LBO News from Doug Henwood

Fresh audio product: politics after the elections, racism vs. social democracy

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

November 17, 2022 Jodi Dean on the political landscape in the wake of last week’s election • Tobias Hübinette, author of this article, on the role of immigration in the backlash against Swedish social democracy

Fresh audio product: Israel moves further right, Iran’s tripartite structure, Ontario labor upsurge

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November 10, 2022 Joel Schalit on the return of Bibi Netanyahu in Israel, now in coalition with the religious right • Mohammad Salemy on the tripartite structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran • Megan Kinch, about a labor upsurge in Ontario

fresh audio product: Brazil and Iran

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November 3, 2022 political economist Alfredo Saad-Filho on the Brazilian elections • Mina Khani and Mohammad Salemy on the women-led uprising in Iran

Fresh audio product: why are teens so troubled?, the state of the new young left

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October 27, 2022 Jamieson Webster, author of this article, examines what severe psychological distress among adolescents is telling us about American society • Raina Lipsitz, author of The Rise of a New Left, looks at the history, personnel, and status of today’s radicalism

fresh audio product: Saudi Arabia and British meltdown

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October 20, 2022 Annelle Sheline of the Quincy Institute explains why Saudi Arabia cut its oil production dramatically • James Meadway, former adviser to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and now director of the Progressive Economy Forum, explains why Britain is in economic and political crisis

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.

Fresh audio product: Half-Earth Socialism

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

October 13, 2022 Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, authors of Half-Earth Socialismon their scheme to save the world

Fresh audio product: Brazil elections and right-wing women leaders

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October 6, 2022 Forrest Hylton on the Brazilian elections • Dorit Geva on why women leaders are prominent on the far right these days (papers here and here)

Fresh audio product: Ukraine and abortion

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September 29, 2022 Anatol Lieven on the horror in Ukraine and diminishing chances for peace • Anne Rumberger, author of this article, on the history of the Christian right’s attitudes toward abortion (they weren’t always against it)

Fresh audio product: remembering Barbara Ehrenreich

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September 22, 2022 a memorial to Barbara Ehrenreich, who died at 81 on September 1, featuring three BtN interviews with her from 2004, 2005, and 2009

fresh audio product: child poverty, more on Chile, and the politics of grievance

Just added to my radio archive (click on date for link):

September 15, 2022 DH on child poverty: how much was it down? • another view of the Chilean constitutional referendum, this from Mario Pino • Arielle Angel, editor of Jewish Currents and author of this article, explores the problems with organizing your politics around grievance

Fresh audio product: Chilean constitution, student debt relief

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September 8, 2022 Chilean political activist Antonia Atria explains why that country’s voters rejected a proposed new constitution • Juliana Fredman, a public interest lawyer in the Bay Area, analyzes Biden’s student debt relief plan

Fresh audio product: Mark Fisher and climate austerity

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August 25, 2022 Matt Colquhoun talks about Mark Fisher on the reissue of his essay collection Ghosts of My Life, and Matt Huber, author of this review, criticizes the climate austerity camp

fresh audio product: Stanford and Thiel, Sri Lanka

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August 18, 2022 David Palumbo-Liu on the politics of Stanford University and its infamous alum, Peter Thiel • the political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka, analyzed by the writer Indrajit Samarajiva

Underscoring the “con” in semiconductors

Well that didn’t take long.

Just nine days ago I wrote about how Washington was picking up the check for the semiconductor industry’s aggressive stock buyback programs, distributing billions in subsidies to an industry that could have funded itself if it hadn’t chosen to shower its shareholders with cash. And despite the passage of the wittily named CHIPS Act, which was supposed to encourage real investment in research and production, they’re turning the taps on the cash shower on again. The Financial Times reports:

On the same day that Congress passed the law, Intel, which is expected to be the biggest beneficiary of government grants, sliced $4bn from its capital spending plans for the rest of this year, although it said that it was still committed to a “strong and growing dividend” for its shareholders.

Meanwhile, Micron, which celebrated President Joe Biden’s signing of the legislation last week with the announcement that it planned to invest $40bn in the US by the end of the decade, was forced just a day later to say it would cut its capital spending “meaningfully” next year because of the downturn.

OK, business is slowing. But investment—in real things, not financial assets—is supposed to be governed by the long view. Clearly it isn’t. Once again, American capitalism proves that shareholder value is the most sacred value of all.

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