The planetary ecosystem is in crisis. Humans brought it there. What are we going to do about it? These are three enormous simplifications, the latter two of which in particular have produced endless disagreement: which humans produced the crisis? Which “we” can and should do something about it, and what specifically is “it?” But the rough contours of the problem should be known well enough, and do not need recapitulation in every text concerned with the climate crisis.
Leftist politics did not — and do not — always care about climate change and other ecological crises, but to the degree that contemporary leftist politics in the Anglo-centric world do, we can make out something called “ecosocialism”: the belief that only a socialist politics is up to the task of saving the world. These socialist politics come in multiple varieties, however. They span a wide continuum but are largely oriented around two poles: let us call them “abundance” and “degrowth”. Will ecosocialism mean a luxurious life for all (“fully automated luxury communism”), or will there be serious cutbacks in consumption and ultimately standards of living? Even beyond the realm of socialism, of course, this debate exists. The journalist Charles Mann has termed it the debate between “wizards”, who believe in endless technological progress enabling permanently improving standards of live for everyone, and “prophets”, who warn that once the levees of ecological boundaries break, prosperity will in fact be radically and permanently reduced, and so we had better reduce it now to avoid ecological disaster in the first place. For Mann, these two poles emerged in the 20th century, with William Vogt and Norman Borlaug as the protagonists.1
In the sphere of American socialism, this basic disagreement was muted in the run-up to the 2020 Democratic primaries in the United States; socialists largely coalesced around a Green New Deal as a sort of minimal goal that almost all could agree to, with Bernie Sanders as a unity candidate despite various potential disagreements. The term implied continuity or at least a return to a politics that had already proved popular once before: vastly expand state capacities to resolve a crisis, as Roosevelt had done with the New Deal. A second metaphor suggested itself on the heels of this New Deal metaphor, of course: the economic depression in the US was only fully overcome with the American involvement in WWII, as the FDR administration more fully committed to the state actually enforcing industrial investment. While the term Green New Deal is purposefully ambivalent,2 most variants discussed in the moment of 2019-2020 were premised on the state similarly vastly increasing direct investment (or at least heavily inducing it) in those industries necessary to combat(!) climate change. Thus Verso — the most important publishing arm of the contemporary Anglosphere socialist movement — published a small flurry of scholar-activist books with Green New Deal in the title within the span of a year. The American socialist position was overwhelmingly that of a GND. One of those books, by Kate Aronoff et al, explicitly noted the common denominator approach of the GND at the time: Rather than give in to the dichotomy between abundance and degrowth laid out above, they argued, “We want the longest possible list of options for quickly slashing carbon”.3
This GND-based détente between the two poles of ecosocialism seems to be largely over now. Perhaps this had to do with the loss of Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden in the democratic primary. While Sanders’ bloc at first seemed destined to wield significant power in the Biden administration as a result of his popularity, with a “Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force” established after the primary and Sanders ultimately chairing the Senate Budget Committee from 2021 to 2023, the bare-bones majority of the Democrats in the Senate ended up giving conservative West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, an ally and indeed direct beneficiary of the fossil fuel industry, the power to kill just about any climate-friendly legislation. The result, as we know, was the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 rather than the more ambitious Build Back Better Act, let alone whatever Sanders himself would have tabled as president; whatever its value, the limited ambition of the Inflation Reduction Act made it fairly clear that socialists were still very far from power.
With that distance from power once again clarified, it may have seemed less necessary to focus on a big-tent common denominator compromise, which was perhaps more aspirational than real even in 2019-2020.4 Thus the three most prominent climate-focused books published by Verso in 2022 were far more starkly on one of these sides: Matthias Schmelzer, Aaron Vansintjan and Andrea Vetter’s The Future is Degrowth (not reviewed here) and Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s Half-Earth Socialism more or less aligned with degrowth, while Matt Huber’s Climate Change as Class War is unabashedly ecomodernist in outlook. As far as I can see, Verso is one axis of the contemporary Anglo-American socialist project that has emerged in the past ten years under the wings of Bernie Sanders’ popularity: the other two are Jacobin as the by far most-read socialist magazine, and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as a political organization on the ground.5 For Verso as publisher, to be a leftist big tent with regard to climate change simply means, if their 2022 publications are any indication, to publish radically divergent positions with no regard for their, as we will see, entirely contradictory drives. On the second axis, however, the ecomodernists have largely won: while Jacobin too embraces a big tent strategy in general, articles on climate change which take a position on the question of abundance versus scarcity almost inevitably argue for the former, with Leigh Phillips and Matt Huber as key authors.
Since the positions laid out by these books cover much of the spectrum of any possible socialist response to ecological crisis and are for the most part radically incompatible, it matters to figure out which of these positions is more convincing: the socialist left would do well to come to an understanding of what exactly to fight for, and fast. What, then, do they each argue?
- Half-Earth Socialism: Planning the Future
Let me begin with Vettese’s and Pendergrass’ Half-Earth Socialism. The authors, I should note at the outset, do not identify with degrowth in the strict sense. They do, however, argue that there is no luxury communism of endless wealth waiting for us: respecting ecological boundaries — not just climate change! — make that impossible. For them, the most important limiting factor aside from CO2 emissions is that of land-use — hence, as we will see, the title. Let me first go through the argument of the book.
Chapter one constitutes a brief intellectual genealogy of three ecological ideologies, based on the figures of Hegel, Thomas Malthus, and Edward Jenner. Hegel stands in for a “Prometheanism” that sees nature as fully controllable; Malthus is the face of the opposite, a belief in the limits of nature invariably reasserting themselves unless humans keep population growth in check; Jenner, finally, an important figure in the development of vaccines but not exactly an influential author, is resuscitated as arguing for the limits of human knowledge with regard to nature, having been of the first people to argue that “diseases were the result of humanity’s unnatural domination of animals… He was the first to posit that the attempt to control nature allowed new illnesses to emerge” (30).
The trajectory of these three ideological tracks is then sketched out into the present. Hegel’s notion of full knowledge and control of nature was, in the context of ecosocialism today, most importantly continued by Marx and then Marxism, culminating politically in some of the grandiose eco-engineering plans by the Soviet Union (32-35). Malthus’ argument that nature could be known (in the form of his strict demographic law) but not controlled, necessitating instead control of demography, reached the peak of its popularity in the 1960s and 70s with Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb. Malthusianism does remain somewhat influential among environmentalists today; almost invariably, the argument is racist and eugenicist (35-36). Finally, a position that assumes both human knowledge and control of nature to only be partial — a position, ultimately, of “epistemic humility” in the face of nature (50) — is what the Vettese and Pendergrass themselves advocate for.
The rest of the chapter is concerned with capitalism and planning. They follow Ellen Meiksins Wood’s history of capitalism as emerging in English agriculture, with capitalism defined as the market dependency of workers: stripped from the means of production (i.e. the dispossession of peasants in the English countryside), workers become dependent on selling their labor on the market (40). Ecological crisis ultimately beckons because of the mute compulsion of capitalist society, forcing the hands of workers and capitalists alike: “unemployment and the need to make the going rate of profit constrain the freedom of both classes” (40). In the context of climate change and ecology, capitalists who try to avoid ecological degradation — which usually would mean more expensive production processes — will lose out against those capitalists who do not care, making it impossible for the system as a whole transform through such individual virtue. From this it follows that the solution to ecological crisis must lie in conscious planning (42).
