Is climate dystopia inevitable? Reviewing ‘Half Earth Socialism’ by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass

Part utopian fiction, part political philosophy, and part climate policy analysis: Bertie Harrison-Broninski reviews the ambitious new work from Verso books.
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It’s 2035, and people are upset.

 

My policies failed to prevent mountain gorillas from extinction, and now world contentedness has dropped significantly – by twice as much as when 50,000 people died in a heat dome in 2027.

I’m playing a simulation game created by Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, released to accompany their book Half Earth Socialism, published in April by Verso. As the lead planner for the planet following a global revolution in 2022, you decide policy decisions around scientific research, education, infrastructure, agriculture and energy, trying to reverse climate breakdown and create a utopian society.

 

Unlike the simpler Climate Game produced by The Financial Times, this recalls 1990s resource management sims: you are not only tinkering with carbon accounting and political capital, but also juggling a limited supply of energy, fuel, and land-space. Depleting or polluting any of these resources creates problems.

 

An online game can never cover the full complexity of such policy decisions, of course. But the simulation does drive home two truths: that most major climate mitigation options have opportunity costs and material limits, and that ‘net-zero’ style carbon accounting is only a tiny piece of a much more complicated balancing act. Some of the more extreme models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or the International Energy Agency (IEA) see bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) using land on a scale two times the size of India, or direct air capture using the equivalent of today’s entire electricity supply. These techno-dystopias barely seem more plausible than a global revolution within five years.

The main difference between Vettese and Pendergrass’ climate planning and that of the IPCC’s, however, is the one resource these authors ignore: money. Unlike the game, the imagined future in their book (which swaps between fiction and analysis) does not envisage a revolution before the end of this year. Instead, we are given a taste of where economics-driven integrated assessment models could lead us.

Three climate planning simulations to try for free: 

Blinkered visions

The book opens in 2029. The US Congress has voted to use military jets to “dump a payload of atmosphere-altering sulphur into the stratosphere” in a desperate bid to reflect sunlight away from Earth. This controversial form of geoengineering is called solar radiation management (SRM) and could offer a quick, cheap way of halting temperature increase without worrying about CO2 emissions.

 

It could also have devastating consequences, while doing nothing to decrease greenhouse gas pollution in Earth’s atmosphere. In this fictional future, SRM causes “a slew of poor harvests in equatorial countries”, acid rain, and erosion of the ozone layer. It is the first in a chain of events that doubles the world’s slum-dwelling population by the 2040s while funnelling wealth to the billionaire class.

 

When interviewed for the ELCI podcast, Pendergrass said he thinks SRM “is quite likely” to happen within the next 20 years, although only “a superpower like the US” or perhaps Saudi Arabia would implement it. SRM has largely been considered a fringe conversation in climate discourse – is this about to change?

Support for various forms of geoengineering has long been gathering momentum, from the UK’s Sir David King supporting spraying clouds with salt to refreeze ice caps, to international experiments into increasing ocean alkalinity.

SRM is perhaps the most taboo form of geoengineering, but that is not scaring away the money. UK-based charity ‘The Degrees Initiative’ has spent more than $2 million funding SRM research in developing countries since 2018, and President Biden recently signed a federal bill creating a cross-agency group to coordinate research on SRM. This follows the suspension of a 2021 Harvard experiment due to take place in Sápmi in Sweden following protest from the Indigenous Sámi community.

The connection between risky techno-saviourism and colonial dynamics sits at the heart of Vettese and Pendergrass’ critiques of current climate planning. In the book’s second chapter, they break down what they see as “the big three environmentalist ‘solutions’ today”, all of which are “blinkered visions, mere demi-utopias”.

