Workers of the world, rewild


Lenin Head in the Backyard, Felipe Tofani

Is 'half-earth socialism' the answer to the global climate crisis?

Exercises in utopian thinking are invaluable as we seek to chart a path out of death-driven capitalism.

A wave of leftist authors are putting forward their ideas on how we should respond to the intensifying and interconnected crises of capitalism today. Among them are Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, who have just published Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics.

Their proposal is as fresh as the style of their prose. They develop the concept of Half-Earth which was first put forward by entomologist E. O. Wilson and proposes rewilding half the planet to preserve biodiversity. Their unique contribution is that this approach would only be possible or desirable through socialism.

Buy Half-Earth Socialism.

Communicating an idea that will be novel to many readers, Vettese and Pendergrass’ writing moves fluidly between sharp polemic, technical detail and utopian climate fiction. Its reminiscent of Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering, incidentally, with whom they disagree on much.


Half-Earth Socialism takes as a starting point the claim that the politics of the mainstream environmental movement is inadequate. Green political parties and campaign organisations are rightly criticised for their promotion of 'green capitalism': itself a contradiction in terms.

The authors show how appeals to the market, and a reliance on the profit-motive, has failed to deliver the economic transformations which the crises of climate breakdown, mass extinction and pandemic necessitate.

They advance equally vigorous criticism of both Prometheanism and Malthusianism as the two dominant currents of environmental thought. They give little credence to progressives who still believe that humanity can master nature as part of a 'techno-utopian' future.

They similarly reject conservatives’ racist focuses on ‘overpopulation’ - which itself has given rise to deadly eco-fascist violence and provides the ideological cover for the genocidal ambitions of the far-right.

Instead, Vettese and Pendergrass argue for “new ways of conceiving the relationship between economy and the environment". It is one of ‘unbuilding’ our world and constructing something new where economies, physical infrastructure and political systems prioritise justice and ecological balance.


The call for 100 percent renewable energy is familiar enough to most in the climate movement. Ending the extraction of fossil fuels has been a leading demand among those fighting for climate justice. Half-Earth Socialism goes further, though, proposing to rewild of half the planet.

Exercises in utopian thinking are invaluable as we seek to chart a path out of death-driven capitalism.

This has obvious implications for land-use globally, creating an imperative for humanity to retreat from much of the space it presently occupies. This leads the authors to propose global veganism to mitigate the land-intensity of industrial agriculture.

Although the problematic of land-scarcity is their primary justification for this bold proposal, the authors are clearly sympathetic to - and possibly also motivated by - an animal rights argument for veganism as well as the benefits for limiting zoonotic disease - as compellingly elaborated by Andreas Malm.

The specifics within Half-Earth Socialism are more and less agreeable. The need to transform our energy system and accelerate extensive nature restoration is clear. I remain far from convinced of either an ecological or ethical imperative for global veganism, though.

These specifics, however, are clearly provocations and getting fixated on them would be to miss the point. The valuable thrust of Vettese and Pendergrass’ contribution is the framework of dealing in trade-offs. We cannot have it all in this age of existential crisis. We must make choices about how land is used, where resources are directed, and which technologies are prioritised.

For the authors, a rejection of nuclear energy is important enough to require much greater land-use for renewables. The trade-off then is the sacrifice of the land-intensive animal agriculture industry. Others may determine that having some nuclear energy in the mix is worth it so we needn’t go so far on the veganism.


Half-Earth Socialism appears to have much in common with the idea of ‘degrowth’, although the authors do not use the phrase. Like proponents of degrowth, they are clear about the impossibility of high rates of economic growth and the need for a steady-state economy without increases in material throughput.

The differences between the two articulations are key though. Half-Earth Socialism may even herald a useful change in direction for degrowthers. Its focus is not on ‘growth’ per se but the deeper capitalist system of which it is one symptom.

This means that Half-Earth Socialism avoids degrowth’s branding issues. In a political economy in which ‘growth’ is valorised and perceived as determinant of basic welfare, disavowing it can be as alienating as it is insufficient. Half-Earth Socialism may involve ‘unbuilding’ much of our current economy, but this is articulated within a positive vision.

More substantively, the explicit anti-capitalism of Half-Earth Socialism disabuses any believe that its goals could be achieved by reversing growth within our capitalist mode of production - as some within the degrowth space believe or at least leave ambiguous.

Perhaps most importantly, the authors recognise that Half-Earth Socialism must be brought about by a mass movement, even if it doesn’t have one yet. Compare this to the zealots of degrowth who largely remain confined to academia.


While many mainstream environmentalists continue to think within the limits of the market, Vettese and Pendergrass add weight to a growing movement of socialist environmentalists who put economic planning at the core of their proposals.

Planning is not just presented as the most efficient mode of economic organisation, but philosophically justified by the unknowability of nature.

We cannot abide the chaos of markets provoking increasingly unpredictable backlash from ecological systems they seek to capitalise. The principle of a free-market guided by perfect information is ecologically impossible.

Consumer veganism, for example, may have increased adoption of the lifestyle, but ecological gains have been limited. The trend has simply created new markets for capital within the existing food system while exporting the products of animal agriculture to emerging markets as global meat consumption rises.

Whether or not we support global veganism, the author are right that agriculture must change: to reduce emissions, limit land use, reduce the spread of zoonotic disease, promote public health and guarantee food security. Only a globally planned systemic transformation based on democratic ownership can create a food system fit for our times.


One clear challenge to half-earth socialists is the current politics of those who might compose their movement coalition. How, for example, would the labour movement integrate into the struggle for this utopian future? While some trade unions are politically radical, others remain understandably conservative on economic transition.

Vettese and Pendergrass are clearly sympathetic to the current constraints of the labour movement, arguing that it would be difficult to rebuke unions for accepting jobs in polluting industries if the green jobs promised by a Green New Deal do not materialise soon.

However, unlike socialist proponents of a Green New Deal, they do not seem to conceive of organised labour as the driving force behind their proposals. When they conceptualise the coalition of movements necessary, they include socialists, feminists, scientists, organic farmers and animal rights activists, but not workers explicitly.

Perhaps the politics of the actually-existing labour movement in many contexts feels like too surmountable a challenge when imagining utopias. Nevertheless, it is a crucial tension to reconcile for anybody serious about building eco-socialism.


In the spirit of the framework of trade-offs, achieving anything close to Half-Earth Socialism may require compromises like relaxing hard-line opposition to nuclear power to win trade union support.

It may require a more pragmatic position than global veganism in recognition of the steadfast cultural significance of meat consumption for many around the world.

Exercises in utopian thinking are invaluable as we seek to chart a path out of death-driven capitalism and towards a society prioritising justice and rooted in ecological stability.

We should be careful, however, that such utopias do not produce obstinate zealotries which do more to inhibit pragmatic efforts to navigate these crises on the short timescales we have.

This Author

Chris Saltmarsh is a co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal and author of Burnt: Fighting for Climate Justice.

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