Must collapse be inevitable? Imagining a “half-Earth” sustainable economy

It seems vastly easier to imagine the future as a dystopian nightmare than as a time when today’s problems are mostly behind humanity. For every work of optimism, such as Star Trek, there are dozens of works imagining a nightmare world of deprivation, environmental destruction and severe repression amidst a world of people scrambling to survive anyway they can in a war of all against all.

Even if a cultural byproduct rather than an intentional construction, this depressing ratio of future scenarios is the inevitable result of capitalism. From cradle to grave, we are endlessly bombarded with propaganda incessantly telling us that humans are competitive, not cooperative, and that individualism is the highest expression of “freedom.” Cut-throat competition is the natural way of the world, as natural as the tides of the ocean, and that participation in struggles against other human beings is the only possible method of organization in a world in which countries and nations also compete fiercely because the world must be organized into “winners” and “losers” through competition. Greed is not only good, it is the primary characteristic driving human behavior because markets sort who those “winners” and “losers” are.

All in the above paragraph is nothing more than propaganda in the service of capitalist elites, the “ruling class” of any capitalist country. Markets, in a capitalist economy, are not dispassionate entities sitting loftily in the clouds making judgements. In reality, they are nothing more than expressions of the aggregate interests of the most powerful and largest industrialists and financiers. Who is this individualistic “freedom” for? It is “freedom” for industrialists and financiers to rule over, control and exploit the vast majority of humanity. “Justice” becomes the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

It can’t be repeated too often that capitalism is just another system created by human beings, and everything of human creation comes to an end. It is simply one more system of exploitation, one more system to advantage a numerically tiny class at the expense of everybody else. Increasing numbers of people do realize that the days of capitalism are numbered, and with the deprivation that capitalism increasingly imposes on people, and the stunting of human potential that goes with that, it is no surprise that multiple polls have shown young people about equally in favor of capitalism and socialism. That half of respondents are able to overcome the bombardment of capitalist propaganda issued through every imaginable channel is a harbinger that the phrase “a better world is possible” is not pie in the sky.

Imagining a concrete future better world, one based on realistic prognosis using some of the bricks of today to build tomorrow because a tabula rasa is not possible, and realistically meeting human needs in a sustainable economy, is an under-appreciated task. Especially given the endless production of dystopian futures churned out by Hollywood and other corporate cultural producers, it is vital that scenarios of better future worlds be conjured and communicated widely.

That future better world will have to be socialist, in some form. It can’t be capitalist — the system that is driving humanity toward catastrophe and shows no ability to deviate from rushing toward a cliff can’t save itself. There will be new technologies in a future better world, but there won’t be magic techno-fixes. A sustainable world will also be a world in which the peoples of the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less and more sustainably. But limits won’t be imposed by a government, socialist or otherwise; limits will be imposed by nature and the limits to resources it provides. When fossil fuels dwindle, reduced energy usage will be forced upon us. We can begin to adjust and develop renewable alternatives now on a systemic basis, or have it imposed in a more difficult fashion later.

An extraordinary solution for an extraordinary problem

A worthy addition to the literature of a better world of the future is Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics* by environmental historian Troy Vettese and environmental engineer doctoral student Drew Pendergrass. The two authors have produced a lively, interesting book that sketches out a sustainable world that is socialist. The Half-Earth in its title refers to the thesis that 50 percent of Earth’s land surface needs to be “re-wilded” — allowed to return to forests and grasslands — because that is the only way that the majority of the planet’s species can survive.

At first glance, the concept of “re-wilding” half our planet’s land sounds nearly insane. Under present political conditions, it certainly is impossible and unthinkable. Similar to working people flocking to work in oil and gas production, even tar sands and fracking, despite the environmental damage of such work because capitalist economies offer them no alternatives, who today would have any incentive to leave their homes in the service of returning land to nature? Such a concept could only be possible in a people-centric system that would incentivize people to move and do so over a timescale of decades so that those who wished to stay where they are could do so, free of any pressures, and in a time when environmental needs are at the forefront of popular thinking.

Let us acknowledge that a concept such as re-wilding half of Earth is a proposition that seems fantastic to almost all of us, myself included. An extraordinarily drastic solution, even when acknowledging that humanity faces an extraordinary problem. So let’s take a step back for the moment from this idea, and instead allow the authors to build their case and give us a sense of what such a world might look like.

