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Half-Earth Socialism’s Five Book Plan

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Over the next generation, humanity will confront a dystopian future of climate disaster and mass extinction. Yet the only ‘solutions’ on offer are toothless cap-and-trade programmes, catastrophic geoengineering schemes, and privatized conservation, which will do nothing to reverse the damage suffered by the biosphere. Indeed, these mainstream approaches assume that hyper-consumerism in the Global North can continue unabated. It can’t.

As authors Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass argue in their thrilling and provocative new book, we must humbly accept that humanity cannot fully understand or control the earth—but we can plan new energy systems, large-scale rewilding, and food production for the common good. 

The authors collaborated with designers from the Jain Family Institute and Trust to create a video game based on the book, at play.half.earth.

Here the authors present their Five Book Plan for imagining a utopian eco-socialist future – or a future at all.

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Half-Earth Socialism is a work of utopian socialism, a tradition that has been largely ignored by the Left over the last century. Utopianism is an inherently interdisciplinary genre as a good utopian is forced to contemplate the myriad facets of a new society, from how to organise the world economy to how one eats and lives. By melding economics, ecology, philosophy, and fiction to delineate the utopia of Half-Earth socialism we were pulled into disciplines beyond our own specialties of history and physics. In short, it has been difficult for us to select only five books from the intellectual potpourri inspiring our zany manifesto.

What the books we chose have in common is a commitment to rigorous contemplation of a new society. Indeed, most people have the wrong impression of utopianism. It is not idle daydreaming, but technically difficult and politically necessary work. It is hard to dismiss William Morris’ News from Nowhere as playful fantasy after reading the chapter of ‘how the change came’. There, Morris imagines how a socialist revolution might transpire and details how a worker-led movement slowly builds dual power to finally overcome the bourgeois state. Perry Anderson called the chapter an ‘extraordinary theoretical feat [...] of remarkable complexity and verisimilitude’. We try to build upon this tradition of hard-nosed utopianism in the fourth chapter of our book, where we imagine life in the mid-twenty first century some ten years after a Half-Earth socialist revolution. It was through writing and imagining such a world that we could see more clearly for ourselves the reciprocal relationship between utopian and quotidian politics. Current struggles influence how we imagine the future, while utopian thought directs these struggles by cohering a broad coalition working together towards the shared horizon of a new society.

1) E.O. Wilson, Half-Earth (Liveright 2016)

Two thirds of our book’s title are borrowed from E. O. Wilson’s monograph, Half-Earth. Wilson – who identified hundreds of new ant species, wrote Pulitzer-prize winning popular books on ecology, and liaised with ‘race realist’ charlatans – studied the relationship between land-area and biodiversity as a young scholar in the 1960s. The insights from his seminal Theory of Island Biogeography (co-authored with Robert MacArthur) undergirded the argument of Half-Earth almost fifty years later. Wilson argued in the latter book that ‘a reduction in area [of a habitat] results in a fraction of the species disappearing in time by roughly the fourth root of the area’. To infuse lifeblood into the dry vein of mathematics, imagine ninety per cent of wild ecosystems are lost – forests turned into pastures, mountains decapitated for mines, suburbs spilling over into greenbelts – then one can expect nearly half of the species to vanish. Wilson did not have much faith that the remaining ten per cent of the wild world would provide much refuge because ‘a team of lumbermen’ could raze it ‘in a month’. Yet, if fifty per cent of the world is preserved – which would create Half-Earth – then only fifteen per cent of the world’s biodiversity would be lost. A tragedy to be sure, but not a disaster of geological proportions. (Perhaps humanity might later opt for a Two-Thirds Earth, who knows). Near the end of the book, Wilson lists eighteen ‘best places in the biosphere’ – from Californian redwood forests to Mozamqbiue’s Gorongosa National Park – that could become the kernels for an expanded system of global nature preserves.

