How to Steer a Half-Built Ship?

Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass’s Half-Earth Socialism makes provocative forays into future-building beyond the environmental mainstream.


In the Dialectics of the Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer compare the enchanting voice of the sirens – spell-binding the course of the Odysseus – to the bewitching force of Capital that imprisons the worker and the owner in servitude of capitalism. Ulysses, the story’s capitalist, is strapped to the mast, and the rowers of the Odysseus whose ears are waxed, become servants to the sirens’ subjugating call. Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass take the metaphor even further. As the current helmsman of Spaceship Earth, Capital prevents both people and capitalists from steering away from the choppy waters of the environmental crisis.

Half-Earth Socialism is a bold attempt to pin down the neoliberal tune that has cradled us into accepting half-measured tweaks to our system rather than fully-fledged structural and political reforms. Its main premise is that the conceptual simplicity of Hayekian neoliberal axioms – namely that the market’s price system produces knowledge better than any institution – allows neoliberals to rule whilst the Left tries to ‘out-Hayek Hayek’ by branding nature as even more complex and unknowable as the free market. In the book, the authors take planning seriously and unearth forgotten planning theorists like Otto Neurath and Leonid Kantorovich to propose a compelling alternative proposal that wields planning against market governance.

The writing is expedient and blunt. Its apocalyptic incipit foreshadows a sadly probable future. By 2029, unabated climate change and its impacts on the poor justify wide-spread use of geoengineering. Disaster capitalism takes its most mature form when solar radiation management is invoked as a deus-ex-machina to reduce the risk ratings of catastrophe bonds. This gloomy outcome is pre-emptively diagnosed by the authors as the culmination of mainstream environmentalism that treats the environmental crisis as ‘discrete technical problems, addressable through carbon-centric piecemeal reform, which leave the capitalist foundation of the society untouched.’

The book rightfully discredits vain hopes of achieving green growth through negative emission technologies and electrification policies, given their rebound effects – the absolute increase in emissions of such policies cancels out their relative gains in carbon efficiency. By the tenth page, the authors have summarised the grim situation that most environmental books drag on before routinely concluding with the underwhelming 10-points-to-save-the-world epilogue. The book can be praised for avoiding redundant book-length tangents into a review of the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ or an eternal return of the same text-book criticism of capitalism. In Vettese and Pendergrass’ view, the political and economic roots of the crisis vindicate their firm stance that only anti-neoliberal politics can bring forth much-needed change.

BECCS and Nuclear Power as Heterodystopias?

For the authors, radical politics requires understanding neoliberalism’s success story, namely its relation to knowledge. With information diffused in society, this economic doctrine claims that the unconscious control of the market is most apt to coordinate the unknowability or protean nature of knowledge. Avoiding the usual canon of John Locke and René Descartes, the authors find in Friedrich Hegel and Thomas Malthus the genesis of the promethean thought that man can control nature and populations. In their view, Malthusianism and Hegelian humanisation of nature pervade current framings of climate governance, of which the authors diagnose three manifestations: Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), nuclear power, and half-earth – which entails concentrating human activities on half of the land cover to spare the rest for natural regeneration.

The dystopic and conflictual future embedded in ‘quick fix’ climate solutions could be coined a ‘heterodystopia’.

Hegel’s humanisation of nature undergirds the rationale behind BECCS, where forests, quick-growing grass or even algae are productively grown to produce biomass for energy production and the carbon they sequester is captured when burnt and stored underground. However, the exorbitantly high carbon price needed to make BECCS a reality – rather than the figment of the imagination of a handful of modellers trying to get their 1.5 degree scenarios to work – cannot measure the drastic impacts that it would have on complex natural and social ecosystems. Drawing on the thought of Otto Neurath, the authors highlight the insidiousness of universal equivalents like carbon prices, that disregard political economies and massively simplify land struggles.