Housatonic Meadows State Park in Connecticut (photo by Morrowlong)

Half-Earth Socialism opens by sketching out what the world might be like in 2047 if present conditions continue unchecked. This is a future in which geo-engineering is unilaterally undertaken by the U.S. government after a catastrophic hurricane devastates the Northeast U.S., and it goes bad, causing a cascade of problems including atmospheric ozone depletion. There is a temporary planetary cooling because of the aerosols thrown into the atmosphere by the geo-engineering project, but in response fossil fuel usages begins to increase again, more climate disruptions cause more problems, ozone depletion becomes worse, agriculture is disrupted and the threat to the prevailing order by social movements peaks and subsides. Capitalist business as usual prevails.

“The problem was that the greens mistook slowing down the pace of the environmental crisis for victory, rather than merely a defeat postponed,” Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write in imaging this business-as-usual scenario of 2047. “Despite briefly tasting power, the environmentalists accomplished little because they never elucidated how the various facets of the environmental crisis — climate change, pandemics, and mass extinctions — were interlinked; nor did they articulate what a post-crisis society might actually look like. The ruling class had long been clever and ruthless, but they were also fortunate to face such hapless opponents.”

Does that judgment seem harsh? It shouldn’t. Mainstream environmental groups, who mostly subscribe to liberal ideas and concepts, today do seek piecemeal solutions to systemic problems, staying within the “acceptable” boundaries of capitalist discourse. This is not to suggest that a typical leader of a national environmental group is insincere, but rather that imaginations are often circumscribed and that leaders often seek “practicality” in the sense of staying within accepted parameters, failing to challenge larger capitalist orthodoxies and being mindful of how far their corporate funders would be willing to go. So although a typical leader of a large environmental group likely believes that they are doing what is possible, they nonetheless often lag well behind their rank-and-file, grassroots members. Can we really expect the totalizing ideology of capitalism not to infiltrate environmental thinking?

Why is the environment outsourced to the market?

The dystopia with which Half-Earth Socialism opens is not inevitable, the authors write, saying that they seek to encourage the environmental movement to take seriously the challenge of creating a better society in a stabilized biosphere. A rapid growth of alternative renewable energy sources is not enough if fossil fuel usage doesn’t decline drastically. The authors ask: Why is the environment outsourced to the market? They then lead the reader through a discussion of neoliberalism, as most of the world calls the present stage of capitalism, tracing its birth to a conference led by Friedrich Hayek in 1947. Hayek believed that markets “communicated information” and that neoliberals are committed to “simple and powerful axioms” that enable them to offer prescriptions and act. Neoliberals can be beaten, the authors write, if socialists and environmentalists create a diverse coalition and learn from one another. In the absence of such a coalition, “racist-libertarians” such as the “alt-right,” Brexiteers and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) will be neoliberalism’s only competition.

A crucial point that Half-Earth Socialism repeatedly makes is that nature is unknowable. “Nature is more unknowable than the market” and deserving of awe as unimaginably complex. This idea is backed up by a discussion of Biosphere 2, the 1990s experiment in which a living, sustainable biosphere was created inside a dome but failed badly, with the human “biospherians” left short of food and oxygen while most life and the coral reefs died. The neoliberal goal of “humanizing” nature — in essence, turning all of nature into exploitable capital — is not realistic. The inventor of “cap and trade” carbon and pollution schemes actually believed that clean air and water were “luxury goods”! Thus “the humanization of nature must proceed in conditions of ignorance,” Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write; with a continuation of that process, zoonotic diseases (those jumping from animals to humans) and other dangers will continue unabated.

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

Readers are also led through a discussion of why mainstream panaceas proposed by environmentalists are not feasible or realistic. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a favorite scheme often promoted as a way of reversing atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup, is a chimera. The technology to remove carbon dioxide and store it underground sufficient to reverse global warming doesn’t exist and can’t be a solution. To do what it is advertised to do, BECCS would require land bigger than India — so much land would have to be cleared that BECCS would become a net producer of greenhouse gases. This sort of concept is an example of mainstream environmentalists seeing a “set of discrete technical problems” to be tackled through piecemeal reform while leaving capitalist foundations untouched. Nuclear energy is also no solution, despite its promotion by some environmentalists, not only because of radiation and radioactive waste, but because nuclear is more carbon-intensive than renewables. (The authors don’t mention the finances of nuclear power, but the entire industry only exists because of massive subsidies; nuclear is completely uneconomical.)

