Who Holds Up Half the Earth? - Book Review of 'Half-Earth Socialism'

Alex James and Neil Johnson
Promotional graphic for ‘Half-Earth Socialism.’

Though the text being reviewed here is being negatively evaluated, I find it useful to see the list of categories being used by the reviewers. Not being much of a consumer of theoretical and scholastic writings, I had no such list before reading this. Perhaps others might find this useful.                    Gene McGuckin

Oct. 28, 2022

Alex James and Neil Johnson review Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s ‘Half-Earth Socialism’ (Verso Books, 2022), arguing that, despite its promises, the book fails to present a convincing case for ‘half-earth’ as viable form of ecosocialist planning.


By the time the sun sets down today, the ecological transition necessary to our survival will have become even harder. Emissions will have increased, making efforts to decarbonize more difficult. Soil and water bodies will have further degraded, in many cases irreparably. The sixth mass extinction of species will have rolled onwards. Things are bad. However, they do not have to be this way. If only something could be done. 

But what is to be done? Yes, that question again. It seems more urgent nowadays. We face escalating ecological and climate breakdown. So more and more of us on the Left find ourselves facing this ghoul of a question. Socialists must act now, it seems. But to do what? And how? 

For many, the appearance of a book like Half-Earth Socialism may have initially appeared as a relief, especially given its provocative subtitle – A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics. Even considering that stalwart left-wing book publishers Verso Books have made an art of publishing easy-to-read, catchily-titled eco-socialist plans to save the world which sell well in a warming planet, be it The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene, or After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair and RestorationHalf-Earth Socialism seemed harder to ignore than the others. For one, it is more appealing to the kind of people who resonate with Cosmonaut’s politics. The idea of economic planning is a central feature, and the authors seem to share many influences the editors of this project have: from the Chilean Cybersyn to Otto Neurath. 

The book’s central thesis can be summarized as a call to rewild half the planet’s area, and manage the other half through democratic and centrally planned eco-socialism. To this end, Half-Earth Socialism attempts an argument that operates on two levels. Firstly, it argues for a radical form of rewilding in response to climate and ecological breakdown. It presents to socialists the idea of Half-Earth itself, a plan popularized by E. O. Wilson, which would set aside half the Earth “for Nature” in response to declining biodiversity. Secondly, the book pushes the view that socialists need to reclaim a utopian imaginary whilst abandoning Marxist productivism: the (eco)socialist side. It is bookended with two extended fiction pieces, the first presenting a dystopian account of the world in 2047, the other invoking a utopian ecosocialist reimagining of News from Nowhere. In between these pages, Vettesse and Pendergrass explore both different philosophies of nature-science relations, inadequate climate strategies, and various models of socialist planning. They argue that a radical Half-Earth rewilding, planned democratically, is the only way to both limit and transcend mass extinction, climate breakdown, and zoonotic diseases. 

So, it initially seemed that Verso had finally published something coherent and worthwhile, something which the scattered aspects of the Left could commit to, some unity with basic and clear demands for socialists to make. But on a closer read, we found this to not be the case. Even if Half-Earth Socialism presents itself as a coherent guide for a Left dumbstruck in the face of ecological breakdown, this work is not only inadequate for the scale of the crisis faced, it is an instructive lesson in how many important components of ecosocialist theory and practice are being repeatedly neglected in most eco-socialist literature. From its limited understanding of Marx’s thought, its narrowing of the alternatives it faces, and its wider refusal to engage with conviviality, decolonization, and the agrarian question, Half Earth-Socialism is one more addition to the large collection of books that lead ecosocialists down a frustrating dead end.

To this end, we write this review: we do not pretend that Half-Earth Socialism’s authors are the only ones guilty of the above sins. However, Vettese and Pendergrass put forward a robust case which appeals to the readers of this magazine, so we found it necessary to point out the flaws of this argument. Our hope is that future ecological thought experiments can correct these problems so an actual roadmap to save the future can be designed.