Adding insult to injury, land-hungry BECCS is extremely carbon intensive – meaning that it emits almost more emissions than it can sequester. Surprisingly, nuclear is also challenged for its carbon footprint despite its generally accepted zero-carbon credentials. Often discredited for being unsafe and too costly, nuclear’s slightly higher carbon-intensity in comparison with renewables leads the authors to dismiss it entirely. When including the surface area taken up for cooling and extracting uranium – which is expected to become increasingly land hungry as nuclear capacity is expanded – nuclear’s mean carbon footprint of 66 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour surpasses the 50 and 34 for solar and wind respectively. For the authors, the promise of politically friendly BECCS or of ‘fast-breeder’ nuclear plants using uranium waste as fuel to lower their carbon footprint, is technological optimism. With constant government announcements of breakthroughs to come, such solutions ‘seem to exist everywhere except in physical form.’ Given the authors unapologetic disapproval of both proposals, branding them as ‘demi-utopias’ sounds weirdly flattering. Instead, the dystopic and conflictual future embedded in these climate solutions could rather be coined ‘heterodystopia’ – a concept developed by Jason Cons to describe how current climate interventions are spaces of enacted dystopias: a fully humanised nature and looming nuclear threat.

Planning Half-Earth Socialism

Far from refuting all of Hegel’s thought, however, the author’s epistemological stance derives from his claim that knowledge is only produced through action. As this would imply that precautionary action on climate change is necessarily shaped by ignorance, the authors engage in a form of necessary speculation to imagine their half-earth socialism.

Taken at face value without socialist policies, half-earth epitomises a Cartesian view of nature and culture and feeds on neo-Malthusian fears of overpopulation that are common practice in eco-fascist discourses and neo-colonial conservation practices. Acknowledging this dangerous history, the authors tread carefully. ‘Ideas are like cashews – while shelling, one must avoid the acid to reach the fruit. In the case of conservation, the acid is colonial Malthusianism, and the fruit is the protection of thousands of species from extinction.’ But, according to them, half-earth is still necessary to protect 80% of species from extinction – following E. O. Wilson’s rather simplifying mathematical equation that the number of species is roughly proportional to the fourth root of the area (0.50.25 = 0.84).

Set apart from Malthus’ fear of overpopulation that pervaded original half-earth criticism and Hegel’s promethean control of man over nature, half-earth socialism exemplifies a third philosophy of nature. As the zoonose threat continues to loom, the timely, yet lesser-known, ecological scepticism of Edward Jenner posits our growing interference with the living world as the root cause of our environmental harms. The authors’ half-earth socialism is a triptych of an energy system chiefly composed of renewables and a vegan agricultural system freeing up space for rewilded environmental sanctuaries naturally sequestering carbon.

The authors claim that half-earth socialism is not only necessary, but attainable through a multi-layered planning system. As historians, they give credit where credit is due. They inform the reader that planning theorists were the forefathers of the scientific field of Earth System Modelling, but their planning systems allowed for more complexity since they did not rely on a single monetary metric like Integrated Assessment Models and resisted the push to reduce complex problems, like climate change, to a single equation).

Resembling Ostrom’s polycentric governance, the authors’ multi-layered planner is based on collaboration rather than competition, harnessing the power of information technologies to inform decision-makers at every layer. The Soviet planner Leonid Kantorovich was the first to offer moneyless planning where competing restrictions could be balanced across projects simultaneously to allocate limited resources effectively. Conscious of the authoritarian record of the planning system under the USSR, the authors merge Kantorovich’s linear programming to Otto Neurath’s democratic socialism. Their model can accommodate more active engagement from the population in a way that the mystification of the market does not – awareness and education building being the only way to prevent the rise of technocrats in a planned economy.

