three of these concepts concerned land. Natural geoengineering is based on the reintroduction of predators and migratory herbivores to help ecosystems sequester more carbon; for example, wolves could prevent deer from eating too many saplings and allow a forest to regenerate. Half-Earth requires literally half the world to be protected in parks, which is about three times more than is protected now. Power density describes the watts produced per square metre by an energy system, and unfortunately renewables tend to produce only a hundredth or a thousandth as much energy as a fossil fuel system metre for metre, which means that much more land is needed for a fully renewable energy system.

I think land matters in a few ways that have been overlooked. People generally talk about the environmental crisis in terms of CO2 (how many gigatonnes of carbon are emitted) or money (how many trillions of dollars are necessary for adaptation) but these metrics obscure as much as they reveal. We could try to sequester CO2 with BECCS [bioenergy carbon capture and sequestration], but these plantations would put immense pressure on fresh water and biodiversity. Similarly, seeing environmental problems solely in terms of money doesn’t tell you what kind of world we need to build. You might have a lot of money, but if you don’t have the physical space for livestock industries as well as nature preserve and renewable energy infrastructure, then something has to give. A focus on land reminds us that socialism is the conscious management of our relationship with nature, and that economics will always be predicated on trade-offs. Fantasies of abundance—be they socialist or capitalist—ignore that we must choose between high energy use, meat-heavy diets, along with geoengineering and mass extinction, let’s say, or less meat and energy-use, but a wilder world. We can’t have it all. The land question connects many of the different environmental problems that tend to be studied as discrete issues. We should decide what to do with our energy systems, food production, and conservation strategy all at the same time because they are inextricably interconnected.

Longhorn cattle freeranging at Knepp Wildland. Photo by Peter Eastern/Wikimedia Commons.

AL: The very notion of half earth has been criticized by some scholars (Brian Napoletano and Brett Clark “An Ecological Marxist response to the Half-Earth project,” Conservation and Society vol. 18, no. 1 (2020), p. 38) as misguided insofar as it fails to grasp the oppositional unity of nature and society at the heart of the Marxist understanding of the reality of humans in the natural world. They argue that the term “half-earth” itself erects a false dichotomy implying that half the earth can be deemed to belong to society while the other half belongs to Nature. You probably anticipated some negative reactions to your decision to use the term made current by the late controversial scientist and passionate advocate for biodiversity E. O. Wilson—a famed bête noir of the Left. Why did you decide to adopt it for the book title and how do you respond to Napoletano and Clark’s objection?

TV: In environmental history, you read all the time that the ultimate cause of the environmental crisis is the nature-culture binary, arguments that can be traced to STS (Science & Technology Studies) scholars like Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway. I never found this approach convincing. It seemed like an academic cottage industry with a lot of pseudo-profundity and few insights useful for the real world. I mean, of course humans are animals and emphasizing human exceptionalism is bad politics and bad biology, but this should be obvious. We need an approach that allows us to differentiate human actions from natural ones, as we have proven capable of trashing the planet in a way few other species or geological processes can rival. Furthermore, you’ll have a hard time finding scholars who idealize “pristine” nature—they are straw men whom academics never seem to tire of attacking.

We are not having a fruitful debate right now on the environmental crisis. Instead, we should be debating what our interchange with nature should be: How much territory should humanity use and for what purposes? How much carbon should we emit? How many rare earth metals should we extract? How much biodiversity is necessary to stabilize ecosystems? What are our ethical obligations to other creatures? A critique of the nature-culture binary actually doesn’t help much to answer these questions. Instead, we need to draft a raft of possible plans encapsulating these interactions so that we can discuss what kind of future we are fighting for.

For example, critics would say that creating nature preserves is bad because they often require people to relocate. This is often true. Napoletano and Clark are rightfully critical of conservation that depends on rich tourists or big-game hunters. Yet it is also a mistake to think that the Left does not need a conservation strategy, or that land-sharing approaches based on agro-ecology suffice to protect biodiversity. I think when people hear of the Half-Earth concept they fear there will not be enough land for humanity, that implementing Half-Earth will entail great hardship. Yet, as Drew’s linear programming model in Half-Earth Socialism makes clear, if there are global quotas for energy-use and meat production then humanity doesn’t need much land at all. By constraining the most land-intensive activities, we’ll have enough land for vegan organic agriculture, renewable energy infrastructure, and Half-Earth. Furthermore, people who argue against large nature preserves ignore that many species, especially large carnivores, now only exist and can only survive on preserves. We need larger and better connected preserves to prevent the Sixth Extinction, not less conservation. I’d add that Half-Earth doesn’t require the extirpation of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, Indigenous-managed territories tend to have higher levels of carbon-sequestration and biodiversity than conventional preserves.