What form is this planning to take? The authors contrast the economic work of philosopher of science Otto Neurath with the neoliberal theses of Ludwig van Mises and Friedrich Hayek, all of which hinged on questions of epistemology, of what can be known about the economy. Neurath came to believe in the possibility of planning an economy after studying the war economies during World War I; importantly, he argued for deliberations on the basis of natural units rather than a universal equivalent (i.e. money-prices), because what mattered in war “were incommensurate things: ‘the course of the ship, the power of the engines, the range of the guns, the stores of ammunition, the torpedoes, and the food supplies.’ In an emergency, prices fail to convey any information at all” (43). Things are, at heart, incommensurable. The neoliberal theorists, by contrast, argued that (central) planning cannot work regardless because those who do the planning will never have access to sufficient information. The only “entity” having all the information was the market as a whole itself, an emergent entity constituted by so many price-signals (46).
At this point, the story returns to the focus of the three ideological positions lined out above: can nature be known and controlled, or can it only be known, but not controlled, or is both our knowledge and our control partial at best? Vettese and Pendergrass wish to flip the Hayekian position — treating the market as a complex, unplannable system — on its head, arguing that “nature is more unknowable than the market, and therefore far more deserving of our awe as an unconscious, decentralized, and unimaginably complex system” (53).
Renewables and Rewilding
Chapter two details three strategies of dealing with ecological crisis that are touted by “the environmental establishment today”, finding each insufficient because they are “divorced from any rigorous critique of contemporary political economy” (60). These are (bioenergy) carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), nuclear power, and a “colonial” Half-Earth. Carbon capture and sequestration schemes of any kind are perhaps the easiest to criticize: none exist that work at anything like the necessary scale. Why are they commonly touted nevertheless? As the authors perceptively note, to some degree they exist because climate models demand that they exist: without a method of producing negative emissions at some point in the future, most climate models cannot generate a future scenario in which we do not overshoot the 1.5°C target. “BECCS is a figment produced by … models rather than a real solution to climate change”, they argue (64).
Nuclear power, meanwhile, is argued by the authors to be neither sufficient nor as safe as advertised. It is not sufficient because electricity production only makes up “roughly a fifth of total energy consumption” (65); by itself nuclear energy cannot do anything to reduce the emissions produced by, say, the majority of the transport sector (e.g. gas and kerosene), or agriculture and land-use. We will get back to this later. They deem it unsafe on account of the examples of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Since the arguments from both sides regarding the safety of nuclear energy are well-rehearsed, I will assume that most everyone has already made up their minds regarding this issue regardless. As we will see later, Vettese’s and Pendergrass’ broader argument does not hinge on this point. Finally, they criticize the third strategy mentioned above, colonial and racist conservation efforts, such as that of the WILD foundation, for reasons would hopefully be obvious to anyone reading this — they are colonial and racist. Yet, they correctly note, conservation or “rewilding” will be necessary in some form, if the mass extinction of species is taken seriously. What matters, they argue, is that it will happen in a just fashion that supports “poor and indigenous people” rather than burdening them (74).
With these three strategies ruled as unusable, Vettesse and Pendergrass move on to their own preferred goals: less energy use, guaranteed by renewable energy; and increasing biodiversity and rewilding to draw down carbon naturally and to halt the currently ongoing sixth mass extinction of species. These problems and solutions are both interlocking, as they note: “Greater biodiversity increases the carbon sequestration potential of an ecosystem, while a decarbonized and vegan agricultural system will free up space for rewilding and renewable ecosystems” (78). They argue that we should rewild half the earth (as per socio-biologist E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth plan), radically increase the amount of vegan or at least vegetarian diets (since “the livestock industry requires vast mono-crops of soy and maize”, 81), and and build out renewable energy systems, while significantly reducing energy usage (since renewables require more land per unit of energy produced, and land-use will be constrained by agriculture and rewilding as well). Noting that the average US citizens uses 12,000 watts per year (western Europe: 6,000) while the average Indian only uses a thousand, the authors argue in favor of quotas, finding that “much of humanity would be better off in absolute terms” (82). Since the mute compulsion of capitalism would prevent such quotas, “conscious control”, i.e. planning, will be necessary.
This leads us directly to chapter three, which expands on Neurath’s ideas and the linear programming of Leonid Kantorovich that would make a planned economy generally more feasible. Linear programming, so the authors argue, will help us “think in terms of trade-offs between discrete and incommensurate goals” (97), which is what we need: CO2 emissions, land-use, economic security and living standards for the people of the planet, nitrogen use and so on are all things which are incommensurable, which have separate limits. Improving, say, production of cars by a factor of ten (thus, at least arguably, significantly increasing standards of living) with just a 5% increase in CO2 emissions is not worth anything if that 5% increase is what pushes us into a climate breakdown. Vettese and Pendergrass are clear on the multiple discrete problems we face, from land-constraints to maximum annual use (or consumption) of nitrogen and phosphorous, freshwater, and CO2 emissions (101). There are multiple ways of respecting each of these limits, but they each involve trade-offs: different levels of energy production leave different amounts of land for meat production; higher or lower private car ownership would leave varying amounts of raw material for the production of other goods. The rest of the chapter is concerned with detailing how such a planning system would work, and what sort of democratic politics it should be attached to. The authors make clear that, while they see such a democratically planned future as desirable, it would not be perfect: referencing the Hungarian economist János Kornai,6 they admit that a socialist Half-Earth would leave us with shortages of certain things.
Chapter four, finally, is a fictional account of the year 2047 in Massachusetts in a post-revolutionary Half-Earth socialist world, heavily drawing on William Morris’ utopian classic News from Nowhere (1890). Since the chapter is not designed to further the argument so much as to re-present it in another form (that of Utopian fiction), it does not immediately need to concern us.
Down with Fictions of Commensurability and Technological Fixes
At less than 200 pages, Half-Earth Socialism is a quick read and, as the authors note, they are not dogmatic about their preferred solutions: the book is simply an invitation to begin with the assumption that there are certain hard limits given by ecology, and to base the debate around which solutions are adopted (which “policy-mix”, if you will) on respecting these limits. This is a welcome invitation. Perhaps most important is their insistence to not focus on aggregate categories, and to not pretend that different ecological issues can be made commensurable, or worse, that we only need to focus on CO2 emissions. The former is a welcome advance over “degrowth” approaches that often end up thinking too much in terms of growth of GDP, an aggregate measure that is often orthogonal to questions of both human well-being and even economic activity. The mere name of degrowth as a program, one could say, gives too much ground to neoclassical economists and centrist politicians by implying that there is a well-defined thing called economic growth.7 The latter — the importance of keeping all ecological issues in sight simultaneously, from climate to mass extinction to biodiversity — will become clear in our discussion of Matt Huber’s book below.
Vettese and Pendergrass are among the precious few eco-socialist authors to take seriously ecology as a science of complex systems.8 Their sense of epistemic humility in the face of nature is exactly the right attitude: it is abundantly clear that the status quo is unsustainable, but we must also be clear on the fact that, this deep into various ecological crises, almost everything we do will bring about further foreseen or unforeseen complications. Solutions to specific ecological problems often bring forth entirely new ecological problems of their own, which in turn require yet more changes.9 Sometimes these dangers will have to be accepted — between storage of nuclear fuel and habitat loss through solar and wind parks, fossil-free energy will come with trade-offs, especially on local scales —, but the generalized ecomodernist attitude of simply unleashing more industrial productivity might often only invite further disaster. Attempting to resolve water crises through desalination plants creates ultra-toxic salt brine; doubling down on fertilizer-intensive mono-crops and factory farming to increase agricultural productivity will, in the long run, only increase the fragility of food systems.