We build upon Wilson’s idea because it is not sufficient in itself. Most importantly, conservationists need to reckon with their movement’s dark past if they want to build a broad coalition that could actually realise their biodiverse utopia. The history of Half-Earth includes other conservationists beyond Wilson – indeed, some are so nefarious as to make him appear mostly harmless. For example, the founders of the WILD Foundation include a Jungian con-man, an admirer of Rhodesia and pioneer in militarised conservation, as well as a game ranger who worked closely with the Apartheid government and the quising Inkatha Freedom Party. The new allies of the conservation movement are billionaire philanthropists, which has led to the delusion that half the world could be bought and turned into ranches for big game hunters and gourmands. Given this history, it may be tempting for socialists to renounce the goal of conservation altogether. Instead the Left needs a radical conservation programme to ensure a task as enormous as Half-Earth is justly realised. Decolonizing conservation has myriad benefits for biodiversity, climate, and people alike, as Indigenous-managed forests sequester twice as much carbon as other lands and support more biodiversity than conventional nature reserves. Protecting the biosphere must be a priority. The Left and its allies cannot stand by and let the worst extinction event in sixty-six millions years transpire without a fight.

We also chose to name Half-Earth Socialism after Wilson’s concept because it expresses the humility and groundedness of our project. We wanted to discuss the environmental crisis in all of its facets – not just climate change – because the Left so far has shown little interest in biodiversity or animal rights. Furthermore, Half-Earth foregrounds the problem of land scarcity because there are trade-offs between the competing goals of meat production, biofuels, and conservation. To create Half-Earth, conservationists must embrace socialism, and socialists should imagine a new utopia predicated upon a new relationship to nature.

2) Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea  (Parnassus 1968)

Ursula Le Guin not only transformed the genre of science fiction, she also changed the way socialists imagined utopias. Fredric Jameson described her books as an exercise in ‘world-reduction’, by which he meant Le Guin’s practice of honing in on questions that interested her – the genderless society in The Left Hand of Darkness – by shedding everything that could clutter her thought experiment. Her spare writing style differed from the genre’s frequent striving for the grandiose; instead of space operas, Le Guin’s books were ‘anti-Dune’ in Jameson’s judgement. She explained that her ‘carrier bag of fiction’ was filled with ‘far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions’ and was instead ‘full of space ships that get stuck, missions that fail, and people who don't understand’. She had little interest in stories of Promethean mastery or easy utopias, and instead focussed on the friction encountered in changing the world.

Le Guin’s overtly political novel The Dispossessed might seem the most relevant for socialist theorising (and indeed is widely admired on the Left), yet we were surprised by the unexpected resonances between our book and A Wizard of Earthsea. In Earthsea, a wizard’s magic comes from knowing the ‘true names’ of nature, and Ged – the magical young protagonist – must study ‘the name of every cape, point, bay, sound, inlet, channel, harbor, shallows, reef and rock of the shores of Lossow, a little islet of the Pelnish Sea’. Despite their prodigious learning, wizards accept the limits of knowledge. ‘The lists [of True Names] are not finished,’ Ged is told. ‘Nor will they be, till world’s end.’ Half-Earth Socialism espouses a similar epistemology (a philosophy of knowledge). To counter Marxism’s congenital ‘Prometheanism’ – the desire to dominate nature – we engage with the ideology’s roots in the works of GWF Hegel, a philosopher who deeply influenced Karl Marx. Hegel believed history was propelled by the ‘humanization of nature’, the process where the alien natural world is transformed by labour. When people turn a river into a canal or a forest into a field, they see human consciousness reflected back at themselves and thus reconcile with this ‘humanised’ nature. Both Hegel and Marx welcomed a future where the entire world would be humanised. We counter that Prometheanism is a dangerous creed and the attempt to fully humanise nature will inevitably crash into the accumulating debris of a wrecked biosphere long before it is achieved. Half-Earth is a kind of ‘world-reduction’, as the humanisation of nature must be careful and even reversed (i.e., rewilded) to ensure the stability of essential systems we do not fully understand.