With respect to E.O. Wilson, he is indeed loathed by the Left owing initially to his work on sociobiology. His reputation actually deteriorated even further just before Half-Earth Socialism was published because Science for the People revealed that Wilson had been corresponding with a “race realist” charlatan prof and supporting his work on the IQ, penis size, and so on of different ethnicities. These are despicable views but Wilson nevertheless did some pioneering work in the area of biodiversity. His study of biogeography in the 1960s laid the foundation for the Half-Earth concept half a century later. His insight back then was that there was a close relationship between land-area and biodiversity, and thus if there is less wild habitat then biodiversity will also decrease, which is why the Sixth Extinction is taking place now. Land-use change—which is overwhelmingly driven by the meat industry—is causing species extinctions and if we want to prevent half of creation from disappearing, we will have to protect half the world. Even Wilson’s critics don’t attack his work on biogeography, which has withstood decades of scrutiny. For us, the question is, what does a socialist Half-Earth look like? We also wanted to foreground Half-Earth because it makes clear that Drew and I care about biodiversity loss, that land is a major component of our analysis, and it emphasizes that humanity must be modest in what it takes from nature.

AL: Early on in the book you argue forcefully for exercising epistemic humility in face of the infinitely complex web of interrelationships and interdependencies that characterize the natural world and you are critical of the persistent strains of Prometheanism on the Left. At the same time, you place a great deal of faith in technology-driven central planning on a colossal scale. How do you reconcile that apparent tension?

TV: I don’t see these arguments being in tension. We argue that it is impossible to know nature fully, which is different from saying we can’t know anything. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that we have useful but imperfect models of nature that can help us guide our decisions. Otto Neurath, whom I mentioned earlier, once said “rationalism sees its chief triumph in the clear recognition of the limits of actual insight,” that is, true reason is recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge instead of pretending that one knows everything. Similarly, Neurath believed that science did not discover reality per se but rather useful models that are under constant revision. His favourite metaphor for science was that of a ship at sea that its sailors were always rebuilding in new ways, despite there being nothing solid beneath them, just the bottomless sea. This is all to say that we should act using the best information available, while also being cognizant of what we don’t know and accept that currently existing facts are likely to change too. We call this approach “epistemic humility,” as a foil to the Promethean hubris you find too often amongst Marxists. By Promethean, I mean the belief that nature can be fully known and transformed to benefit humanity. Think of Trotsky’s declaration that socialism will “move mountains” or Stalin’s plan to reroute rivers in Siberia.

As we cannot know nature fully, we must constrain the economy within planetary boundaries so that the earth-system can function properly. This conscious, limited interchange with nature can only be carried out in a socialist society because economic decisions under capitalism are decentralized and blindly allocated towards what is profitable, rather than towards providing the good life for all or maintaining ecological stability. That being said, we do not think that planning the global economy and monitoring planetary boundaries will be easy. This is why creating convincing economic and ecological models, as well as a Neurathian approach to pedagogy to disseminate these ideas, are necessary preconditions for a transition to socialism. Neurath embraced “scientific utopianism,” which was the practice of drafting technically sophisticated and detailed plans for the future to enable democratic debates over what kind of society one wanted. Scientific utopianism today can help us imagine overcoming capitalism and the environmental crisis.

AL: While there are obvious theoretical and prescriptive affinities between your approach and the general perspectives of contemporary ecosocialism as articulated by thinkers like John Bellamy Foster, Michael Lowy, Ian Angus and others, there are also important divergences. Could you delineate these for our readers?