There are, however, issues with Half-Earth Socialism. Some of these do not matter too much in light of the exploratory spirit of the book. Their assumptions are sometimes a little too pessimistic. When they argue, for example, that the “Herculean undertaking” of decarbonizing the generation of electricity (the quote is specifically in the context of a nuclear energy build-out) would “reap surprisingly meager results” because electricity is only a fifth of total energy use (p. 65), this implies a scenario in which nothing else would cut down energy use from other sectors or electrify them, thereby moving them into the electricity sector. From energy efficiency mandates (for cars, appliances, lamps, and everything else) to building out (electric) public transport or even private electric vehicles, it seems obvious that any serious climate policy would not just replace fossil fuel electricity generation with clean energy and leave everything else in place (The “one fifth” figure also seems somewhat too low, based only on US data: globally electricity production accounts, as far as I can tell, for a quarter, not a fifth of energy production).
Also, though I largely take no side in the debate on nuclear energy here, one specific argument by Vettese and Pendergrass amounts to a sleight of hand if not outright dishonesty, and should be called out as such: claiming that “anti-nuclear activism commands a majority” (p. 84), they list as evidence the nuclear energy referendums in Austria in 1978, in Italy in 1987 and again in 2011, and in Lithuania in 2012. Are three specifically European countries with a combined population of 70 million really indicative of global opinion on nuclear energy — especially when the two referanda in Italy were held in the immediate aftermath of the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, respectively? In the last two years, opinion polling indicated (slight) majority support for nuclear energy not only in the United States (which otherwise tends to be the sole focus of Half-Earth Socialism and so is probably what should matter) but also in Germany, essentially the political home of the anti-nuclear movement. One can bring forward many argument against nuclear energy, but lacking popular support seems to me rather unconvincing.
The Problems with Planning
The core flaw of the book, however, is perhaps the thinness of its concept of “planning”. If Vettese and Pendergrass are correct to suggest that we should not rely on pricing mechanisms to resolve ecological issues, they are nevertheless wrong in how they get to that conclusion, and their more wide-reaching claims — i.e. the specific form of planning they prefer — are far from obviously true. In short, the problems are as follows. To begin with, their definition of capitalism — against which their sense of socialist planning is in turn built — is based on shoddy history. Ultimately, the terms capitalism and socialism are used as little more than shibboleths in the book, which signal an intent of radicalism but have little actual meaning behind them. This shoddy history also means that Vettese and Pendergrass are, in their eagerness to assign blame to capital, blind to the long history of ecological disaster prior to so-called capitalism; this is regrettable insofar as it, surprisingly, makes their half-earth proposal more ecomodernist that it would need to be. Second, they do not make a strong argument for why planning in their sense (based on Neurath and Kantorovich) would actually be necessary. We can salvage a weaker form of their claim — that more state intervention will be necessary and beneficial, in the form of industrial strategy, direct investments and construction, and yes, taxes —, but it is likely that the authors would be unhappy with this kind of weaker claim. Third, it seems to me that their specific notion of planning is not only unnecessary but indeed an unfeasible solution.
Let me begin with the last point because I am least knowledgeable about the economics of planning, so that I will have to be quite conjectural here. In brief, while Cosma Shalizi’s review of Red Plenty10 veers too far in the other direction, his basic argument seems right to me: planning an entire (global) economy is significantly more intractable than either Red Plenty or, in this case, Half-Earth Socialism lets on. A similar issue seems to plague the People’s Republic of Walmart argument that the existence of complex modern corporate supply chains implies the economy is essentially already planned — as though supply chain management were the same thing as planning the economy as a whole.
Perhaps more immediately relevant, the book simply does not make a convincing case of why planning on the implied magnitude would be at all necessary. It is asserted that “if capitalism is a society characterized by unconscious control, then socialism must be the restoration of human consciousness as a historical force. In practice, that means that the market must be replaced by planning” (42), but this assertion is never backed up or even filled with much content. A sufficiently high Pigouvian tax on emissions — which is usually what is meant by “market solution” — would make carbon-intensive production of just about anything but the most necessary products impossible to remain profitable. On its own this would be a far from ideal solution because the build-out of carbon-light substitutes (to take the example of transport, the build-out of public transport, electric cars, and more dense, walkable cities) would not be readily available; in other words, various government interventions are still necessary as a complement to a carbon tax to, so to speak, soften the blow.
But the problem with such a tax is not that it would not work, but rather that it will not be implemented. Carbon taxes of a sufficient magnitude (say, 2000 dollars per ton) are dead in the water politically, and arguably were designed to be so from the start. Capitalists do not genuinely support carbon taxes because they like it when “the market” does its work; they feign support, secure in the knowledge that taxes will not actually be stringently implemented. The political unpopularity of carbon taxes in turn stems precisely from the fact they would work: just like direct bans of commercial flights, SUVs, intense meat consumption and other carbon-intensive or otherwise ecologically destructive pleasures, a high carbon tax would feel like a lowered standard of living for most people in the Global North.
A more modest claim than the necessity of a socialist revolution and total planning would perhaps be that we need a more interventionist state, one which sets industrial strategies, taxes, sets up outright bans where not unduly unpopular, and so on. In short, it is not only necessary but also beneficial for states to take a significantly more active hand, because state action is uniquely capable of making the transition to an ecologically sustainable economy as painless as possible, both in the short and the long term. None of this implies that markets would need to be abolished tout court.11
Capitalism, Pre-Capitalism, Post-Capitalism
Ultimately, and this is the most theoretical point, the book’s notions of capitalism equaling markets and socialism equaling planning are simply too vague to have any real implications for the argument, instead figuring merely as political sign-posting. Half-Earth Socialism follows Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism in situating the historical emergence of capitalism in the British agricultural sector, with capitalism ultimately defined by generalized market dependence. Yet both the focus on England and the sense of market dependence seem wrong-headed to me. Wood was concerned with pushing back against notions of capitalism that equate it with commercial trade; yet in doing so, as Jairus Banaji puts it,
Wood [produces] a world without mining, shipbuilding, textiles, domestic industry, putting-out networks, sugar plantations, etc. None of this matters to her because all of it belongs to a world where markets are quintessentially ‘non-capitalist’ (not driven by the imperatives of competition and efficiency) and no true capitalists exist, since true capitalism only starts in the English countryside in some vague interval between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Not only is this an abstraction from substantial swathes of history, but it is an abstraction from the way markets themselves are organised and from the way they ‘work’.12
Meanwhile, the notion that a generalized “market dependence” emerges only with capitalism is at least somewhat overblown: market participation was not only far more widespread in earlier societies (including England before the time-period which Wood deems relevant) than this lets on, it also was often mandatory: only not so much for the immediate reproduction (e.g. buying food) as for intergenerational reproduction (that is, paying for dowries). My own preference for a definition of “capitalism” would be one more narrowly focused on the specific operation of capitalization, as Jonathan Levy has done in his recent Ages of American Capitalism.13 The “problem” with such a definition, of course, would be that it would not let us so easily claim “capitalism” as that which stands in the way of keeping a livable planet (though the forward-facing nature of capitalization would remain important).
A move away from assuming in advance that something called “capitalism” is what must be the problem would improve our ecological analyses in other ways. Conceptually, it would allow us to disentangle “self-sustaining economic growth” and “capitalism”. As Kenneth Pomeranz convincingly argues, the question perhaps ought to be not why England’s economy began to grow so vertiginously but rather how this growth was sustained at a critical juncture at which ecological disasters increasingly loomed — to which the answer, of course, was coal (and colonies).14 In other words, the sustained growth of England probably would have turned out to not be sustained after all if not for fossil fuels; “self-sustaining economic growth” then is a term which ceases to have meaning without fossil fuels (or other sources of “inorganic” energy). Going back further historically, it would allow us to pay more attention to the far longer pre-capitalist history of climate influences and ecological degradation, charted, for example, by John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History.