The Theoretical Underpinnings of Half-Earth: Marx and Prometheanism

After an introduction which combines history and dystopian fantasy, and a brief description of the failed Biosphere 2 experiment (a topic that deserves an article in its own right), the meat of Half-Earth Socialism begins by describing the trifecta of thinkers that Vettese and Pendergrass see as representing differing approaches to ecological issues: Hegel, Malthus, and Jenner. As the authors point out, in 1798 each one of these three thinkers wrote important works in which they incorporated key themes of the relationships between nature and society, and it is perhaps this temporal coincidence that leads the authors to excessively narrow the field of those who have analyzed socio-natural relations to this trifecta. 

First, we have Hegel’s The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate, which exposes a prometheanism best represented in his conception of the ‘humanisation of nature’ whereby ‘humanity overcomes its alienation from nature by instilling the latter with human consciousness through the process of labour.’ Then, there is Malthus’ well-known Essay on the Principle of Population, with its obsessive focus on the increasing human population and his belief in the incapacity of nature to provide adequate subsistence for everyone. And finally, the authors look to British physician Edward Jenner’s account of his smallpox trials, whereby he initially suggests that the disease is caused by mankind’s unnatural intervention in nature: the domination of animals has allowed for the emerging of new diseases. These three works create a narrow trifecta for possible nature-society relationships: humanity succeeding through dominating nature (Hegel), natural limits necessarily making humanity miserable (Malthus), and an uncertain and shifting relationship between humanity and nature (Jenner). 

This reduction of the complexity of ecological thought to three lineages which all trace back to Europe in 1798 is already a painful beginning. It becomes even worse given the mishandling of these traditions. Half-Earth Socialism follows this description of the trifecta by using it to launch an attack on Marx’s supposed Prometheanism, assuming a far closer relationship between Marx and Hegel than is permissible. Instead of debating and engaging with the vast literature on the Marx-Hegel relation, the book is content to leave it as a simple lineage. The textual evidence of Prometheism is based on one main citation: the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Another piece of evidence used to support the Promethean Marx argument is, rather hilariously, Marx’s ‘disdain for avian life’ due to his mocking use of a cuckoo analogy in a review. For the authors, this is the depths of Marx’s ecological thought. He is someone who is mean about people studying cuckoos and who believes that ‘the total control of nature is necessary for human freedom’, a scoundrel who must be transcended in some way for a politics appropriate for ongoing ecological crises. 

The authors then step back for a moment and acknowledge that recent scholarship may dispute Marx’s Prometheanism. This is done quickly, without properly acknowledging that this is an age-old debate which began when the first wave of Red-Green theory assumed a position very near to the authors here. This allows them to dismiss recent scholarship that deals with Marx’s scientific notebooks and the account of soil degradation found in Capital as evidence for his ecological thought,1 as they simply argue that even if it is possible that Marx tempered his view later in his life, it was the Promethean Marx followed by thinkers like Trotsky (who liked hunting ducks), Stalin (who killed a parrot with his bare hands) and others. A possibly ecological Marx is only a recent rediscovery. To further prove this, the authors then turn to the many socialist engineers and thinkers who follow Marx, such as the Soviet scientists Lyubimov and Budyko who proposed an early version of geoengineering, using a very narrow selection of characters and their sins to further tarnish Marx with these colors.

The above should not be read as a denial that Marxist Prometheanism has existed. Indeed, the USSR’s Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature cannot be described as anything other than Promethean. However, strands of Marxism which are more “Jennerite” (to use the authors’ trifecta) have existed and are not a recent product of Marxological scholarship. And by evading this debate, the book ignores the varied views of Marxist scientists. From the interwar period, one can mention Vladimir Vernadsky, who popularized the term biosphere in 1926, or the British Visible College of socialist scientists such as J.D. Bernal and J. B. S. Haldane among others. More recently, amongst the second and third waves of ecological Marxism, there have emerged schools of thought that build effectively on Marx’s more open ended and cautious account of socio-natural relations, from the second contradiction of capitalism of O’Conner to the metabolic rift of Foster, Saito and others. Such complexity and the possibility of a rich eco-Marxist tradition is absent from Half-Earth Socialism. No effort is made to engage with Science at the Crossroads or other works which do not fit in the rigid lineage the authors propose.