TV: Sure, there are plenty of differences but also lots of overlap. We probably agree most with John O’Neill, who is both a Neurathian scholar and an ecosocialist. I like Michael Löwy’s work on utopianism, a topic that most Marxists tend to avoid. Ian Angus has criticized conservationists for their connections to the extreme right, a topic that we also write about in Half-Earth Socialism. We draw on Andreas Malm too, especially his insight that fossil fuels are “stocks’’ of energy, while renewables harvest “flows.” Malm is also unusual in calling for “draconian” enforcement of veganism. Yet, we have our differences with him too, such as his support for nuclear power. By contrast, we have a long section in Half-Earth Socialism that refutes the supposed greenness of the nuclear option. Malm also supports wide-scale CCS, while we are more sympathetic to the natural geoengineering of rewilding. Like Alyssa Battistoni, we believe that an ecosocialist society should be a feminist one that supports care work in health and education (which tend to be low-carbon as well). Public figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Naomi Klein have done amazing things in bringing ecosocialist ideas to a broader audience, but they have avoided advocating veganism or articulating what socialism might look like. We borrow quite a bit from Carol J. Adams’ work on meat and sexism, and like Löwy she is interested in the utopian socialist tradition. Although we are ecosocialists, we don’t engage much with John Bellamy Foster, despite his centrality in the field. I am currently working on a critique of his oeuvre, but just briefly I’ll say that I don’t find the “metabolic rift” concept especially useful, and I think that Foster exaggerates the ecological dimension of Marx’s thought. Drew and I are both Marxists, but we believe it’s important to maintain a critical stance even towards the Master, which one doesn’t find in Foster’s work at all. To me, Foster’s ecosocialism is not dissimilar to the Promethean vision of a totally humanized nature, where the whole world is turned into a garden and little wilderness remains.

AL: In their malicious attack on proposals for rewilding and sharply restricting animal agriculture (of which you are a named target), Max Ajl and Rob Wallace (“Red Vegans against Green Peasants,” New Socialist, October 16, 2021) rehearse the Left’s traditional dismissal of animal justice and veganism as bourgeois concerns steeped in white supremacy and racism. They step up the rhetoric by invoking genocidal intent. How do you respond to these kinds of charges?

TV: This was a bizarre, vituperative essay. I would say that there’s nothing wrong with having a debate amongst socialists over the environmental crisis. After all, it is important to ask: what will happen to the peasantry in a socialist society? Where do we draw the line on animal rights? Is it all right for the Sami to herd caribou, but should the Masai give up their cattle? What happens to a fourth-generation rancher in Alberta with a small, organic operation? I think that there is plenty to learn from the peasantry, especially as we transition from an industrialized agricultural system to an organic, fossil-fuel free one—which will be necessary to fully decarbonize agriculture. Yet, Wallace and Ajl’s essay did little to further this debate. Instead, they engage in ad hominem attacks. Their attempt to portray anyone who disagrees with them as racist is risible, to say the least. More importantly, their arguments are unpersuasive.

First, I don’t think the peasantry is a traditional, homogenous group that is incapable of change. Rather, it too should be included in a debate over total global plans that deal with energy-use, meat production, and biodiversity. Second, there are plenty of factual mistakes in the essay. Let me enumerate a few of these. It’s strange that a bunch of self-proclaimed defenders of the peasantry adopt talking points from the meat industry, which keenly purveys untruths about the efficacy of “regenerative ranching” to greenwash animal husbandry. Spencer Roberts has done amazing work on this to show what a scam it is. It’s just nonsense to argue that meat production can be carbon negative. The authors seem to imply that factory farms are the only potential source of new zoonoses, but the fact is that small-scale animal husbandry is from innocuous. First of all, the latter still constitutes a sizable share of meat production—about a third globally. All communicable diseases we suffer from today emerged over the last ten thousand years following animal domestication, a period when most people were peasants and livestock numbers were much lower. Peasant farmers also cut down forest for pasture thereby running the risk of pathogens jumping from wild to domesticated animals. Nipah and Hendra, two recent zoonoses, did not come from factory farms. The most dangerous place in the world is probably Poyang Lake in China, where small-scale poultry farming sits next to a huge avian reserve which millions of migratory birds pass through every year. When we finally have a bird flu pandemic, it will probably start there. Wallace and Ajl’s claim that ending livestock production won’t lower methane pollution is just wrong. Many farmed animals are ruminants (e.g., cows, sheep, goats), who produce much more methane compared to other herbivores that they replaced (e.g., rhinos). Species interact with their ecosystems differently because they have evolved relations with plant communities over thousands or millions of years. Lastly, I’ll say that it’s strange that a couple of ecosocialists evince no interest in animal liberation. For them, animals are just objects to be used, not sentient creatures. That being said, I’m sure that Wallace, Ajl and I would agree that factory farming is far worse than peasant agriculture and should be abolished first—the question is, what comes after that?