This would in turn in all likelihood lead us to re-emphasize the importance of a “historical break” far prior to capitalism: the emergence of states and agriculture, the terrain of anthropology and, extending back into the present, indigenous knowledges. A more sustained effort to incorporate indigenous knowledge in particular would have helped Vettese and Pendergrass more clearly articulate why exactly “animal-rights activists should temper their attacks on Indigenous hunting” (16), why “biodiversity tends to be higher in Indigenous-managed territory” (17), why rewilding “requires an expanded cadre of ecologists and foresters trained in both conventional science and traditional Indigenous knowledge” (111). These things are all correct, but why? In all brevity, the “half-earth” concept by E. O. Wilson is radical but in a sense not radical enough, still overdetermined by what James C. Scott in Seeing Like a State referred to as the ideology and aesthetics of “high modernism”: Indigenous approaches to ecological management, I dare say, would not have us abandon half of nature but rather re-integrate ourselves into ecosystems as a keystone species. It was the highly complex active management of nature by Indigenous groups, after all, that the invading European colonists were blind to, assuming instead (or preferring to assume) that the natives they encountered did not “improve” upon nature. Asking American citizens today to return to such a re-integration into ecosystems is probably an even tougher sell than a socialist Half-Earth; but considering Vettese and Pendergrass themselves (rightfully) do not care for the immediate popularity of proposals so much as for their necessity, the same standard may apply to them. As they say themselves, “we strive to carefully account for what is necessary and feasible, even if such things are hardly politically expedient now” (12).
The Limits of Utopian Fiction
That said, the question of the popularity of any of these proposals is, of course, politically relevant, and it leads to the final issue with Half-Earth Socialism: the utter absence of a political plan. One of course needs to figure out what has to be done before then trying to work out how it can be done; in that regard the authors’ priorities are correct. But they never get around to the second step at all. This weakness becomes apparent in chapter four, the book’s very own foray into utopian fiction. A contemporary rewriting of William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890), William Guest goes to sleep in our present and wakes up in a half-earth socialist Massachusetts in the year 2047. The chapter follows the usual path of utopian fiction: the protagonist, a newcomer to the utopian society, meets various people and receives somewhat dry explanations (in science fiction, this is referred to as “info-dumps”) of how the new world works: working conditions, education, living standards, and so on. Significantly, it shares the same central limitation of almost all such utopian texts: it lacks a sense of how this world came to be. As Fredric Jameson noted a few years ago:
“For although Bellamy’s novel [Looking Backward 2000-1887] was not the first time-travel narrative, its immense success was political as well as literary, and drew attention to a seemingly secondary defect, shared by William Morris’s reply in News from Nowhere (1890), which lay precisely in the way that ‘transition’ was imagined (or not imagined) by both authors: in each case, the narrator falls into a magnetic sleep, only to awaken a century later in Utopia. This failure of imagination is the same, I want to argue, as that of the political revolutions designed to achieve the same transition in real life: the absence of a third term between the two systems, the absence of a mechanism.”15
This limitation is almost constitutive of science fiction as such, extending beyond utopian fiction to its dystopian mirror images and everything in-between. The genre is extraordinarily good at presenting us with warped alternative realities, at its best producing in the reader a sort of shock of non-recognition. But how did this altered world come to be? What happened between now and then? The first popular ecological utopia, Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), was similarly set 25 years in the future — and lacked any discussion of how the ecologically minded breakaway state in the Pacific Northwest came to be. The book sold millions of copies, counting among its fans future Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Tellingly, Callenbach later wrote a prequel, Ecotopia Emerging (1981), which does concern itself with the path from present to future; it sold far worse and is largely forgotten.
This question — how do we get from here to there, from our present to a future in which climate change and mass extinction have been held at bay? — must be answered after figuring out what “there” should look like, but it must be answered. Half-Earth Socialism does not only do so, but almost pointedly refuses to do so. Thus we are asked to simply “imagine that the Half-earth socialist revolution happens tomorrow” (100). How will the difficult trade-offs in wealth be decided upon? “Ultimately, a global parliament would have to take a vote” (109). How did their imagined 2047 come about?
“The planners in Havana have a lot of information at their fingertips, but they only need a rough picture of the globe, like maps of biodiversity and climate, estimates of worldwide food and energy needs, and constraints on resource use. Those were available long before the revolutions began.’
‘Revolutions?’ Guest interjected.
‘New societies are not born on their own’, Edith replied with a wry grin.” (141)
Indeed they are not.
2. Climate Change as Class War: Strategy and Reality
If Half-Earth Socialism is utopian but lacks a discussion of strategy, a discussion of how we make it to Utopia, can Matt Huber’s Climate Change as Class War serve as the necessary corrective? Huber wishes to direct the discussion towards this question of strategy. Huber’s argument, focused on class analysis, is as follows. Climate politics up to this point has been dominated by the “professional class” (or what Barbara and John Ehrenreich have termed the professional-managerial class), e.g. scientists, academics, journalists, think tanks and NGOs. This, so Huber argues, has caused several problems.
First, this class, defined in large part by educational attainment (and the white-collar jobs that follow, or at least used to follow from college degrees), has turned climate change into a problem of scientific understanding, of “getting the science right”; the prevailing “theory of change” of this approach is that people simply have to be educated of the severity of climate change, at which point the right politicians would be voted into office and the right ecological behavior would be forthcoming from all consumers. Second, building on the latter point, undue attention is being given to personal consumption and people’s “personal” carbon footprint; this lets capital(ists) off the hook, who after all have the privilege of directing investment towards whatever production they deem best. “We can trace nearly all significant emissions and environmental degradation back to for-profit production”, Huber argues (21), while consumers can only choose from among those things that are produced in the first place — “production constrains consumption choices” (13). On the policy side, so Huber, the professional class, whose ideology is largely that of a non-confrontational liberalism (in which there is assumed to always be a best solution that will make everyone happy) has largely tried to find the “smartest” policy and focused on carbon taxes, which are designed to internalize the “externalized” cost of emissions, thus restoring the function of prices as a meaningful price-signal to buyers.
On either side of the professional class in Huber’s account are the two classes that make up the orthodox Marxist theory of class: capitalists on one side and workers on the other. The focus on the sphere of consumption, so Huber, serves to shift responsibility away from the “hidden abode of production” directed by capitalists. It also makes combating climate change needlessly unpopular because workers, who are already struggling, are in essence constantly told that their quality of life will have to get worse for the climate to get better — a problem especially with degrowthers, whose radicalism may set them apart from liberal non-confrontationalism but who nevertheless focus on consumption patterns.
For Huber, the strategic implications are clear: the capitalist class must be held responsible, while the global working class must be made to benefit from decarbonization efforts, as the Green New Deal proposals brought forward by leftist politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attempted to do. From this, finally, results Huber’s strategic intervention: only the global working class is potentially large and powerful enough (“the universal class”) to demand decarbonization from capitalists; it is workers who can disrupt the proceedings of capitalism. “Labor strikes”, Huber notes, “are uniquely disruptive to capitalist power” (217). Strategically, Huber suggests that, since time is running out, the electric power sector be made the initial focal point, both because a clean energy revolution is critical to decarbonization and because the sector is one of the most strongly unionized sectors in the United States (“somewhat cheekily, I suggest we call this socialism in one sector”, 264). Ultimately, of course, the goal would be for the working class itself to seize the means of production (289).
My initial feeling is that this strategy of focusing on labor demanding ownership or at least control over the means of production is somewhat too rosy — while unions were indeed more powerful in first half of the 20th century that Huber chooses as an aspiration, the strength at that time, as far as I am aware, was mostly used to push for improvements in pay and work conditions. To find — specifically in American labor history — significant action in the pursuit of taking control of production from capital, one would have to go back quite a bit further. As Jonathan Levy argues, the “politics of property” that long held sway in colonial and post-revolutionary North America (focused for the most part on the ownership of land by yeoman farmers, not industrial capital, with the notable exception of the Knights of Labor) largely fell to the wayside by the 1880s, replaced rather definitively by a “distributive politics of income”.16 But I am not particularly knowledgeable about the topic.
