Half-Earth Socialism

Last updated Apr 06, 2023

Half-Earth Socialism

Found this book via Neil Mather and social.coop toots, and it has been my introduction to the concept of degrowth.

The last part of the book is an utopia, and can be seen as naive by some people, but given that lately all we hear about is the upcoming doom, I agree with the authors when they say: “More recently, even this utopian impulse has slackened, leaving thinkers and artists today able to foresee the apocalypse and little else”.


“teach desire to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way”. — p. 3

The problem was that the greens mistook slowing down the pace of the environmental crisis for victory, rather than merely a defeat postponed. — p. 7

The market could sell both the poison and its antidote, but it cared little about the right ratio of the two. — p. 8

Markets allowed people to act rationally as individuals without full knowledge of why prices change, which meant that society’s ‘optimal ignorance’ was surprisingly high. — p. 13

The concept of Half-Earth comes from E. O. Wilson, an entomologist whose research has shown the need to rewild half of the planet to staunch the haemorrhaging of biodiversity. — p. 13

Environmentalists must curb their Malthusianism, an ideology that blames ecological and economic problems on ‘overpopulation’. — p. 17

Neoliberals have not needed to divide and conquer their enemies because liberatory movements have obliged with their own interminable feuds. — p. 20

This survey of the late eighteenth century leads us to the central problem confronted by neoliberals during the mid-twentieth: what can we know? While neoliberals stress the unknowability of the market – which is why central planning could never replace it – we counter that nature is much more complex. — p. 22

The environmental crisis forces us to decide between controlling the market and controlling nature, a dilemma that is especially clear in the case of SRM. — p. 22

For too long the Left has been better at critique than creating its own positive proposals. In the rare chance that they take power, socialists will falter and fall without a programme to guide the transition beyond capitalism. — p. 24

The humanization of nature is the process by which humanity overcomes its alienation from nature by instilling the latter with human consciousness through the process of labour – transforming wilderness into a garden. — p. 31

The only way to return society to balance with its agricultural basis was through the ‘checks’ of famine, war, and disease. — p. 33

Our point here is that Marxism cannot simply be greened by reading Capital with viridian-tinted glasses, as some theorists have tried. — p. 38

A revealing contrast can be made with Indigenous nations in the New World, where even large urbanized societies such as the Inca or Aztecs suffered little disease before 1492 because few animal species had been domesticated. — p. 41

Unlike in previous historical eras, we now live in a society driven by the capitalization of nature, because humans no longer consciously direct this process. — p. 44

Counter-intuitively, the capitalist is not the ‘master’ in a capitalist society, as both Hegel and Marx realized. The master is capital itself. Marx calls it the ‘automatic subject’ […] — p. 45

Pressures from the market dehumanize the capitalist, reducing her to the hybrid creature Marx called ‘capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will’. — p. 46

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer turned to The Odyssey for inspiration. They compare the rowers of Odysseus’ ship, who avoid the Sirens’ treacherous songs by plugging their ears with wax, to factory workers whose craft has been stripped of all beauty and pleasure. Rather than enjoying their labour, the rowers must ‘look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side’. Odysseus, the fable’s capitalist, is also unfree. He is strapped to the mast so that he does not surrender to the Sirens, those representatives of life’s sensuous and aesthetic pleasures. There might be less sweat on his brow, but otherwise Odysseus’ fate is no freer than his men’s. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the parable represents the moment when ‘the enjoyment of art and manual work diverge as the primeval world is left behind’ because of capital’s ‘inescapable compulsion toward the social control of nature’. — p. 46

Capital is at the helm, blindly steering the ship of fools towards ecological disaster. Unable to feel the wind or listen to its shouting passengers, capital can sense only price signals to guide its passage. In this way, capital destroys the world it cannot see. — p. 47

The kernel of his philosophical system was the rejection of ‘pseudorationality’ – the belief that any single metric could guide all decisions. — p. 47

He pithily expressed this insight by comparing scientists to ‘sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom.’ — p. 62

The food we eat masks so much cruelty. The fact that we can sit down and eat a piece of chicken without thinking about the horrendous conditions under which chickens are industrially bred in this country is a sign of the dangers of capitalism, of how capitalism has colonized our minds. We look no further than the commodity itself. We refuse to understand the relationships that underlie the commodities that we use on a daily basis. –Angela Davis — p. 62

The goals of Half-Earth socialism are simple enough: prevent the Sixth Extinction, practise ‘natural geoengineering’ to draw down carbon through rewilded ecosystems rather than SRM, and create a fully renewable energy system. — p. 86

The exact number can be debated, but we admire the target of the 2,000-Watt Society. This brainchild of Switzerland’s Federal Institute of Technology proposes a global energy consumption converging at 2,000 watts per person, which would require severe cuts in the rich world, while allowing growth in poor countries. — p. 91

More recently, even this utopian impulse has slackened, leaving thinkers and artists today able to foresee the apocalypse and little else. — p. 95

Rather than reducing everything to a universal equivalent (like a price), Kantorovich could balance competing restrictions in their natural units – tonnes of steel and concrete or hours of labour – across many different projects simultaneously. — p. 99

Conscious control is a planned economy’s greatest strength, but it requires democracy to prevent authoritarian and inefficient control over the production and distribution of goods. — p. 103

the goal is not to micromanage every kilogram of coffee or piece of steel rebar around the globe, but to ‘construct a system of information, accounting, economic indices, and stimuli which permit local decision-making organs to evaluate the advantage of their decisions from the point of view of the whole economy’. — p. 103

Neurath was deeply sceptical of technocracy. ‘People of the totalitarian kind may try to make scientists the leaders of a new society’, he warned, ‘like the magicians, nobles, or churchmen of former societies.’ — p. 120

While capitalist firms are motivated by maximizing profit, socialist firms were primarily motivated by satisfying output quotas set by a bureaucracy. This led to pathological behaviours, such as duplicated capacity, where firms created their own additional productive units to secure small batches of supplies because they did not trust other factories to produce necessary intermediate goods. This made output more reliable but negated any gains from economies of scale. — p. 140

Capitalism comes with an embedded form of coercion that drives growth: the threat of unemployment, homelessness, and starvation for those unwilling to sell their labour, and bankruptcy or hostile takeovers for any firm that fails to make the going rate of profit. — p. 142

Everyone will be motivated instead by positive incentives that lack the knife’s edge of immiseration, such as social obligation, personal satisfaction, pride, leisure, and even modest material bonuses. — p. 142

We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. – Ursula K. Le Guin — p. 175

Half-Earth socialism would provide everyone with the essentials from health care to childcare, but occasionally it might be necessary to stand in queue. No one will be above manual work – brain surgeons and master planners will tend gardens and clean communal kitchens too. — p. 177

‘civilization isn’t about conquering planets or travelling faster than the speed of light. It’s about keeping going even when you think you’re lost, recognizing that living means keeping children alive, growing fruit trees, watching things change and tending the goats.’ — p. 183