AL: I really enjoyed the update of William Morris’ News from Nowhere and, unlike some commentators on your book, I appreciated that you didn’t overstate the delights of the vast downscaling of throughput in the wealthy countries of the global North that is essential to preserving a habitable planet for humans and other species. It is true though that, especially for a utopian vision, you place relatively little emphasis on the advantages for everyday life of transcending capitalism and rapacious consumerism. Was that a deliberate decision?

TV: Drew and I disagree about this to some extent, but personally I prefer to have a more realistic reckoning of the future, rather than an overly optimistic one. After reading so many environmental, socialist, and degrowth books, I’ve become allergic to arguments that reduce politics to so-called win-win solutions. There will be conflict, there will be trade-offs. I think overly optimistic portrayals of the future are condescending; authors seem to think they will scare off readers if they hint that there might be any hardship at all. It is naïve to think that the solution to the ecological catastrophe—the gravest problem humanity has ever confronted—will not require any sacrifices. If anything, I wish we had talked more about conflict in our chapter—I suggested to Drew that we include a section on “how the change came” that would describe the revolution that creates Half-Earth Socialism, perhaps after years of demonstrations, strikes, and terrorism. Even after a revolution, I’m sure there would be unrest from the déclassé bourgeoisie—perhaps our story could have had capitalist “werewolves” (the name of a short-lived Nazi guerrilla unit in occupied Germany) in the background blowing up wind turbines.

I’m a curmudgeon, not a cynic. I still believe that the world would be a better place after capitalism’s demise—maybe we won’t have fully automated luxury communism, but even an austere ecosocialism could promise everyone equality, meaningful work, and a respite from environmental catastrophes. Such a life might not be everyone’s cup of tea however, especially those who have the most to lose. The bourgeois way of life is wasteful and stupid, but its destruction will be felt as a calamity to many and they will resist it. We need a grown-up discussion on the costs and benefits of different scientific utopias. We can’t use the fantasy of Promethean abundance to evade harder questions of production, distribution, and politics. Under socialism we will almost certainly have shortages, queues, and rationing. There is a risk of authoritarianism, for there has never been a free socialist society. Now is the time for us to map out new constitutions, new institutions. The meat issue is divisive, of course. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything by giving up meat, but it is a major change for most people and it is controversial. Meat is a good example of socialism needing a new “education of desire,” as E.P. Thompson put it. Socialism is not simply about having more stuff, but living a different life and having a different relationship to nature. I think Half-Earth Socialism would be far superior to our current capitalist dystopia, but we shouldn’t sugarcoat what the transition will be like.

AL: You developed a video game in connection with the book, which invites players to choose from several sets of measures designed to move (rich northern) societies toward ecological sustainability and see how their selected scenarios play out based on various criteria such as public acceptability and political capital. It certainly helps to drive home the formidable political obstacles to the half-earth project. Without giving too much away, can you explain how one goes about winning the game?

TV: The game is our attempt to practise Neurathian pedagogy. Neurath wore many hats—philosopher of science, housing and gardening activist, war planner, etc.—including that of the head planner of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. After that polity was destroyed by the SPD and its Freikorps flunkies, Neurath became a museum curator in Vienna. There he developed the graphic design style of ISOTYPE, which used pictograms to make charts and graphs readily comprehensible to those with little or no education. These exhibitions were intended to make the economy visible to the working class, so they could imagine controlling it.

Such visibility is an integral part of Neurath’s conception of socialism as a consciously controlled economy, just as the market’s opacity was important for his enemies—the neoliberals.