The problem with Huber’s book lies less in its late chapters on labor strategy, at any rate, and more in the fact that he seems to have begun with the strategy and political outlook and then worked his way backwards to what actually needs to be done. To put it bluntly, Huber simply excises large parts of the problem from his book to make the strategy work, focusing solely on 1) the United States, 2) the issue of climate change over other ecological catastrophes and 3) the issue of electrification within the domain of climate change. To begin with the last point, if Pendergrass and Vettese are too pessimistic in their calculations of electricity generation only making up a fifth of emissions, as argued above, Huber’s sole focus on the issue has the opposite problem. While France, for example, has indeed rid itself of the vast majority of emissions stemming from electricity generation, and its annual emissions of less than five tons per capita are a mere third of those of America, the remaining emissions in the transport, building and industry sectors have proved quite sticky, with transport emissions in particular having barely budged. One can only imagine that this will be an even more significant in the United States, whose transport emissions are significantly higher.
And still, this is the lesser of the problems. Huber is surely not wrong to say that rapidly building out clean energy would be one of the major cornerstones of winning our fight. The other two problems weigh more heavily. The reason for both of them seems to be that Huber’s entire strategy is predicated on never having to tell Americans (or rather, “the workers”) that they would need to cut down on anything. To convincingly do so, he has to sweep innumerable things under the rug; as a result, the book is littered with misunderstandings and arguments clearly made in bad faith.
Accounting for Emissions
To start with, Huber’s Marxian class-first approach simply does not make sense in the context of emissions. Huber sees both liberal and degrowth-leftist positions as blaming individuals for ecological destruction over which they in fact have no control. In one sense, this is uncontroversially true: to show this, one simply has to actually use a personal carbon footprint calculator. It does not matter what I enter into the one provided by the German government17, for example; no matter how small my apartment, how thrifty my purchases, how vegan my diet, I will emit significantly more CO2 than we can afford. This is because as a person living in Germany I will nevertheless be bound up in a material and social infrastructure that emits too much CO2. One could say, to adapt Marx’ famous adage, that people do not make their carbon footprint under self-selected circumstances, but rather under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
All this would prove is that states and governments and other large-scale actors have to provide the structural conditions necessary to achieve zero emissions.18 Huber, however, wants to go further, and put the blame squarely on capital, on those who “own and control the means of production”, as the classic Marxist formulation goes. What is the consumer in comparison to but a single factory, Huber asks:
Let us imagine our obnoxious suburbanite travels in his Hummer to the corporate headquarters of a massive chemical fertilizer company, where he is the CEO. Every day, after he thoughtlessly wastes fuel and belches emissions on his journey to work, he very carefully organizes and directs a network of massive carbon-intensive factories whose sole goal is to produce nitrogen commodities for profit. On average, you would need 103,920 American consumers to equal just one of these factories in emissions terms. This person spends eight hours a day managing this industrial capitalist enterprise and only perhaps forty minutes commuting to work—so why do we only pay attention to the latter? Why do we not focus on the activities associated with production and investment when considering this individual’s carbon footprint? (p. 16)
This example certainly shows that those who make decisions of production have more power than those who make decisions of consumption. But those on the side of degrowth to my knowledge never claimed otherwise in the first place. What Huber seems to either not understand or purposefully elide19 is that the position of degrowth is less interested in assigning blame, or even responsibility,20 than in pointing out what kinds and levels of consumption can no longer be enabled; consumption and production are merely two sides of the same coin here. Whether you assign the blame of the emissions of a Volkswagen to the company who produced it or the consumer who bought it does not matter at all; the point is that the number of cars has to be radically reduced. A few pages later (23), Huber mentions the infamous statistic that “a mere one hundred companies are responsible for 71 percent of emissions since 1988”, a statistic based on the CDP Carbon Majors report. These numbers are almost invariably used to point to the power of large corporations relative to individual consumers. But used as such, the statistic is an enormous sleight of hand. Who, after all, are those one hundred companies? The answer is that they are producers and extractors of fossil fuels: ExxonMobil, SaudiAramco, BP, the Chinese coal sector (which the report somewhat oddly lumps together). By definition of what the study counts, the 29% missing percent also come from producers of fossil fuels — the CDP study is literally a list of fossil fuel producers, measuring nothing except the degree of market concentration in the fossil fuel industry.
We have thus merely opened up a third side on the ledger. According to this accounting of responsibility, both Volkswagen the company and the owner of the car are responsible for precisely zero percent, unless either of them owns oil wells. For any given product — a car, a laptop, a flight, a banana — We can thus count emissions at three points: at the point of consumption, at the point (or along the supply chain) of production of the product, and at the point of production of the fossil fuels which enabled the production and consumption of that product. But no matter on which of the three sides of this accounting ledger we decide to assign blame or moral culpability, the emissions have to come down. Huber’s argument thus matters to the degree that there are producers of products who could decrease the ecological damage they cause but choose, or are forced by the “mute compulsion” of capitalism, not to. But it ignores the fact that there are processes of production — and with them, products, services, and, yes, lifestyles — which intrinsically cause ecological damage and therefore have to be scaled down.
Huber never really explains for any industry how seizing the means of production for the workers would actually make a difference in emissions; he simply takes it as a given that it would. While it is indeed very much possible for “economic growth” in the aggregate to continue without fossil fuels, there are a great deal of specific things which we can no longer afford to produce — whether for capitalist profit or not. There is only so much you can do about the CO2 emissions of beef production, and so there will be people — workers — who you will have to convince to live in a world with less meat, and especially less beef.21 Similarly, whether you scold the passengers of flights or reassure them that United and Lufthansa are to blame is less relevant than that they will have to live in a world in which they fly far less frequently. To quite a few people, this will feel like a lower standard of living. But Huber again and again seemingly argues that nothing counts as benefiting from emissions except capitalist profit; chapter four begins by arguing that “it is hard to argue that the passengers are the main beneficiaries of [air travel]” compared to the airline industry, since “you are being squeezed in every way imaginable: physically into your seat, financially in your bank account; and temporally through cancellations, overbookings, and delays” (143-144). Never mind the strangeness of the chosen example, considering the airline industry has been a notoriously unprofitable industry for much of its existence. You don’t have to be a hardcore neoclassical believer in marginal utility to think that people nevertheless enjoy the ability of quickly and inexpensively traveling long distances.
What would it even mean in the context of ecological devastation to adopt the Corbynite slogan, as Huber does, that our politics must mean “more for the many and less for the few”, to call for “less for capital and more for the working class” (32)? People with politics other than those of Huber could take this to mean that the rich should consume less and thus leave more room for emissions of the poor; but Huber after all explicitly disdains any politics of talking about lifestyles and consumption, including by the rich (12-14). In the context of his own preferred politics, where “the many” is workers and “the few” is the owners of capital, this is a strictly meaningless thing to say, because these are the same ecological destruction, just on opposite sides of the carbon accounting ledger. The upshot of all of this is that Huber silos off the sphere of production from that of consumption entirely, which culminates with the absurd notion that only the residential sector of energy consumption should be counted as the emissions of “’all of us’ living our consumer lifestyles” (62).
We’re All Living in America
Such combinations of basic misunderstandings coupled with arguments made in bad faith litter the book. Perhaps most reprehensible is Huber’s steadfast denial of the notion that broad swathes of the middle-class in rich countries like the United States or western Europe might benefit from the present state of the world, to the detriment of workers in the Global South. Considering the book is focused almost entirely on the United States (18, footnote), one would assume that such relations are simply outside the scope of this book. For the most part, Huber presents it as tautologically true that the “global working class” shares its problems and interests with the American working class, so that his study of the US can be neatly extended to the rest of the world; tied to a vulgar Marxism more as an article of faith than as an analytical tool, it seems impossible to him to consider anyone as being well-off unless they own the means of production.
