Yearning for Utopia: A Review of Half Earth Socialism

The new book by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese details a plan to save the future from extinction, climate change, and pandemics.


Perspective Climate Justice

Should one species dominate half the entire planet? To some, that might seem excessive, but others think it’s not enough. Half-Earth Socialism (Verso Books 2022), therefore, proposes a compromise. It asks us to question our convictions, consider those of others, and ultimately forge a new consensus, carefully charting our path through a dark, uncertain future.

Half Earth Socialism’s rhetorical strength is its self-awareness. Preserving half the planet for other forms of life is, of course, not a novel idea, but the history of conservation is fraught with associations to colonialism. The book’s authors confront this earnestly, discussing the origins of the Half Earth strategy and reforging it within a socialist framework. Co-author Troy Vettese draws from a complex of various philosophies throughout the history of environmentalism, some of which he forthcomingly despises—such as neoliberalism—yet salvages from all the same.

While some will find the philosophical treatise to be the intellectual pith of the book, others will be enraptured by its resurrection of cybernetics. Threading a fascinating history of the association between socialist experiments and economic planning—from the USSR to Allende’s Chile—co-author and climate modeler Drew Pendergrass imparts an analytical scaffolding to the castle of theory erected in earlier chapters of the book.

Finally, Half Earth Socialism’s authors put this exercise in applied math in motion by taking the imaginative and ambitious step of designing a video game. At this point, I must mention that I did work on the team that designed it. I will also say that behind the fun interface is a painstaking quantity of research and calculation.

There are certainly areas where I disagree with the authors—we differ in our perception of the imperative of carbon removal technology, for instance. The book, however, consistently reminds us that through our disagreement, we must not split into factions, but coalesce around our concords to develop a “coarse” central plan that leaves finer controversies to other fora.

In a way, Half Earth Socialism may even be too agreeable at times. For instance, while it interrogates the history of racism and conservation, I think it might yield too much to bad faith arguments against environmentalism and wish that it spent more time on the rich histories of wildlife protection and reintroduction projects led by Native nations. In other ways, it could be more persuasive. While its enumeration of the persistent risks of radiation exposure and degradation of uranium reserves compile a cogent case against future investments in nuclear energy, perhaps it could acknowledge some of its positive contributions, like the amount of carbon pollution it has helped prevent. Either way, its arguments are compelling.

Although it is academically rigorous and densely sourced, Half Earth Socialism is also romantic, most apparent in its forays into fiction. While the book’s introduction forebodes a bleak dystopian nightmare, its conclusion advances a bold utopian fantasy. Above all, Half Earth Socialism is an unabashed defense of a downtrodden dream, daring us to rekindle our imaginations of kinder futures, those wistful reveries we have been made to feel foolish for entertaining, insisting that with persistent patience and careful calibration, we might increase the probability of their actualization.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled the author’s name, Vetesse. The correct spelling is Vettese.

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