Our game has similar aims. We want to make the environmental crisis comprehensible to a large audience, to make visible the trade-offs between different technologies, living standards, and conservation practices. The main constraints are biodiversity loss, CO2 emissions, global temperature, and living standards. The game includes a lot of hard data, such as the CO2 intensity of concrete, but also more speculative technologies such as fusion, or policies like degrowth. Unlike other eco-games, we try to encompass the environmental crisis in its many facets—including zoonoses, eutrophication, etc.—and it’s much more political. This is not a technocratic game, but one where you can compare different social policies, like veganism or degrowth. We encourage players to imagine a variety of futures, or scientific utopias. We don’t prescribe only our own framework of veganism, energy quotas, Half-Earth, and renewable energy. Players are free to try Malthusian policies, geoengineering, authoritarianism, ecofeminism—whatever mix they want. Hopefully the game will help spark a debate on the Left about what an ecologically-viable socialism might look like by making it easier for people to imagine new ways we can organize society and our relationship to nature.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Andrea Levy is a coordinating editor for Canadian Dimension and a longstanding member if its editorial collective.

Excerpted from Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese, published by Verso Books, 2022, pp. 74-84.

Forces of nature

Our aim in this section is to understand why capitalism produces more and graver ecological problems than any other social form in human history, so that socialism can better avoid them. To this end, it is helpful to return to the place and time of capitalism’s birth, five centuries ago in the English countryside. It was then that capitalism engendered not only the self-­conscious genre of utopianism but also a new relationship to nature.

To understand this relationship, we will use Marx’s concept of the ‘natural forces’ (Naturkräfte) as a physical counter-point to the more abstract idea of the humanization of nature that we analysed in the first chapter. These forces include not only the ‘impulse’ setting in motion the ‘water-wheel from the descent of water down an incline, [and] the wind-mill from the wind,’ but also ‘human exertion.’ While labour power is the only natural force that produces surplus value for capitalists, capitalists are otherwise indifferent to which natural force they employ in production.

This perspective helps explain why capitalism emerged from animal husbandry as well as its relationship to the Industrial Revolution. Replacing peasants with flocks of sheep and a few shepherds was a sort of proto-mechanization that increased relative profit by increasing labour productivity. ‘The raising of sheep required fewer labour inputs per acre than the growing of grain,’ economist William Lazonick explains, ‘[which] directed the use of land away from production of the fundamental means of subsistence to production for the market and for profit … [and] due to its land-intensive technical requirements, it separated many producers from the means of production.’ Marx saw the eighteenth-century breeder Robert Bakewell as representative of capitalist agriculture. Bakewell’s family belonged to the new caste of ‘improving’ farmers, whose ancestral home was among the first to be enclosed (as far back as More’s lifetime). Before Bakewell, domesticated sheep took five years to mature, but he managed to cut this down to a year by reducing ‘the bone structure … to the minimum necessary for their existence,’ Marx observed. Marx recognized that in a capitalist society there was no difference between a sheep breeder like Bakewell and a locomotive manufacturer who adopted new machine tools, because both were capitalists who sought to increase profits by reducing turnover. Blind capital sees little difference between animal and machine; both are instruments to raise labour productivity.

“The Sixth Extinction.” Illustration by Peter Kuper.

The sixteenth-century boom in wool was eventually surpassed by cotton, an industry that made use of water-powered mills. The first recognizably modern textile mill was built in 1771 in Cromford by Richard Arkwright. Whereas Arkwright’s previous enterprise in Nottingham was powered by horse muscle (3–4 horsepower), the Cromford factory was the first to rely on water power (10 hp), while waterwheels a generation later were much more powerful (100 hp). The shifts from one kind of natural force to another—labour power, animal muscle, water, coal—did not follow a secular trend but were chosen by capitalists based on their advantages at any given historical conjuncture. Water was cheap and powerful, besting coal on both counts for almost three generations after Arkwright’s mill was built. The shift from water to coal occurred because capitalists sought to reassert control over unruly workers. It was difficult to attract labour to mills in the isolated river valleys, and rampaging Luddites could easily destroy a factory there before the army could be called in. Coal offered the possibility of placing factories in towns, near barracks and a pliable industrial reserve army of proletarians, many of whom had been driven from the countryside by enclosures. In the twentieth century, petroleum undergirded an even more flexible energy system that workers struggled to control.