Ged learns the lesson of epistemic humility after casting a spell he half understands and accidentally releases a daemonic ‘shadow’. Zoonotic diseases, which emerge from disturbing biomes and the brutal livestock industry, are shadows of a foolhardy humanisation of nature. In his Jena Lectures, Hegel speaks of the ‘name-giving power’ of language, where Geist incorporates nature into the ‘realm of names’. Perhaps one day humanity will see the magic in trying to know nature without seeking dominion over it.

3) Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste  (Verso 2013)

Late in 2013, Vettese heard Philip Mirowski speak at e-flux, an artists’ den on East Broadway in Manhattan. Mirowski, a science and technology scholar who had previously studied neoclassical economics and the commodification of university research, was presenting his new work on the history of neoliberalism – an ideology commonly associated with the conservative reforms of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan – and its near-death experience after the 2008 financial crisis. Mirowski is an idiosyncratic scholar, whose lectures can be compared to a Cormac MacCarthy novel spoken aloud – erudite, bizarre, menacing, and bleak. Vettese was enchanted. Mirowksi makes clear the necessity of taking neoliberal thought seriously, rather than dismissing it as mindless ‘market fundamentalism’. Mirowski clearly defines neoliberalism as the belief in the market as an ‘über information processor’ able to efficiently discover and collect knowledge in the form of prices. It was this epistemological turn in the inter-war period that cohered the nascent neoliberal movement and encouraged its hostility to rival knowledge-producing institutions, such as university science.

Half-Earth Socialism engages closely with neoliberal thought. In the introduction, we imagine the next twenty-five years of neoliberal hegemony, which in many ways was inspired by the final chapter in Mirowski’s Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste. In both cases, toothless cap-and-trade programmes buy time for the neoliberals’ preferred solution to the climate crisis: geoengineering. Rather than infringing on the semi-divine market by restricting fossil fuel firms and the many auxiliary industries that depend upon them, scientist-entrepreneurs will develop reckless schemes such as ‘solar radiation management’ (SRM) to manage the climate crisis. SRM relies on high-flying jets to spray sulphur high into the stratosphere in order to reflect sunlight back into space and thus cool the Earth. The consequences of SRM are unpredictable but likely to be dire. Avoiding such a future requires the renewal of the socialist movement within a broad coalition. We believe the Left should engage in self-critique, as neoliberals did after the Great Depression demolished their erstwhile faith in laissez faire. In Half-Earth Socialism, we similarly begin with the epistemological question of ‘what can we know’ and answer that the biosphere is far more unknowable than the economy. With this principle in place, we see the need to control the economy within planetary boundaries to protect complex systems we cannot fully understand. Mirowski shows the need to understand the ruthless and adaptable neoliberal movement, but perhaps the Left can learn from it too.

4) Otto Neurath, Economic Writings Selections 1904–1945  (Springer 2004)

Although in the popular imagination neoliberalism was born in the conservative revolution of the 1980s, its true origins lie in a memorandum written by a socialist named Otto Neurath. A largely forgotten polymath from early twentieth century Vienna, Neurath articulated a highly original vision of economic democracy that sparked the ‘socialist calculation debate’ between neoliberals and the Left. In 1919, Neurath was appointed the head planner for the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, which emerged during the German Revolution after World War I. His proposed method was based on his experience as a war planner and study on the moneyless economy of ancient Egypt. In ‘Through War Economy and Economy in-Kind’ he extended the lessons learned from wartime planning to a socialist utopia: ‘during the war people everywhere turned toward a conscious shaping of life’ because production needed to be carried out in a way that ‘might not in itself be profitable’. If war planners quickly got rid of profit to guide their decisions, they too realised there was no other universal metric – no ‘war units’ – to guide their schemes. Instead, ‘total plans’ were what mattered, an approach that could be adopted by socialist planners to build new utopias. Neurath imagined planners and parliaments debating several possible blueprints for the future that would balance trade-offs through the ‘scientific study of utopias’. For example, does society want more houses or shorter working hours? Neurath’s memorandum provoked the ire of Ludwig von Mises, a conservative economist and Neurath’s former colleague at the Ministry of War. Mises laid the foundation of neoliberal epistemology by claiming Neurath’s economy would collapse without the information-gathering capacity of markets. Yet, it is notable that at the very beginning of the debate, Mises conceded to Neurath that the market could not properly value the environment.