‘The closest analogue to half-earth socialism,’ is Stafford Beer’s ‘Cybersyn’, which was used by Salvador Allende to ensure the Chilean economy’s transition towards socialism. In 1972, it proved flexible and resilient to CIA-orchestrated strikes of freight company owners and managers, allowing the central planning system to communicate directly with workers and co-ordinate their activity. In contrast to pseudo-rational heterodystopias, half-earth socialism allows for informed, democratic and collective decisions over how much we restrict extraction, fertiliser use, freshwater consumption, and carbon emitted. The model they propose therefore merges Earth System Models with democratic planning, pushing models like Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics much further than one could have hoped.

Degrowth by Another Name

Ungenerous readers will criticise the book for referencing too many dusty soviet planners and drawing on dangerous war-like climate rhetoric. I would disagree, finding in it an engaging read that expands intellectual horizons. However, the authors ruffle feathers when finding historical precedents of half-earth socialism in Cuba’s feat of transitioning away from a Soviet-dependent fossil economy by increasing urban gardens, cyclo-mobility and reducing meat-consumption. Although the country’s ability to stay afloat under the embargo is laudable, it is unclear how food scarcity and economic deprivation squares with democratic ideals of half-earth socialism.

Premised on the claim that no popular alternative from the Left exists, the authors do not do justice to post-growth proposals that they nevertheless extensively draw upon without due reference. Replacing the conceptual bomb of degrowth with ‘unbuilding’ does little to convince those unimpressed by its main tenets, namely a democratically planned steady-state economy that ‘must contract’ and where ‘some sacrifice is needed.’ The authors may justify this omission with the alleged unpopularity of the term ‘degrowth’. But I am not sure they are more convincing when they propose ‘embracing quotas’ of 2000-watt per person or paint a rewilded future where fishing and golf are banned, and private mansions retrofitted for communal housing.

The book’s rendition of the future makes it look all too easy and flattens the psychological complexity of the ecological transition.

For many, half-earth socialism is far less appealing than alternative tech-savvy depictions of the 2050 American Dream: driving down Las Vegas’ Strip is still part of it, but Uncle Sam is in a Tesla, gambling on carbon credit futures and sleeping in a bungalow in the newly reforested Nevada desert. In the authors’ defence, they recognise that their just future will be hard won over those that hold on to their technological optimism.

Their rendition of the future in the last chapter ‘news from 1947’, is a retelling of William Morris’s View from Nowhere (1890) but where William Guest, our contemporary, is thrown into a future where the line between urban and rural areas is blurred, unemployment is channelled into working the land and free time is spent at the baseball game, painting, playing music etc. It refreshingly avoids any naïve post-politics where everyone consensually takes up the eco-socialist policies they laid out. The road to half-earth socialism will be messy, people will disagree, and that is okay. However, appealing to a fictionalised character like Guest that ‘no longer knows what to buy, since his needs are satisfied’ makes it look all too easy and flattens the psychological complexity of the ecological transition.

The future they paint remains uncanny, coming off as an Orwellian world with a gods-eye planner called ‘Gosplant’ and technocratic district names like ‘pasture reclamation plan 5-F’. Even to the most benevolent reader, their scenario feels unrealistic. It is difficult to imagine that the free market will be replaced by concentric circles of local, regional, and national planning with the international planner in Havana and a global parliament in La Paz – all within the next twenty-five years. Of course, Vettese and Pendergrass could retort that very few, in 1997 predicted the unmaking of Fukuyaman ‘end of history’-optimism and the resurgence of authoritarian forms of government. But implying a complete reversal of geopolitical trends seems a bit elliptic and far-fetched.

Ultimately, Half-Earth Socialism provides a much-needed world-making provocation that overcomes the self-conscious dread of cognitive dissonance often witnessed in the environmentalist literature. It should be read for succeeding to distance itself from the status quo and to propose a path forward towards an uncertain and crisis-prone future based on solidarity. ‘Like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom, creating socialism will not be easy, for below the half-built ship roils the merciless sea, but at least it is we who chart the course.’


Wallerand Bazin is reading for an MPhil in Geography at the University of Oxford. He researches the political ecology of tree planting in England.