The future, however, may herald a return of animal power and what sociologist Kenneth Fish calls the ‘agriculturalization of industry.’ Fish sees genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as ‘spider-goats’—which produce arachnid silk in their udders for things like bulletproof vests—as the purest encapsulation of capital’s relationship to nature, that is, the redirection of natural forces to further capital’s self-expansion. According to Fish, labour under capitalism has changed little since shepherds replaced farmers in More’s time: most work takes the form of ‘eco-regulation,’ in which natural forces are guided by human attendants. This is why Marx describes the factory as an ‘entirely objective productive organism’ (ganz objektiven Produktionsorganismus) where the worker becomes a mere appendage to the machine. Notably, Fish emphasizes that eco-­regulation applies equally to labour carried out on the farm and in the factory, which is why ‘for all the technological mastery marked by the coming of the machine, then, the significance of the factory for Marx lies in how it approximates a living organism, that most natural of beings.’

Over the last century, Bakewell’s techniques have been taken to an extreme in pursuit of greater labour productivity. The growth rate of ‘broiler’ chickens increased by 400 percent between 1957 and 2005. Between 1950 and 2020, annual milk production per cow grew from 2,400 litres to 10,600 litres.109 Sustaining so many animal-machines requires immense resources, which in turn threatens wild species with extinction. Animal husbandry takes up 4 billion hectares—40 percent of Earth’s inhabitable land. It is no wonder, as a recent study has found, that ‘animal product consumption by humans (human carnivory) is likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions.’ Capitalist agriculture has created a world where 60 percent of the total terrestrial mammalian biomass is livestock; only four percent is wild mammals, while humanity composes the remaining 36 percent. Because of the sheer bulk of domesticated animals, some experts argue for including the respiration of such artificially abundant life as carbon pollution. As Fish might argue, these animals should be seen as living factories no different from smoke-belching industrial factories. Capitalism, born in the countryside, must die there if there is to be any hope for a new, ecologically stable socialism to take its place.

While we have stressed that capital is indifferent to the various forms of Naturkräfte, there is an important distinction between ‘flows’ and ‘stocks.’ Renewable systems rely on flows of energy, whose source generally is solar radiation (tidal and geothermal systems produce modest power). It is a cheap and plentiful source of energy, but solar flows are by definition variable and dispersed and thus have a low ‘power density,’ which is measured in watts per square metre of land (W/m2). Solar and wind power produce about 5 to 10 W/m2, while biofuels produce a miserly 0.5 W/m2. By contrast, fossil fuels represent concentrated stocks of energy and thus have extremely high power densities. The richest petroleum deposits in Saudi Arabia harbour 40,000 W/m2, and even shabby ones like Canada’s tar sands still boast 1,100 W/m2. The concept of power density provides some unity and insight into our pre-ceding discussion. Crops generally have a low power density, which is why the livestock industry and BECCS devour land. Indeed, the low power density of BECCS and renewables is one reason why some greens support nuclear power. While uranium is a stock rather than a flow resource, the pro-nuclear greens overlook how protective glacis and cooling lakes can significantly lower power density: the doomed Fukushima Daiichi plant produced 1,300 W/m2, but the Wolf Creek facility in Kansas has a modest power density of 30 W/m2.

If Half-Earth socialism renounces the use of stock energy sources like fossil fuels and nuclear power, then land scar-city will become a major economic and ecological constraint. Just as in Plato’s day, the territorial demands of the livestock industry limit the utopian imagination, but unlike the ancient Greeks, we must also convert a power-dense energy system into a power-­sparse one, and at the same time prevent an extinction event of an extent unimaginable in a pre-capitalist era. If the essence of the problem is the humanization of nature, what does the solution of unbuilding look like in practice?

Half-Earth in Havana

The goals of Half-Earth socialism are simple enough: prevent the Sixth Extinction, practise ‘natural geoengineering’ to draw down carbon through rewilded ecosystems rather than SRM, 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. Luckily, these three goals are complementary. Greater biodiversity increases the carbon sequestration potential of an ecosystem, while a decarbonized and vegan agricultural system will free up space for rewilding and renewable systems. An eco-socialist future is salvageable—even at this late stage of the environmental crisis—but it requires Neurathian planning so one can discern the otherwise opaque workings of the economy and envision a utopian alternative.