The few times that Huber does in fact engage with international relations of consumption and production patterns, he interminably gets it wrong; meanwhile, when he pointedly does focus on the US, consideration of international perspectives would often undermine his arguments. This often manifests in his critiques of degrowth, a school of thought whose analysis is based, as the name indicates, on the concept of “growth”. Innocently enough — and more or less in agreement with Half-Earth Socialism, for once —, Huber points out that GDP growth is an aggregate category which capital in fact does not necessarily care about (168), only to then get the concept of GDP wrong himself. He finds fault with the hesitation of degrowthers talking about growth, arguing that “we do actually want to grow health and education” (169). If Huber had any sense of the world beyond the United States, he would perhaps realize that this argument makes no sense in the context of GDP: the United States spends about 50% more of its GDP on health care than essentially any other rich country (e.g. Canada, Japan, or any European country), all of which, of course, have some form of universal health care. Moving the US into the direction of such a system, one of the cornerstones of the Bernie Sanders-led democratic socialist revival in the US, would quite literally constitute a form of degrowth, slashing the insane profits that accrue to the health care industry in the United States. The US health care system is not uniquely inhumane because it is “too small” in accounting terms. Huber follows this by once again asking that “the capitalist class must degrow so that the working class can see growth” (169), a statement that, as noted above, is essentially meaningless.
This particular ignorance of the world beyond the US seems harmless enough; and one can certainly fault degrowthers precisely for their name making their politics needlessly unpopular, since significant portions of their program are in fact orthogonal to the question of economic growth. Again and again, however, Huber argues that workers in the Global North can surely not be beneficiaries of global trade patterns (i.e. represent a “labor aristocracy”, as degrowthers sometimes allege) based specifically on the limited welfare state of the US: “A recent survey found that 66 percent of the US population worries about accessing basic health care — pretty bleak for a so-called labor aristocracy” (170), he notes, as though improving health care in America would somehow be impossible without underpaid workers in the Global South providing cheap commodities. Elsewhere he notes that the fight must be about securing “adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States” (205) — clearly, the central problem of the US appears to be less about economic growth or degrowth than it is about a lacking social democratic tradition. What makes this argument — that degrowth would somehow imply more social insecurity, as though vacation time and medical leave can only be bought with ecological destruction — so cynical is that the degrowthers which Huber cites are in favor of all these things in the cited passages, pointing out that increased safety, welfare and health care are all things which are not dependent on ecological destruction (in the way that e.g. our diet or our transportation patterns are). Huber dismisses Vettese’s approach of “[dividing] the less stuff equally”, arguing that such a politics cannot work “in an increasingly unequal economy” (167) — as though either Huber’s or Vettese’s ecosocialist revolution would leave current levels of inequality in place! Consistently, Huber conflates the position of degrowth — largely focused on the need to decrease the production of ecologically destructive commodities — with one that would slash social security.
At times, his veneration of specifically the American working class and their way of life lets Huber’s politics seem closer to something like the rah-rah celebration of American capitalism that center-right liberals like Matt Yglesias or Josh Barro personify, to whom the height of good living are the size of suburban homes and the appliances (especially fridges and tumble dryers) within those homes. When Huber wishes to argue that providing electricity to the global poor is a humans rights issue — quite unobjectionable — he bizarrely does so by quoting Robert Bryce, who “did some calculations to reveal his refrigerator consumes 1,000 kilowatt hours a year, which is more annual consumption than that consumed by 3.3 billion people on the planet” (255). Why did Huber choose this source — a conservative hack with a career in downplaying climate change and defending fossil fuels — to argue that people deserve electricity and fridges, which they surely do? Is this supposed to convince us that the world needs radically more energy production, or that the United States really has been using far too much compared to almost everyone else?22 The United States, along with its two sibling-nations Australia and Canada — the three former British colonies whose spacious petro-cultures were not incidentally built on genocides against indigenous peoples — still emits about 14 to 15 tons of CO2 per capita per year. Among high-income nations, the only countries with higher per capita emissions are oil and gas states in the middle east (e.g. Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain) and Luxemburg, a country with a population of less than a million; most other wealthy European nations, along with e.g. Japan, emit about half as much CO2 per capita as the three former British colonies. The good news, I suppose, is that you really don’t have to take much of anything away from the average American worker to halve the country’s emissions; finally introducing energy efficiency standards would do the trick. The bad news, of course, is not only that the remaining half has proved far more difficult to further reduce rapidly, but also that Americans across the political spectrum seem uniquely devoted to seeing ecological destruction as a right.
Workers, Professionals, Capitalists?
How, then, does much of the middle class of the global north benefit from the immense global inequality in CO2 emissions and other ecological destruction? There are two issues with Huber’s approach, both related to the nature of his class analysis. The first is that, as we have seen in the last section, he consistently uses a lack specifically in welfare services and economic security to argue that there is generally not yet “enough” (of everything), while never engaging with the ecological footprints of any material (consumer or otherwise) goods at all. Here, the problem of his class analysis is that the designations “capitalist” (owns and/or controls the means of production) and “worker” (does not do so) are the only standard by which living standards are measured. While the attempt by Jason Hickel and colleagues23 (2021, 2022) to quantify the severity of unequal exchange between Global North and Global South is fraught with conceptual difficulties, the sheer obviousness of the basic facts — that vastly more, both materially and financially, ends up in the hands of the average citizen of the North than in those of the average citizen of the Global South — perhaps says more about the inadequacy of both Marxism (for which the labor theory of value seems to imply that exploitation is essentially equally rife everywhere) and orthodox neoclassical economics (in which everyone is paid a fair wage based on value added, so that exploitation is not really a particular issue anywhere) in capturing the world as it exists than it does about theories of unequal exchange. But for Huber, there is nothing to glean from Hickel et al’s analysis because “they do not differentiate ‘income’ based on wages versus capital ownership in so-called high-income countries” (32).
The second issue is precisely that his use of the classical Marxian conception of class make it impossible for Huber to perceive any important forms of wealth other than fixed capital assets. For Huber, two-thirds or more precisely 63% of the American population are workers, and therefore would clearly and obviously benefit from the socialist revolution. I find less optimism in this number than Huber seems to do (he frequently speaks of the “masses” of workers who can take power), considering that what Huber calls the professional class still makes up a respectable third and seems, if Huber is to be believed, to be opposed to meaningful climate action, while also wielding disproportionate power. More importantly, however, I think that Huber’s numbers themselves are too optimistic; at least some of these workers do quite well. By income, the 63rd percentile of household clears $96,115, with the six figure mark being reached by the 65th percentile.
But more important than income are assets.24 Most obviously, it seems fairly clear that homeownership in the United States is a relevant class marker; about 62% of Americans have equity in their own home (down from a high of almost 70% in the early 2000s). 59% of Americans also have retirement accounts, often in the form of 401ks and similar vehicles. Neither of those two things amount to “ownership of the means of production”, but they do confer benefits to broad swathes of the American middle class. The bottom 10 percent have a negative net worth, and the bottom 20 to 25 percent have less than $10,000 to their name. But at the 35 to 40 percent mark, we reach roughly $50,000. The median American household has a net worth of somewhere between $100,000 and $140,000, depending on the dataset. Importantly, there are stark differences by age. The median wealth of a household whose head is 55-64 is $230,000; at 70-74 we reach almost $330,000. As Americans age, then, they might at least expect to increasingly benefit from the asset economy. This question of retirement account also points out another blind spot in Huber’s analysis: age structure. It is not for nothing that those generations about to retire or already retired coalesced so strongly against Bernie Sanders’ campaign: it is not only the one-third “PMC” retirees who would like to spend their retirement with their net worth intact and their carbon-intensive luxuries as cheap as possible.