Beyond Marxist theory, the variety of social formations that claimed allegiance to Marx’s ideas had complex but ultimately far more defensible ecological policies than those of capitalist states, as works like Socialist States and the Environment have shown. One cannot simply dismiss the full experience of “actually existing eco-socialism” in Maoist China which is described in Sigrid Schmalzer’s Red China, Green China: Scientific Farming in Socialist China, and laid down important groundwork for today’s sustainability and food justice movements. The only experience the authors engage with comes in the second chapter, when a short reference is made to the ecological proposals of Cuba’s Periodo Especial. There it is said that Cuba’s ecological transition is ‘an economic system resembling Half-Earth socialism’ and coming out of necessity rather than Marxism. We will further discuss Cuba’s transition later, for now we mention it as one more example of the authors’ dismissive attitude towards every Marxist engagement with ecology.

Why does this matter? As socialists, it is important to disentangle the claim that communism requires developed forces of production from the claim that this necessarily requires the total control of nature. As laid out most succinctly in The Communist Manifesto, the production processes provided by capitalism must be developed and socialized to meet needs, not turned back on. Thus the development of the means of production doesn’t mean a trite productivism but is a practical demand on comrades in any given vicinity to consider how best to meet needs of both people and planet. To discuss how we feed people, how we organize the land, how to provide the abundance necessary for communism does not necessarily entail the total control of nature, as is crudely assumed by this book’s authors – but these are the sort of questions central to Marxists when we discuss the development of the means of production. 

One can be “Jennerite” about the development of the forces of production, recognising the infinitesimally complex ways in which labor and its organization may need to change to sufficiently provide for the society painted in The Communist Manifesto. Yet, an analysis of the question of socialist development and the pathways to be taken must be made, and the best tools to do so are still contained within Marx’s work. In painting him as a Promethean, whose account of social development requires the total control of nature, the authors are placing themselves on not only shaky theoretical ground, they also encourage the readers to turn away from such Marxian insights. Already in setting themselves up as renegades against Marxian socialism, Vettese and Pendergrass revel in painting themselves as utopian outsiders, railing against the consensus. By closing out the complexity of possible development paths and socio-natural relations contained within the corpus of Marx, the authors wish for you to run into their arms, as opposed to taking on their opponents seriously.

What paths are open to ecosocialists?: the Practical Underpinnings of Half-Earth

To interrogate this work further, we must not just engage with the bedrock regarding its account of Marx, but also with its perspective on the current state of the environmental movement. 

Herein, Half-Earth Socialism develops its perspective through a critique of three ‘demi-utopias’; bioenergy carbon capture and sequestration (BECCS), greater nuclear power, and a colonial Half Earth. They argue that the issue with these proposals is ‘not because of any technical shortcomings (though there are many) but because of their lack of utopian imagination.’

There are many issues with this approach, the first being the narrow scope of the critique engaged with. There are extensive critiques of BECCS and nuclear energy, coming from the  ecosocialist tradition. Vettesse and Pendergrass do effectively reiterate these critiques, but it is trite to suggest that these are the main solutions being pushed. Mass use of renewables that are non BECCS, mass energy and resource throughput reductions in the Global North (as in with some radical degrowth), and a whole host of other proposals put forward to deal with the scale of this crisis are not touched on. Of course, one’s own plan looks excellent if you present weak alternative plans as the main source of your ire. It is even more effective if you critique two specific technologies (BECCS and nuclear power) rather than engaging directly with the very plans that different individuals and groups have pushed. They would do well to engage with the many social movements placing the agrarian question back on the agenda, such as La Via Campesina or the Brazilian MST, or with the work of agronomists such as Sam Moyo or Amilcar Cabral. 