Rewilding means not only allowing natural forests and grasslands of native species to replace pasture but also returning wild animals to these ecosystems. Healthier, more biodiverse ecosystems sequester more carbon than simplified ones—including the gigantic BECCS plantations imagined by some modellers. Much of the livestock population today is genetically similar ruminants (e.g., domesticated cows, sheep, and goats), whereas the lifeblood of a healthy ecosystem is large nonruminant herbivores, such as the white rhinoceros, wildebeest, Bactrian camel, Przewalski’s horse, African wild ass, and kulan. Due to their different digestive tracts, these animals also produce much less methane than domesticated ruminants. The restoration of large frugivores (fruit-eating animals), such as tapirs and Asian forest elephants, could increase the carbon sequestration capacity of tropical forests by 10 percent. Predators matter too. If Canada’s wolves returned to their former glory, their predation of moose would create a healthier boreal forest that could potentially cancel out all of Canada’s current carbon emissions.

New Forest, covering southwest Hampshire and southeast Wiltshire counties, is one of the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in southern England. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Oceans are vital to Half-Earth too. The oceans shelter half of all life and sequester about 30 percent of global carbon emissions—some two gigatonnes a year. Although they occupy only 0.2 percent of the seafloor, seagrass ecosystems absorb as much as a tenth of all the organic carbon absorbed by the ocean every year. They are also urgently in need of protection, as they are one of the most endangered ecosystems, facing an annual rate of depletion of 7 percent. Whales deliver plankton from the ocean’s surface to its depths through everyday acts of eating, diving, and excreting. The bodies of living whales contain as much carbon as the forests of Rocky Mountain National Park. In death they entomb an estimated 30,000 tonnes of carbon every year (and up to 160,000 if their populations were allowed to recover) by sinking to the ocean floor. Some marine biologists have thus concluded that ‘the impact of rebuilding stocks of fish and whales would be comparable to existing carbon sequestration projects.’ Yet marine populations are down by 49 percent since 1970 (itself hardly a halcyon era for sea-life), while fishing robs whales of food or entangles them in trap-lines.

Wilson’s Half-Earth should be seen as a kind of natural geo-engineering. His plan identified thirty biomes ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarusian Białowiez˙a Forest that would be the heart of Half-Earth. These would even-tually be stitched together (much like the Wildlife Network’s ‘wildways’) to create an interconnected mosaic spanning half the globe. Rainforests can sequester 200 to 650 tonnes of carbon per hectare (tC/Ha), while a Californian redwood forest can contain 3,500 tC/Ha. These are among the highest rates found on land, and the preservation and expansion of such forests should be the centrepiece of any climate policy. Climate scientist Ulrich Kreidenweis estimates that reforesting 2.6 billion hectares (i.e., two and a half Canadas) could entomb 860 gigatonnes of CO2 by 2100. It is unlikely that such a bounty of ‘negative emissions’ could be matched by other sequestration technologies like BECCS.

The easiest—and perhaps only—way to achieve large-scale reforestation and feed the world at the same time is through widespread veganism. In a 2016 study, modellers ran 500 sce-narios based on diet and global reforestation and found that while all of the vegan pathways and most of the vegetarian ones (94 percent) were possible, only 15 percent of the rich-world diet scenarios succeeded. Kreidenweis also found that if mass afforestation were carried out without reducing meat consumption, then food prices would jump globally by 80 percent by 2050 and by 400 percent by 2100. Whether organic (and thus low-carbon) agriculture can feed a growing global population has long been debated, and the verdict appears to be yes, but such a system cannot produce much meat or dairy. This isn’t surprising; the livestock industry requires vast monocrops of soy and maize that organic agriculture cannot easily replace. David Pimentel and his co-authors found that yields are nearly equivalent for organic vegan agriculture and industrial agriculture on a year-by-year basis. Of the major crops, it is only maize that is the victim of the ‘rotation effect,’ because it can only be planted every year on the same field through determined use of fertilizers and pesticides. Without the capitalist pressure to decrease turnover à la Bakewell, growing other crops on the same field is hardly a problem. Smaller fields (with more hedges and the like) and fewer pesticides also allow organic farms to host significantly more biodiversity than conventional ones.