None of this is to deny that America is a starkly unequal society; the median American does not benefit from the country’s riches as much as they would if wealth were distributed more equally. And some of that wealth, specifically that which is held up in retirement accounts driven by stocks, bonds, and other corporate assets, is of course in large part merely a kind of self-exploitation: the very stagnancy of American wages has done its part to drive up corporate wealth, which is then only partially redistributed to workers at the end of their working life, and which comes without the kind of control that ownership of assets unmediated by one’s retirement fund would bring. But based on what we know about the distribution of wealth and incomes in the world, it is also true that people of the Global North with retirement accounts will, through these funds, in general have far larger claims to the wealth of the rest of the world than vice versa.
We may add to this the fact that America is not only the spender and lender of last resort — in the form of the Fed — but also the consumer of last resort. Whether the dollar hegemony of the US is a burden or a privilege,25 the effect is that “the world transfers its consumption to the US”, in the words of Daniel Driscoll.26 That consumption is perhaps paid for with feelings of economic insecurity and lacking welfare unique to the United States, which can be remedied; but the consumption is too high regardless. What, then, would a decarbonized world look like? Americans will be able to work fewer hours while receiving more holidays and guaranteed child care and parental leave; but the travelling that they will be able to do on holidays will have to be more regional, less ostentatiously wasteful, and their cars and their homes will be smaller. They will enjoy more security in the form of guaranteed healthcare, and in the form of a functioning welfare state; but the regime of asset appreciation will have to end; the median American will be more certain of not falling beneath the crack, but they will also be more certain of not rising above others.
Political over Biophysical Realism
Ultimately, however, what makes Huber’s argument so unconvincing is that he simply refuses to engage with the reality of ecological devastation in the first place. Planetary boundaries or ecological limits do not figure into his account. Again and again, Huber accuses degrowthers of demanding things which are politically unrealistic; to avoid that mistake, it seems as though Huber began his work by first pondering what might be politically realistic and building a program on that basis. In that way, Huber’s strategic outlook is strangely similar to that of the centrist wing of the German green party, the realos (who have been openly hegemonic in the party since 2018). For them too, deep convictions about what is politically right have been consistently less important than what they believe to be politically realistic. For both the realos and for Huber, what can be considered politically possible is pre-given and cannot be altered by political actors (such as a political party); a position that is unpopular at present seemingly cannot be made more popular.
The problem of this outlook with regard to ecological crises should be evident: however difficult a terrain the political reality is, biophysical reality is still less amenable to compromise. Yet by thus working his way backwards from political calculations to ecological ones, Huber ends up with a program that is, simply put, not in slightest sufficient to stop ecological carnage. Problems like species extinction and the nitrogen cycle27 are simply ignored. This is especially bizarre with regard to the nitrogen cycle, since the entire second chapter is focused on the fertilizer industry. In this chapter, Huber briefly mentions the huge imbalance which our societies have created in nutrient cycles twice, but then simply moves on; he does not tell us what he would have us do about it. The implication seems to be that the problem is caused by the capitalist profit imperative, but it is not at all obvious how a socialist society would resolve this problem.
If we take a step back from debates about what constitutes the “capitalist” break, we can begin by noting that one of the major changes brought about sometime between the 16th and the 19th centuries was a radical increase in the amount of energy usable by humans through fossil fuels, or what is commonly called a shift from an organic economy — based on the power provided by human and animal muscle, timber, wind, and water — to an inorganic one, based on coal, coal-fired steam machines, and, much later, oil. We can add to this a vastly increased amount of fertilizer usage, first by mining e.g. Guano and finally through the Haber-Bosch process. Both of these shifts radically reduced the necessary amount of human labor input for the production of a vast array of goods, which is to say, they increased productivity.
If it has now turned out, however, that the massive use of fossil fuels and fertilizers poses unacceptable risks of ecological devastation, alternatives will have to be found. In the electricity sector, it has been: wind, solar, geothermal, and, if you wish, nuclear energy are capable of replacing coal and (to some degree) gas. Little if nothing has to be sacrificed (though again, it would make the transition far easier if the United States were to finally adopt meaningful policies of energy-efficiency). It does not seem incidental that Huber thus focuses his book’s argument on electricity generation. Cynically speaking, he has picked the easiest (though by no mean easy) problem to work through.
But what would it mean to reject any kind of “degrowth” and to instead call for “more for workers and less for capitalists” with regard to other issues related to climate change, as well as other environmental problems? Any radical decrease in fertilizer usage — which is necessary if you take seriously the nitrogen cycle — would have to mean increased labor and/or land inputs. There would be side-benefits to such approaches — less mono-culture production would mean more resilience in the face of disease, for example28 — but there is no “win-win” here in the terms in which the “fully automated luxury communists” seek it: there will have to be more work devoted to agriculture than before.
Similar issues are pervasive, but again and again, Huber ignores them. On pages 68-69 he correctly notes that cement production is responsible for a vast amount of CO2 emissions, in a way that is not currently amenable to radical reductions; there are at present no mature technologies for clean cement. These are being developed and will hopefully be eventually available, but at the moment they are not. Until they are, the only thing we can do is produce, and thus use, less cement. But Huber argues that “cement producers must be stopped, severely scaled back, or forced to fundamentally transform their production and material processes”, sneaking in a solution that at present does not exist: there isn’t really any transformation of the production process that we can force cement producers to go through. Why does Huber pretend that we do? Because it “is hard to imagine our current world operating without cement” (69). In other words, socio-political realism before biophysical realism.
Huber’s entire politics begins with the belief that socialism, i.e. collective ownership over the means of production, would resolve climate change without us actually having to produce less of anything. For that belief to be true for cement production, he simply has to take it as a given that there is something that the capitalists are refusing to do, which socialists could implement if only they controlled production. Huber’s reasoning is similar to that of the models favoring CCS that Vettese and Pendergrass mention: his “solution” to cement production doesn’t inform his politics, it is the result of his politics. As such, there is little that can be gleaned from Huber’s book; it is so focused on coming up with a popular strategy that it forgets what goal the strategy was supposed to help accomplish in the first place.
3. Postscript: Alliances for a Livable World
Originally I was going to end this review-essay with a broader conclusion on three questions: First, I was going to say a little more about the importance of relational wealth, prestige, and recognition, arguing that these matters — a desire for inequality (and of domination more so than exploitation) present the most pernicious difficulty for ecosocialism, largely ignored by ecosocialists of all varieties. Second, I was going to expand on my brief comments regarding the question of the “transition” that has resulted in our contemporary world (“modernity”). I will leave these two issues for another time, however. Instead I merely want to say at least a little about political strategy and alliances.
Little can be said about the prospects of a “revolution”. Any genuinely revolutionary desires cannot be articulated in published books. The incendiary title notwithstanding, recall how utterly tame the actions proposed in Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline were, which more accurately could have been entitled Why Deflate SUV Tires?29 I do not begrudge those with such revolutionary desires; I merely wish to point out that such activity, which would demand massive amounts of political violence, by definition cannot be legal, and thus cannot be brought about by writing books. To talk with Walter Benjamin, these are matters of exceptional responsibility with which one would have to wrestle in solitude — or at least in the underground.