By studying this early exchange between these two Austrian rivals, it becomes possible to imagine a new socialism fit for our age of environmental crisis. We agree with Neurath’s critique of capitalist ‘pseudorationality’ because the market will never accept the rationale of letting trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels languish ground. Instead, humanity should collectively decide what kind of world it wants to live in. A new generation of Neurathian planners would use physical units (e.g., steel, land, concrete, labour, petroleum, lithium) rather than money and estimate the consequences of such plans on living standards and the biosphere. This might sound technocratic, but Neurath was deeply hostile to the rule of experts. He lambasted ‘the totalitarian kind [who] may try to make scientists the leaders of a new society [...] like the magicians, nobles, or churchmen of former societies.’ Neoliberals may be priests of the market, but Neurath knew socialism required an educated and engaged citizenry. By collaborating with artists Marie Reidemeister and Gerd Arntz, Neurath created the ISOTYPE pictorial language — a precursor to infographics today — to help the Austrian working class visualise the economy. If they could see the economy, Neurath believed, then they could imagine one day controlling it. This is why neoliberals stress the inscrutability of the market. Our attempt to practise Neurathian pedagogy is a video game based on Half-Earth Socialism (available at http://half.earth). You play as a planetary planner experimenting with a wide variety of technologies and policies to create the good life for all and overcome the environmental crisis. In a nod to Neurath’s call for ‘scientific utopias’, our game includes a real climate model. Hopefully, your plans win democratic approval and avoid catastrophe along the path to ecological stability.

5) Eden Medina, Cybernetic Revolutionaries  (MIT 2011)

Most socialists thought that Neurath lost the first round of the socialist calculation debate to Mises because Neurath offered no mechanisms for drawing up and realising his proposed ‘total plans’. War economies, after all, are hardly paragons of freedom and efficiency. The neoliberal critique of socialism was based on the impossibility of collecting the information needed for planning. How then can humanity co-ordinate the world economy without markets? In Half-Earth Socialism we journey through the twentieth century to survey experiments in planning to glean how Neurath’s vision might be realised. For example, we examine mathematician Leonid Kantorovich’s achievement in the 1930s of creating the field of linear programming, as well as his failed effort in the 1960s to ‘program the USSR’. We also draw on historian Diana Kurkovsky-West’s research on Olga Burmatov, who developed novel tools in the 1980s to jointly consider ecological and economic factors while planning a huge new railway in Siberia.

One of the fruitful case studies that we draw on is Chile’s Cybersyn (or Synco in Spanish). To understand this oft-admired socailist project, we relied on Eden Medina’s excellent historical monograph, Cybernetic Revolutionaries. After the election of Salvador Allende in 1970, the government attempted to transition from capitalism to democratic socialism. The public sector grew rapidly as firms were nationalised, and Allende and his staff recognised that a new kind of management was needed to uphold their egalitarian principles while maintaining economic productivity. The government invited Stafford Beer, a consultant whose book Cybernetics and Management had recently been translated into Spanish. Cybernetics was a new, sprawling field focussed on human-machine interfaces. Beer believed that complex systems like the economy could be controlled, but that the controller should create a model with the flexibility and complexity commensurate with the original system. His approach, the ‘viable system model’, assumed that worker self-management would be largely sufficient to co-ordinate activity at a single firm, but that additional levels of co-ordination were necessary to ensure that firms received the materials they needed, that investment was rationally dispersed, that crises could be overcome, and that the economy as a whole could be directed towards collectively decided ends. In Half-Earth Socialism, we try to update Beer’s cybernetic vision with advances that have accrued over the past half-century, especially in Pendergrass’s field of climate modelling and data assimilation. Medina’s history reveals the creativity and courage of those trying to create socialism in Chile before the neoliberal-led coup crushed it. Today, socialists can learn from their movement’s past to create scientific utopias for the future.