Such proposals have “almost no chance of being implemented” despite concessions that are made by proponents; BECCS, nuclear power and biofuels will fail due to “lack of utopian imagination” and because the environmental crisis can’t be understood outside the structure of the society causing the crisis.

Any half-Earth coalition “must be a broad one,” the authors stress, and suggest that the wide popularity of anti-nuclear movements would provide a firm pillar of any such coalition. Advocates of BECCS and nuclear power are trying to maintain as much of the status quo as possible. Instead, it is better to be realistic about what lies ahead and the trade-offs that must be made. Half-Earth Socialism acknowledges that giving up meat and energy quotas won’t be popular for many people, but are nonetheless better and more viable than mainstream alternatives.

Balancing human needs with planetary boundaries

So what are the specifics of half-Earth socialism? The goals, Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write, are to prevent the sixth mass extinction, “natural geo-engineering” to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and create a fully renewable energy system. Re-wilding means re-forestation, renewed grasslands, restoring wild animals and rebuilding stocks of fish and whales. Likely the only way to accomplish all this and have enough food for 10 billion people would be through “widespread veganism” and energy quotas. A quota of 2,000 watts per person would be a significant reduction for most living in the Global North but a large increase for the Global South. Needless to say, farming would become all organic. Trade-offs are inevitable, and should be addressed honestly rather than “cooking the books” as mainstream environmentalists can do:

“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.” [page 84]

What is proposed is half-Earth socialism, with heavy stress on socialism. This is to differentiate from reactionary promoters of half-Earth re-wilding that should be rejected. “Half-Earth must be socialist,” Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write. That means fully democratic and publicly supported. The proposals of far-thinking economists in the former Soviet Union failed to gain ground due to lack of a democratic movement to support them and the inability of Western climate scientists’ models to be taken with the necessary seriousness follows from the absence of social movements strong enough to put them into practice.

Half-Earth socialism would need to balance human needs with planetary boundaries, working through a myriad of factors. A fully democratically accountable planning organization could offer several scenarios with differing parameters and trade-offs, with decisions made either by elected representatives or a global referendum where everybody is eligible to vote. The authors whimsically call their planning agency “Gosplant,” quickly adding “forgive us” with the introduction. (The name is a play on “Gosplan,” the name of the planning agency in the Soviet Union, but unlike Gosplan, “Gosplant” would be fully democratic and based on public input.)

This wouldn’t be easy at the start, and realistically shouldn’t be expected to be easy. The planning agency would need to determine energy quotas and to balance land use and greenhouse gas emissions. This would be made more challenging by the difficulty of electrifying transport and some industrial processes. Widespread veganism would make this much easier because animal agriculture uses up so much land and is responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions. Trade-offs would be required in every plan or scenario. There would also be some temporary measures that would be phased out when practical.

“Wide-ranging improvements to industrial processes to reduce pollution, fuel use, and waste are undertaken in just about every industry. Large swathes of manufacturing become rationalized when ‘planned obsolescence’ itself is made obsolete. Resources are directed towards building solar panels, wind turbines, super-efficient insulation, and railways. Immediately after the Half-Earth socialist revolution, much of the world’s pasture is converted into biofuel plantations for the short-term decarbonization of transport and industry, while the remainder is rewilded, which in turn requires an expanded cadre of ecologists and foresters trained in both conventional science and traditional Indigenous knowledge.” [pages 110-111]

The planning agency does not dictate what the future should be or how the economy should be run, but rather would provide the public and its representatives with blueprints. Making economics understandable for everyone is a pre-condition for a socialist democracy. The planning agency would educate citizens on how the economy and the biosphere work. “Half-Earth socialism would not be some distant, top-down technocracy but rather a relatively simple democratic system, based on robust public education and involvement. An informed citizenry would be well-equipped to choose among the competing plans devised by the planners.”

Planning would need a balance of flexible local decision-making with some measure of central control, with continual refinement for specific outcomes. The idea here would be that an approved plan, whether approved by a world parliament or by popular referendum, would be “coarse” — it would be a general guide with local and regional economic plans based on it being more detailed and tailored to those local and regional needs. Decisions on plans would occur after copious popular discussion and would be flexible so that changes in raw materials and component allocations could be made as shortages appear in one area and excesses in another.

