Comments on Half-Earth Socialism

[These are my introductory and concluding remarks for my interview with Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, authors of Half-Earth Socialism.]


Hello and welcome to Behind the News. My name is Doug Henwood. Just one segment today, a long interview with the Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, authors of Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics, published earlier this year by Verso.

In August, I had the geographer Matt Huber on the show. He was very critical of degrowth economics as an approach to climate change. Among his targets was this book. Huber’s critique attracted some hostile emails and tweets from listeners, as well as from one of the authors, Troy Vettese, who denounced Huber, me, and New Left Review, which published Huber’s critique on their blog, as “sausage socialists.” [Vettese has deleted his account, otherwise I’d provide a link.] I plead guilty; I like both sausage and socialism. Like Huber, I’m what degrowth sorts call, disparagingly, an ecomodernist, meaning I think it’s possible to reconcile a comfortable, technologically advanced life with avoiding climate catastrophe. Many hardcore greens dismiss these as “technical fixes,” as if they were some sort of underhanded trick.

Vettese and Pendergrass have a vision very different from ecomodernism. They think we should turn half the planet over to nature, a project known as rewilding, which would mean moving humans off about 40% of currently inhabited land; that the rich countries need to cut their energy use radically, fossil fuels must be kept in the ground, and nuclear power is unthinkable; and that we all have to become vegans. They imagine that this society will be run by planning, not markets, on a planetary scale. 


There are some things I admire about the book. The climate crisis is dire, and weak-ass approaches won’t solve the problem. This is certainly not one of those, even if it’s not mine. It’s also nice to see some utopian thinking, and it’s even nicer to see socialists with ambitious notions of planning. But I have lots of problems with it, starting with its utopianism. Utopias are a nice way of organizing our dreams and enticing people into a political project, but a flaw in utopian thinking is that it often shows not even the vaguest plan for getting there from here. Half-Earth Socialism has a very serious case of that problem. 

In one chapter of the book, they spin out a fantasy of someone who wakes up in 2047, after the half-earth revolution has triumphed. The story of how we got there (and I use “we” loosely, given my age) is rather phantasmic. There was a hurricane in the late 2020s that savaged much of the US east coast. As a desperation measure, elites tried geoengineering, sprinkling particles into the atmosphere to reduce the warming power of the sun. That was a disaster, and somehow people woke up, staged a revolution, and embraced the half-earth agenda. If you’re not going to lay out a plan for organizing this revolution, the next best thing to do, from a literary perspective, is just to write as if it happened. 

The traveler from the present who wakes up in the future finds himself in western Massachusetts, an area slated for eventual depopulation and rewilding, living communally and doing lots of farm work. Boston’s population has already been greatly reduced. I have to say this life sounds more dystopian than utopian, but maybe that’s just me.

The intellectual pedigree of the book is not without problems (though I wouldn’t go so far as Lord Acton, who said “Few discoveries are more irritating than those which expose the pedigree of ideas”—good ideas can come from unlikely places). The half-earth idea comes from E.O. Wilson, who has earned considerable infamy on the left, perhaps unfairly, for his belief in sociobiology. About that, the authors say: “[Wilson] is a bogeyman for the Left because of his book Sociobiology, which naturalized sexual and cultural differences. Apart from this admittedly reactionary research programme, Wilson is a centre-Left Democrat who thinks that policy nudges and the generosity of enlightened philanthropists suffice to achieve planetary conservation.” Ok, it’s a plausible defense. 

More troublesome is the role of Dave Foreman, the co-founder of Earth First! who died on September 19, in the intellectual history of rewilding: he was one of its earliest promoters. Foreman was a reactionary misanthropist who wanted to restrict immigration. In 1987, one of his Earth First! colleagues wrote in the organization’s journal that AIDS might solve the problem of overpopulation. Vettese and Pendergrass vigorously reject that side of rewilding in the book. Since Foreman died after the interview was recorded, I asked them to comment on his legacy. They wrote: “Instead of seeing over-population as the problem, environmentalists should see that capitalism has caused the environmental crisis and therefore only socialism can promise true sustainability. Yet, for this to happen, socialists must too learn to take the environmental crisis seriously and propose a form of conservation that abjures its colonial heritage.” They swear their vision could support the current human population of 8 billion, but they really don’t say how. Though I’m glad they’re not Malthusians, I wish they’d spent more time discussing population issues. Several times in the interview, when I criticize them for not having considered an issue adequately, they defend themselves by saying it’s a short book. It is, but maybe it should have been longer.