Instead, let us consider the hopes of articulating a strategy with popular support and elite buy-in. Above all, it seems to me that ecosocialists ought to return to the basic Green New Deal framework, however genuinely incompatible anything beyond such a commitment to more state intervention in the service of decarbonization is. Speaking in terms of elite buy-in, there are serious allies to be had on this basis. Yakov Feygin and Nils Gilman point out in a recent piece30 in Noema Mag that a new “designer economy” with significantly expanded state capacities would find purchase with at least five somewhat separate power-blocks. Feygin and Gilman are themselves part of a largely social democratic post-Keynesian network of economists, historians, social scientists and journalists, loosely centered around the publications of the Berggruen Institute (Noema Mag) and the Jain Family Institute (Phenomenal World) as well as specifically the figure of Adam Tooze, who has become something of a leading intellectual of the moment. Tooze’s popularization of the term “polycrisis”31 has been largely met with disdain among the American socialist left for needlessly muddying the cause of crises (i.e. “capitalism”),32 but the term seems helpful precisely insofar as it hints as the importance of feedback and other dynamic interactions between seemingly separate problems. In this, it aligns well with the concept of planetary boundaries and earth system tipping points. Rather than demanding an abolition of markets or capitalism — fairly ill-defined goals, especially in the short term —, ecosocialists would perhaps do well to find alliances where they can, including with the American non-socialist leftist block.
This is, again, not to say that ecosocialists should focus on political feasibility over biophysical necessity. Many of the figures in the orbit lined out above remain as flippant about non-CO2 (or even CO2 emitted by anything beyond electricity production, which, to repeat, is the easiest issue) planetary boundaries as the ecomodernist socialists do, with whom they are in practice far more closely aligned than with degrowthers. As such, one can only appeal to this block to take ecology more seriously than they currently do. In his book, Matt Huber consistently argues that the 30% or so percent belonging to the PMC class overwhelmingly feel “carbon guilt”, which is why members of this class systematically try to lower their personal carbon footprints. As someone with quite a few American colleagues, friends, and in-laws, and with an eye towards a political coalition as seemingly sympathetic as the Tooze network, it seems to me that this perception is off-base: the majority of American (and we may freely add European, Canadian, Australian, Japanese, South Korean, Chinese…) professionals, even liberal or leftist ones, do not suffer from an abundance of ecological guilt. That would, indeed, be an improvement over the present situation.
1 Charles Mann: The Wizard and the Prophet, 2019
3 Quote from Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen, and Thea Riofrancos: A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, p. 28. The other publications are Ann Pettifor: The Case for a Green New Deal; Noam Chomsky, Robert Pollin, and C.J. Polychroniou: Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal. Naomi Klein contributed On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal at the larger publishing house Simon& Schuster.
4 Right after denouncing “bad dichotomies”, after all, Aronoff and her co-authors end up affirming their slight preference for one of the sides regardless: “Our view is that we need a ‘Last Stimulus’ of green economic development in the short term to build landscapes of public affluence, develop new political-economic models, jump off the growth treadmill, break with capital, and settle into a slower groove.” (30) The Fully Automatic Luxury Communists would probably disagree with most of this today, seeing little need for jumping off the growth treadmill and settling into a slower groove.
5 Both the DSA and Verso are of course significantly older than the contemporary post-2008 and especially post-Bernie socialist project of the Anglo-sphere, with Verso’s roots lying in the more academically minded, less populist New Left Review rather than in Jacobin. The DSA however has been so utterly transformed — in membership numbers if nothing else — in recent years that its longer history up to the 2010s does not matter as much to understand it today. Similarly though to a lesser extent, Verso’s role as a publisher today is marked by the recent re-emergence of a popular socialist leftism in the United States.
6 For a good introduction of the thought of Kornai, see Yakov Feygin’s Nachruf: https://building-a-ruin.ghost.io/in-memory-of-janos-kornai/
7 See Colin Drumm, Beyond Denial and Abstinence: https://cosmonaut.blog/2020/01/19/beyond-denial-and-abstinence-how-climate-change-can-bring-us-a-better-world/
8 Too often, left-academic accounts of complex systems science as a scientific endeavor — focused on concepts like resilience, nonlinear dynamics, self-organization and emergence — seem to simply take it as a given that it is contaminated by its proximity to neoliberal thought in the field of economics, without ever seeming to take seriously the concepts themselves. See, for example, Jeremy Walker and Melinda Cooper, Genealogies of Resilience (2011).
9 For an excellent and accessible though largely anecdotal account of this issue, see Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent Under a White Sky (2021). For a more general treatment, see Oswald Schmitz, The New Ecology (2017).
11 In Fossil Capital, Andreas Malm argues that the passage — and even the threat of passage — of laws shortening working hours in the British textile industry in the 1830s and 1840s were a significant driver in the replacement of water with steam power, because the profitability of water-powered textile production was more dependent on longer working days than steam-powered production. The Factory Acts were not just a tax, of course, but they are in the realm of what a regulatory state does without in the slightest “abolishing the market”. Can we not imagine equivalent regulatory measures that would ruin the profitability of ecologically damaging economic activity? If that will turn out to be “the end of capitalism”, so be it; if not, so be it.
12 Globalising the History of Capital: Ways Forward
13 For a shorter theoretical account see Levy, Capital as Process and the History of Capitalism. See also Colin Drumm, Bills of Exchange, Medieval and Modern: https://trialofthepyx.substack.com/p/bills-of-exchange-medieval-and-modern
I also thank Colin and Jade of the Mimbres School for pointing out the importance of markets for intergenerational reproduction mentioned above.
14 Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence.
15 Fredric Jameson, In Hyperspace: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v37/n17/fredric-jameson/in-hyperspace
16 Jonathan Levy, Ages of American Capitalism, 270-296.
18 To give an easy example, as long as some of the housing stock in Germany is still provided by landlords who are not forced by the government to install heat pumps in favor of gas heating, those people who have to live in that particular housing stock cannot reduce their emissions no matter what they do. Going beyond the government and putting private companies into our purview, “production constraints consumption choices”, as Huber says — you cannot hope to “vote with your purse” for a cleaner world if a cleaner world is either not available at all or only in the form of expensive products (sustainably grown food, say, or Tesla cars) beyond the purchasing power of the entire population. In this situation, such products will not supplant ecologically deleterious production but merely create a new niche for consumers for whom ecological products matter for reasons of prestige or recognition. As Vettese and Pendergrass put it in their book, it “is not enough if the market for ‘clean meat’ or renewables grows quickly – their environmentally deleterious competitors must also contract (9).
19 Pointing towards purposeful elision rather than misunderstanding is the fact that Huber glosses Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen as arguing that “the Global North working class causes the ecological crisis” before directly quoting them as merely saying “the reproduction of the northern working class has benefited…” (161).
20 For a convincing argument on this question with an eye specifically towards climate reparations, see Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, Reconsidering Reparations, 2022.
22 A quick online search tells us that even the largest American fridges in fact use less than half as much energy as Bryce argues, with less oversized models using about 150 to 300 kWh.
23 Hickel, Sullivan and Zoomkawala 2021; Dorninger, Wieland and Suwandi 2022
24 If Marx, writing in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, reduced the history of capitalism to the history of such fixed capital assets — the “means of production” in an industrial society — displacing the importance of the three classic asset forms of land — (enslaved) people, and treasure —, we should be careful to not simply accept the teleological bent of this history. There is nothing about the laws of the world that prevents the three other assets from remaining important, or even returning to prominence.
25 See https://www.phenomenalworld.org/analysis/the-class-politics-of-the-dollar-system/ and the response by Herman Mark Schwartz, https://www.phenomenalworld.org/analysis/dollar-and-empire/
27 For a general overview, see Steffen et al 2015, Planetary Boundaries. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.1259855
28 See, for some of the problems, Nyström et al 2019, Anatomy and resilience of the global production ecosystem: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1712-3
29 That we are discussing ideas in books should, incidentally, be an indication of how almost universally important matters of recognition are.
32 For a more sympathetic analysis from the left, see https://boharvey.substack.com/p/on-the-polycrisis-part-i