This lack of engagement with the abundant literature is essentially the greatest issue with Half-Earth Socialism: its discussion of existing Half-Earth approaches and its lack of a direct engagement with an actual plan (as opposed to the technology required in that plan) to create a socialist Half-Earth. Whilst commendable in many ways for recognizing the colonial origin of proposals to rewild half the Earth, the book entirely fails to analyze what makes Half-Earth a problematic plan for ecosocialists concerned with settler colonialism and capitalist extraction. The authors go through some of the earlier advocates of Half-Earth, showing their links to xenophobes, the far-Right, and Malthusians, yet even here they fail to adequately complete their task. They describe E.O. Wilson as a centre-left democrat, despite acknowledging his ‘admittedly reactionary research agenda’, which neatly avoids his longstanding relationship with ‘scientific racism’, a topic frequently discussed by socialist scientists. 

When it comes to distinguishing their own proposal, all the authors can muster is this:

Still socialists are right when they criticize conservation for burdening poor and Indigenous people. The solution is that Half-Earth must be socialist, not that socialism doesn’t need Half-Earth.

Well I guess that solves it then. We just make it socialist! One is struck by the parallels to debates in the history of the socialist movement, where a regular point of contention in the Second International was the possibility of some ‘enlightened socialist colonialism.’ This viewpoint was heavily resisted, quite rightly, at that time, as it was recognized that a violent accumulative process of exclusion and extraction like colonialism could not be turned into some civilizing project when conducted by socialists. The problem was the very thing being done. The same is the case here; the authors are incapable of putting forward any clarification as to how socialist Half-Earth is distinguished from non-socialist Half-Earth, because it would require recognition that the very thing being proposed would necessitate extensive continuation of mass dispossession. 

Beyond its obvious enforcement problem (who would police the borders of Half-Earth? How would this policing be done?), Half-Earth Socialism makes no scientific evaluation of existing biodiversity frameworks and governance methods. There is no engagement with how a“socialist” Half-Earth would solve the issues pointed out by eco-Marxist and other scholars, such that it is not actually a good method for managing biodiversity, that it ignores the actual drivers of loss of biodiversity (hint, it is exactly who you think), and that when done appropriately, shared Earth/convivial approaches have demonstrably good results in preservation of biodiversity. Indeed, the central omission here is again the lack of engagement with the literature through a benchmarking of Half Earth against other methods. Conviviality and other models of conservation as alternatives for securing justice with non-human life, planetary stability, and a different way of living are simply not discussed, even when for Marxists there is a rich history to learn from and they can be effective in protecting biodiversity. Instead, the authors reify once again the duality between Nature and humanity core to the idea of rewilding.

The only real example discussed is Cuba’s Periodo Especial, which, as mentioned above, is referred to as something resembling Half-Earth. Why? One must guess that it is because less land was cultivated, due to the abandonment of less fertile land which became unproductive without fertilizers and the proliferation of urban agriculture. It is worth noting that both of these things are discussed in a great level of depth in the many works on the agrarian question the authors ignore. And despite the very laudable transformations made in Cuba, the story presented in Half-Earth Socialism misses two important aspects of the transition. First, that this period was one of immense suffering on the island, which socialists were only able to navigate due to the political capital built over the course of decades of good governance. It is not clear that it would be feasible to have such a transition after the seizure of power, and such a method is one we would hope to avoid. Second, that the Periodo Especial was only really brought to a close when the election of Chavez and the renormalization of Cuba-Russia relations, which allowed for fossil fuels and fertilizers to be brought in again into the island. 

In any case, what the authors take as a real-world example is one that hardly can serve as a blueprint for today. Rather than looking for examples of “rewilding” in the abandonment of farmland due to economic collapse, and hypothesizing that this is good for the environment, we have to take seriously the complexity of the possible interactions between ourselves and animals, as well as the wider biosphere. The variety of metabolic organization must be acknowledged, not shut down. The widespread existing literature from socialists on the agrarian question, the number of writers engaged in anti-colonial struggle focused on the land and peasant organization, in fact the entire field of agrarian and biodiversity studies is casually ignored by the authors, especially when the latter could really use a more “socialist” analysis to them. The study of sustainable food systems is substituted for a plea for global veganism. Land back or even adequate land reform is substituted for rewilding in the hope that biodiversity will find a way once half the Earth is made available to it. There is absolutely no mention of mining, or the environmental struggles of miners. And so on. One is left wondering how the half-Earth coalition would be built.