I’ll have more to say after the interview. But now I’ll let them make their case. Troy Vettese is an environmental historian and a Max Weber fellow at the European University Institute in Florence. Drew Pendergrass is a PhD student in Environmental Engineering at Harvard (which is where they met and much of the book was written). Vettese speaks first, defending himself by pleading former residence in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.



And now I’ll exercise my host’s privilege by getting the last word here. As was clear from my introduction, I had a lot of problems with this book. I’ll list a few more. 

Their style of argument is rather biased. They caricature and dismiss things they don’t like or agree with. Vettese said they had a whole section on nuclear power; it’s all of four pages. They spurn dissenting positions as “nonsense,” even those coming from credible sources like the climate scientist James Hansen (who says that nuclear power has saved almost two million lives over the last five decades, by reducing fossil fuel pollution) and the journalist George Monbiot. A lot of my listeners don’t like the pro-nuke position, but that’s not my point here and I’m not going to argue it. Instead of responding to arguments like these, Vettese and Pendergrass banish them, citing only sources that support them as if they were the last word on the topic. That approach no doubt pleases the crowd, but these are complex and controversial issues, and their approach is no way to advance the argument. 

But it’s not just nuclear power. Geoengineering is far more controversial even among mainstream experts than their account allows; you can find serious reservations coming out of Harvard, which they portray as the strategy’s Vatican, and the Brookings Institution, an establishment source if there ever was one. An article published by Yale’s environmental program opens by saying geoengineering has to be taken seriously, given the magnitude of the climate problem, but then pivots to its dangers, and suggests large-scale reforestation as a safer alternative. I’m not denying that the scheme has its advocates, but there’s nothing like the elite consensus the Half-Earthers describe. Or direct air carbon capture, an approach of sucking large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere that’s still in its infancy—when I pointed to lots of young technologies in the field (and who knows if they’ll work out? venture capitalists are not immune to chasing chimeras), Vettese responded by saying we’ve been talking about it for twenty years and it’s still not feasible. Computers were massive, hugely expensive, and slow as molasses twenty years after they were first deployed too. Pendergrass is more thoughtful, but he presents the challenges facing the technology as if they’re immutable, and as if proponents were unaware of them.

As I complained in the interview, they mostly consider mainstream approaches only to dismiss them, rather than engaging with them seriously. I say this not out of any love for mainstream sources, but because they’re not always wrong, and in any case, deserving of serious refutation, given their power and resources. The IPCC, which is made up of some of the world’s most distinguished environmental scientists, thinks other approaches would work, but Vettese and Pendergrass don’t say much about why they’re wrong. They don’t even give a full picture of some of the research they draw on. I quoted the conclusion of a paper by Christian Peters et al., which they cite in the book in support of their fervent veganism: “Carrying capacity was generally higher for scenarios with less meat and highest for the lacto-vegetarian diet. However, the carrying capacity of the vegan diet was lower than two of the healthy omnivore diet scenarios.” As you may have noticed, Pendergrass ignored this and answered a question of his own invention, and then pivoted to “cutting down the amount of meat,” which is not veganism, but which sounds entirely sensible to me for many reasons. (Personally, I adhere to a Leninist strategy on meat: better fewer but better, as he said of party members.) Vettese’s dismissal of the unpopularity of veganism by saying socialism too would poll poorly is belied by actual polls. A Gallup poll from last year had its approval at 38%; an Axios/Momentive poll, also from last year, had it at 41%. That’s a lot different from the poll showing that only about 2% of Americans don’t eat animal products, and 84% of vegetarians and vegans abandon their diet. Like it or not, this is a serious obstacle to their agenda.

There’s something coercive about their rhetorical strategy: if you don’t like our utopia, the alternative is doom. Other options are ruled out, almost by executive order. 

I’ll grant them this: the book is a conversation starter. But their vision is seriously lacking in political promise. Given the severity of the problem, we need to find some more appealing approaches.

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