Half Earth Socialism

Half-Earth Socialism — A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate
Change and Pandemics

By Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass

Verso 2022

A brief review by Catherine Dunlop

Reading the Islington Tribune the other day I came across this book, and as I have always thought that only socialism could do something about extinctions and environmental damage, I read it.  The reviews in other places including the Islington Tribune had not prepared me for what I found, which is a history of the theory of socialist planning, from the Soviet Union, Cuba, Chile, and Vienna 1919.

Since we don’t live in an intellectually free society, the authors (Pendergrass, a PhD student at Harvard and Vettese, a former research fellow at Harvard) do not put this at the forefront of their blurb, which can be found on the website http://half-earth, and which you would be forgiven for thinking a hodge podge of trendy ideas.  It is much more than that, as I will explain.

From the blurb: “Half-Earth Socialism draws on ecology, energy studies, epidemiology, biogeography, Chilean cybernetics, history, eighteenth-century philosophy, Soviet mathematics, the socialist calculation debate, Hayekian epistemology, cutting-edge climate modelling, feminist sci-fi, and the forgotten tradition of utopian socialism. From this intellectual potpourri, we come to several conclusions: 

  1. widespread veganism makes it far easier to save land for the Half Earth, renewable energy, fossil-free agriculture, and carbon sequestration;
  2. energy quotas are needed to hasten the transition to renewables and reduce demands for land and extraction; 
  3. marketless planning will ensure these important goals are met; 
  4. socialist democracy is based on the public deliberation of distinct blueprints for the future, because there is more than one way to address the environmental crisis.

Our book is meant as a humble proposal that hopefully provokes broader discussion about life after capitalism that seriously contemplates the mechanisms of socialist governance. That is, energy quotas, veganism, and marketless planning are are not [sic] the only possible solutions for the environmental crisis. We hope, however, that be [sic] offering a clear framework, we can spur environmentalists, feminists, animal liberationists, and socialists to seriously contemplate the outlines of a new society. Thus, just when the end of the world seems upon us, we must instead realize that new utopias are near at hand.” 

This blurb is enough to put people off (veganism and feminism as answers to the environmental crisis?) but that would be a shame.

Their view is that half the earth must be returned to nature, and that can only be done by socialist planning, ‘because it would be impossible to leave half the Earth uncommodified under capitalism’.

 They are not Malthusian and assume  no reduction in population.

For them “Socialism is society emancipated from the relentless, unconscious and irrational power of capital”.

Conscious planning is the only solution.  So the authors sensibly look at previous experiments at planning, the Soviet Union, Vienna 1919, Cuba, especially the Período Especial of 1991, Chile in the early 70s.  They focus on the theoreticians of these experiments.  

Vienna:  Otto Neurath an economist employed by the wartime Vienna Cabinet, and later in the short lived Vienna Soviet government.  He tried to imagine a view of economics that did not depend on looking at money as an all encompassing explanatory factor.  He wrote “Through war economy to Economy in Kind” (1919).  One of his opponents, Ludwig von Mises, on the contrary considered money’s universality as the very basis of economic rationality.  Hayek, a protégé of Mises, continued this with a theory of knowledge: limits to knowledge are such that the market is the only reliable guide: conscious control of humanity’s destiny is not possible.  Proving the opposite thesis is why the bulk of the book Half Earth Socialism is devoted to socialist planning, that is conscious control of humanity’s destiny.

At the end of his career Otto Neurath founded the Social and Economic Museum in Vienna; he is also responsible for ISOTYPE: International System of Typographic Picture Education.  Both the museum and Isotype are designed to make economics understandable to all, a requisite for a successful planned economy.

In the USSR, the authors analyse Leonid Kantorovich, mathematician and economist, who wrote “The Best Use of Resources”.  During the siege of Leningrad he played a crucial role in the provisioning of the city over frozen Lake Lagoda, the only route possible, with his calculations.  In peacetime he organised the country’s plywood production and this led him to planning theory and practice.

Soviet economists read another planning theorist, Stafford Beer, who believed that complex systems, like a world economy, could be controlled, as a ‘viable system model’.  Beer designed the system to manage Chile’s state owned industries in the early 1970s, called Cybersyn.  The authors explain how an American backed coup put an end to it; they are perfectly aware of potential final opposition to their utopia.

In the USSR again, Olga Burmatova in the 1980s in Siberia worked on an experiment in planning that combined decentralised control within a total plan plus explicit protection of the environment, in this case, Lake Baikal.

In 1977 the Computer Centre in Novosibirsk launched a programme to build what is now called an Earth System Model, completed in 1982.

To sum up the difficulties encountered in socialist planning in practice, the authors call on Janos Kornai, a Hungarian economist, who said that socialist planning tends to lead to shortages, unlike capitalism and its tendency to overproduction.  This is because it does not have the coercive element of capitalism, where the inefficient/unprofitable go under.  They say:

“One can concede to the neoliberals that even the best plans based on the most up to date information will not be as dynamic as the price system.  […]  Socialism involves certain trade-offs that are inseparable from the system itself, just as the dynamism of capitalism goes hand in hand with inequality, unemployment, and ecological devastation”.

They end their book with a chapter describing a utopian future.

Alongside previous socialist economic planners, they give importance to utopian writers: Plato, More, William Morris and Ursula Le Guin.

I think this book is very useful in giving the younger generation, the ones most worried by climate change and environmental disaster, ideas about solutions not based on individual behaviour change (give up meat/flying or you are a bad person) or punitive ecology (e.g. increasing the price of fuel so that the low paid are most impacted).  It is not demand that must change, it is supply.  This can only be done through state socialist planning.  The book also goes some way to counteract the pervasive demonising of socialist experiments, which is a start in getting young people thinking, without the handicap of writing off everything connected to the Soviet Union and other planning states as a failure.


Interestingly, Le Monde recently (1/7/22) carried an article investigating prospects of planning to cope with the looming crisis, and the name of Kantarovich (and Leontief) was prominent there also.  


Short history of planification, this concept everyone thought was dead and buried.   ‘Born more than a century ago and abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the idea that a state can organize the economy more effectively than the market alone is making a comeback thanks to the fears aroused by the climate emergency and the war in Ukraine’.

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