Building the future with tools we already possess

The technology to make this level of planning a reality already exists, Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write:

“Every element of Half-Earth socialism’s ‘vast machine’ of planetary calculation is based on already existing technologies. The central algorithms in the model would take advantage of many of the insights and engineering designs that climate scientists have spent decades developing. Its tiered structure could draw on the nesting pattern found in environmental and atmospheric models, with global and local simulations constantly interacting and updating one another. … All this data does not mean that we fully know nature, only that Half-Earth socialist planners would have access to the vital signs of the planet so they could modify humanity’s interchange with nature when necessary.” [pages 129-130]

Lurking in the background is the experience of the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites, which collapsed. In acknowledging this history, the authors note that those failures must be reckoned with and that people must have a direct say in social and economic decisions.

“Socialism is a society emancipated from the relentless, unconscious, and irrational power of capital. Living in a planned society should feel better and freer, with a sense of solidarity and freedom from the threat of poverty. Democracy and meaningful work are not mere side effects of a socialist economy but central for planning to function.” [page 130]

Accepting limits and trade-offs is also central to such a project. Postulating that socialism leads to shortages just as capitalism leads to surplus production that results in inequality, unemployment and environmental catastrophe, disadvantages must be accepted if we want the benefits. Crucially, the sketches of the book are “starting points for a deeper discussion of how socialism should function in an age of ecological crisis.” The book concludes with a fictional chapter describing a functioning half-Earth socialist democracy in western Massachusetts, written with a nod to William Morris’ utopian novel News From Nowhere. Bicycling is the main transport method here because public transport, as is the case across the U.S., badly lags other countries, something the people of this region are coping with.

Downtown Amherst, Massachusetts. Might be difficult to re-wild. (Photo by AlexiusHoratius)

Half-Earth Socialism is not a utopia, even though the authors have a practical utopian streak in them. They conclude by stating that humanity’s choices are “further humanization of nature through mad [geo-engineering] schemes” or “to plan an economy within planetary boundaries.” Everyone would have the essentials but “occasionally it might be necessary to stand in queue.” As the authors put it, there will be more comfort than what Cubans experienced during the early 1990s “special period” but “less than a typical eco-Yuppie in the Global North who installs solar panels on the roof of their McMansions … and has a $70,000 electric car in the garage.”

As I have said in previous book reviews, the judgment to be made is whether an excellent contribution to the literature has been made, not whether we agree with all the details and theses. I will say here that I do agree with a huge majority of the contents but even if I had more disagreements, I would still recommend Half-Earth Socialism. Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass have provided us with a marvelous, needed concept for how to organize a realistic better world, one recognizable from the standpoint of today. The one thing missing, however, is substantial — there are no ideas provided on how we might get from today to a half-Earth socialist democracy tomorrow. Also missing is how a transition to re-wilding half the land could be carried out, other than it would be a slow, decades-long transition.

I won’t consider these fatal flaws, for how to ignite and see through a successful revolution is something none of us possess today, nor can we alone. I have long said if I knew the secret, I’d tell everybody and not keep it to myself. What is essential is that we have practical, realistic ideas based on the limits our planet imposes on us if we are ever going to be in a position to create a better world. On that important metric, Half-Earth Socialism should be widely read.

* Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics [Verso, London and Brooklyn, 2022]

3 comments on “Must collapse be inevitable? Imagining a “half-Earth” sustainable economy

  1. iamselma says:

    My understanding of the nature of the crisis is that global warming will cause soil in all of the earth’s most arable regions to become too hot for crops to grow. I’ve never seen anyone hypothesize that we will be capable of sustaining a limited geographical area. Perhaps in the short term, for a decade or two. As sea levels rise dramatically, there will need to be coastal evacuations. So who will remain behind to run the nuclear power plants, and to ensure that coolant continues to be circulated? And the “wet bulb” temperature and humidity will cause millions of people to die of heat prostration. As it is, temperatures in Karachi and much of India, I believe 1/3 of the country, have gone up to 148 degrees F every summer for the past several years. It will be impossible for farmworkers to harvest crops in this heat, and no one will want to do the work. Billionaires living in climate controlled bubbles will be able to set up their own sustainable food supply, but who knows for how long.

    Carol

  2. […] Pete Dolack Writer, Dandelion Salad Systemic Disorder, July 6, 2022 July 9, […]

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