We agree with the authors that society’s relation with non-human life and the organization of land use is one of the most pressing causes for concern in ecosocialist thinking and practice. This is why Half-Earth Socialism is so frustrating, because these questions are trampled over or ignored to promote a wrongheaded position barely distinguished from its colonial sibling. 

Planning Ecosocialism

The remaining parts of the book include half a chapter on possible mechanisms for democratic planning which is more solid than the rest. Even if it remains in the realm of utopia in the present, the problem of how exactly inputs and outputs should be computed and planned under an (eco)socialist alternative is a very open and interesting question. A two factor model: carbon and land use is proposed as a toy model, and some examples of its use are given. The authors again miss the opportunity to engage with ecological concepts such as “emergy” from H. T. Odum, or the attempt to do accounting of ecologically unequal exchange by J. B. Foster, but the discussion on direct democracy and planning mechanisms is probably the strongest part of the book. One is left wishing that the authors had paid the same amount of detail to discussing the ecological questions as they spent on the history of planning and cybernetics.

The book’s final chapter imagines an alternative 2049, and other notes in the epilogue also appear to show Half-Earth as an adequate middle ground between the wildest techno-optimism expressed in Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism, and eco-primitivist strands of degrowth which would reject all and any technology. Most of us on the Left would agree that we seek a ‘modest idyll,’ and that there ‘is no escape from trade-offs between luxury and environmental stability.’ However, as we hope to have made clear in this review, this necessarily goes through an engagement with the existing ecological literature and experience, something that is completely absent in this book. Any adequate plan for the future cannot avoid this step.

Whose Earth is halved?

One hesitates to speculate on why there has been a proliferation of texts like Half Earth Socialism in recent decades. First it became gauche on the ecological Left to discuss the human-society split, the problems of anthropo/androcentrism, and the whole debacle about dualisms in ecosocialist theory. Nowadays, we see degrowthers and ecomodernists debate the particular model which their vision of socialism will have – visions which often are embarrassingly under-theorized in online spaces with little productive or practical output. Why do these cycles repeat? 

One argument is that the reduction of ecological crises down to issues of consciousness, imagination, and ideas – whether the need to eradicate dualisms like Nature/Society or the need for new socialist utopias – is a crisis of the intellectual class. If issues relate to how we view and analyze the world, then the institutionalized academic or the armchair comrade has a far greater role. But it also points to a wider crisis. Namely, the absence of a serious strategy being put into action to deal with the escalating ecological crisis. It is easier to shadowbox these ideas than to recognize the failures of most existing Left traditions to really articulate a response to the unfolding catastrophe of the late Holocene. 

Ultimately, Half Earth Socialism presents itself as a plan to re-engage people clawing back to utopia in a time of exceptionally bad prospects. However, the practical and intellectual work has not been done to warrant the status of plan, nor the authors’ grandiose claims. The authors acknowledge that many won’t agree with their arguments early on however:

Half-Earth Socialism … offers food for thought in two ways. The first is as a prospectus outlining what would be necessary to transcend the environmental crisis. Some of our readers might be sceptical of our programme of rewilding and central planning, and therefore we invite them to use the book a second way, as a guide to utopian thought experiments.

As the old saying goes – you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you disagree, don’t worry, it was just a thought experiment. But the book is advertised and regularly presents itself as a plan, it has committed to that claim. This strategy has the effect of shutting down the urgently needed critiques of this book. Of course we need central planning. Of course we need to tackle the agrarian question. Of course the Sixth Mass Extinction is terrifying – but the authors’ proposals to tackle it are inadequate. That is not us being anti-utopian, or raining on the parade of this great experiment. It is to say that these are important issues that need more than a short book strawmanning alternate positions, addended with a lengthy and not fully developed discussion of the history of planning theory, and then sprinkled with a fiction section at the end. We need more socialist engagement with the abundant literature on ecology, rather than one more badly researched thought experiment on how to save the world.

  1. If one wants a deeper engagement with the ecological thought within Marx, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster and Kohei Saito’s Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy are excellent places to begin this exploration.

[Top: Promotional graphic for ‘Half-Earth Socialism.’]