The first of these is BECCS, a problematic ‘negative emissions’ technology that most major climate models utilise in huge numbers. The second is nuclear energy, with the authors bemoaning how the environmentalist movement, which once rallied around nuclear phaseout, has lost its way on this issue. They point to studies challenging the carbon-neutral status of nuclear energy, detail issues around its material needs such as the scarcity of uranium, dismiss the likelihood of fast-breeder reactors working, and tell the history of activist-led studies in the 1950s and ‘60s that proved nuclear energy caused widespread – if mild – radiation poisoning. The third “blinkered vision” is a more philosophical one, as Vettese and Pendergrass criticise the enduring Malthusian thinking around population control and the colonial politics within white conservation movements.

What is Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage? The BECCS for power basics.

Radical alternatives?

The phrase Half Earth is taken from a 2016 book by the biologist E.O. Wilson, who proposes that half the Earth’s surface should be designated a human-free nature reserve. Vettese and Pendergrass consider Wilson a blinkered Malthusian, but they build on his basic ideas to create a modern democratic equivalent. Playfully, given the deconstruction of neoliberal thinking that runs throughout, they ground all of this in a re-application of arguments made by Friedrich Hayek, the mid-20th-Century economist.

Hayek compared markets to nature and ecosystems to prove that some systems are too complex to be controlled or regulated and still work effectively. Vettese and Pendergrass remove the allegory to demonstrate that Hayek’s own logic shows the futility of geoengineering.

We get a tour through a wide variety of theorists of different disciplines and political ideologies as the half earth socialist philosophy is constructed, including bygone Soviet thinkers such as mathematician Leonid Kantorovich or cybernetician Olga Burmatova. The analysis always interacts with political philosophy and history as well as featuring a good amount of number crunching, whether discussing the increasing size of cows since the 1950s or different forms of computer modelling.

The remainder of the book applies all of this to imagine a utopian society in the late 2040s. People live a life based around quotas rather than money, through a complicated federalised computer modelling system based in Cuba. Geopolitical tensions appear to have dissolved, and people live pastoral lives, learning various specialised skills to aid their local communities in the societal transition.

I struggled with the believability of this section after the sharp analysis that had preceded it. This was not helped by the stilted dialogue between the protagonist William and his guide to the new world, Edith, a mystery novelist and passionate expert about all aspects of the ‘Gosplant’ planning system.

I had to remind myself that utopian writing, by definition, is not realism. The utopian tradition is distinctly Kantian in its desire to imagine perfection not to literally reach it, but instead provide “a rudder by which to steer oneself”. Vettese and Pendergrass also set out their vision with humility, emphasising that there are many potential answers to the problems they identify, and encouraging other thinkers to explore alternatives.

Most decisions in the Half Earth Socialism simulation game have both positive and negative outcomes...

The simulation game is credit to this attitude. I played it twice in the end. The first time, I began with all the policies that would take several decades to come to fruition, and then tried to keep people and politicians happy while the economy transitioned. After 60 years (or 90 minutes for me), my citizens were “ecstatic”, and the biodiversity and climate crises were receding – but I died in the 2080s, with warming still at over one degree above pre-industrial levels.

The second time I played, I went for a more brutal approach, initiating a ban on cars, a vegan mandate, energy quotas and limited air travel. I barely kept public opinion over the level to prevent me being ousted as chief planner. By the mid-2040s, after just twenty years, the game abruptly ended: people were furious, but the planet was saved.

There is no future where society looks ‘normal’ a century from now, and it is sadly easier to imagine dystopias than utopias. We are living through an upside-down world where military jets spraying sulphur into the stratosphere or super corporations mechanising all of our countryside feels more likely than governments prioritising equity and justice when facing a shared existential threat. All the more reason we need ambitious, utopian imaginings like Half Earth Socialism. Hopefully, it will not be the last of its kind.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski is an Assistant Editor at ELCI, and a researcher studying bioenergy and BECCS policy for Culmer Raphael. He is also a freelance investigative journalist, with recent work including Al Jazeera’s Degrees of Abuse series and John Sweeney’s upcoming book on Ghislaine Maxwell. Find him on twitter @bertrandhb.

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