Half-Earth socialism’s third aim, of constructing a com-pletely renewable energy system, only makes the problem of land scarcity more pressing. The high power density of fossil fuels, as well as renewables’ small share of the total energy mix, means that currently only 0.5 percent of US territory is occupied by its entire energy system. What would a completely renewable energy system look like in terms of land use? Energy expert Vaclav Smil estimates that such a system would take up 25 to 50 percent of the US land-mass, while rich and densely populated countries like the UK would have a ratio approaching 100 percent. Although it is the most frequently discussed facet of energy policy, converting the electricity sector to renewables would be the easy part, but that represents only about a fifth of total energy production. Smil estimates that the 320 GW of US fossil-fuel electrical production could be replaced by solar and wind power infrastructure that would take up only 22,000 km2 (an area about the size of New Hampshire). This will be much easier than the larger and trickier sectors of industry (700 GW) and transport (1,100 GW). Furthermore, some commodities lack good fossil-fuel substitutes, such as jet fuel, coke, and cement clinker. Biofuels can perform some of these tasks, but it’s best not to rely too much on these land locusts. Indeed, biofuels are the main reason why Smil’s land-­use estimates are so high. Hydrogen might become a better alternative to biofuels, but we can’t depend on its adoption anytime soon.

One way to save land would be to produce less energy, which is why Half-Earth socialism embraces quotas. The exact number can be debated, but we admire the target of the 2,000-Watt Society. This brainchild of Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology proposes a global energy consumption converging at 2,000 watts per person, which would require severe cuts in the rich world, while allowing growth in poor countries. This in itself would go a long way to level inequalities in global living standards. Today, an average US citizen uses 12,000 watts, a western European 6,000 watts, and an Indian just 1,000 watts. Indeed, much of humanity would be better off in absolute terms under Half-Earth socialism than under the current capitalist system. By instituting quotas, the energy sector would take up less land, so that even small, densely populated nations like the UK would have enough space for renewable energy, Half-Earth, and vegan agriculture. Yet it’s impossible to imagine such a programme being carried out within capitalism, for the automatic subject would soon enough champ at the bit of such restrictions. This is why conscious ­control of the economy is necessary.

An economic system resembling Half-Earth socialism can actually be found in recent history: Cuba’s Período Especial. In 1990 the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing petroleum imports to its socialist allies, and with little hard currency to buy it on the world market, Cuba had to decarbonize almost overnight. At the time, Cuba’s model of industrial cash-crop production left it more reliant on fossil-fuel inputs than US agriculture. 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. Soon, there were 26,000 urban gardens in Havana alone, allowing the city to satisfy its own requirements for fresh vegetables. The government bought more than a million bicycles from China to replace the idling buses and cars. Eating less meat and more vegetables, combined with pedalling or walking to work, led to improved health in the general population. Despite an economic contraction and the tightening of the US embargo, universal health care and education were maintained and many indices even improved. Cubans cultivated less land more intensively, returning about a third of farmland to wilderness. This has helped Cuba maintain its incredible biodiversity (it is listed among Wilson’s top thirty biomes) and led the World Wild Fund for Nature to recognize it as the world’s only ‘sustainable’ country. Cuba suffers less from common environmental problems such as invasive species, ‘colony collapse disorder,’ and plastic pollution. Cuba’s transition to an ecological society has been difficult, to say the least, but if this poor, isolated island could refashion itself during a severe economic crisis into a novel form of eco-socialism, then no rich country has an excuse for inaction.

Rewilding, energy quotas, and widespread veganism are effective, simple solutions that are available right now, even if they might struggle to find public support initially. Indeed, the example of Cuba’s Período Especial may repel as many as it attracts. They become, however, more appealing when compared to the insufficient solutions of the Half-Earth of Wilson and the WILD Foundation, nuclear power, and BECCS, which fail to trace all the interconnections between ecological and economic goals. More and Plato were well aware that utopian thought is akin to double-entry bookkeeping, because changing one side of the ledger, such as the addition of a carnivorous diet, requires a change on the side of the political economy. To the extent that they try to make these sums work, environmentalists have been willing to cook the books. We offer an honest reckoning of Half-Earth socialism because we believe that a feasible utopia is one where its costs are democratically appraised rather than hidden by the pseudorational measure of money.

Drew Pendergrass is a PhD student in Environmental Engineering at Harvard University. His current research uses satellite, aircraft and surface observations of the environment to correct supercomputer models of the atmosphere.

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian who specializes in environmental economics, animal studies, and energy history. In 2019 he completed his doctorate in history at New York University. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at Harvard University as a William Lyon Mackenzie King postdoctoral research fellow.


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