Note — Jun 12, 2022

Planning an Eco-Socialist Utopia

A couple of weeks ago I listened to a podcast episode of Tech Won’t Save Us with Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese about their book Half-Earth Socialism, the article above is an essay adapted from it, but the podcast is also excellent. The first part of their proposal of course comes from E. O. Wilson’s idea of the same name to curtail our current extravagant land-use—often carried out by the meat industry, the principal driver of the current mass extinction.

The second part is based not only on ideals of a farer, more democratic world, but also on some concepts I think we should pay a lot more attention to. The scientific or technical one is that “capitalism is an inherently irrational system because the pursuit of profit to the exclusion of all other considerations leads to disaster, such as the climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction.” The irrational part comes from the belief “that any single metric, like money, could guide all decisions within any system, economic or otherwise.”

The premise of whole essay is that we now have plentiful data and simulation systems to look at the world as a whole while considering more than one metric. Under a global socialist governance, we could develop a “‘scientific utopianism,’ in which planners would lay out their goals and constraints in natural units and then devise different plans that could be chosen by an informed public.” (‘Natural units’ of land and carbon emissions, for example, but not money.)

Even though they talk about socialism and planning, it’s of course not Soviet communism, it’s a truly democratic society and the planning ‘trickles down’ from high level guidance, each level then being responsible for the planning within their purview. For example mandating a 2,000 per person power quota globally and countries or regions deciding on other priorities within that quota. This type of idea often brings images of surveillance and micromanagement, that’s because we extrapolate from the current internet platforms, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Benjamin Bratton made a similar case with “societal self-sensing” in Revenge of the Real; what needs to be measured to understand our systems and ecosystems has nothing to do with the personal data collected by the Facepalms of the world. Monitoring ecosystems and what an economy consumes and produces doesn’t require individuals to be tracked around town.

Finally, this is one of those inventing futures and Le Guin divine rights of kings situation; we have to stop taking for granted the ‘unmovable’ ‘common sense’ we now live under, and propose different worlds, Pendergrass and Vettese offer a convincing one.

Half-Earth socialism requires a similar balancing act, supplying everyone with the material foundations for a good life — sustenance, shelter, education, art, health — while protecting the biosphere from destabilization. […]

Pseudorationality has now given the illusion that climate change can be reduced to a simple algebra problem. Clearly, another kind of political economy — eco-socialism — is needed. This method should allow us to think in terms of trade-offs between discrete and incommensurate goals. […]

Although critics of the left often accuse socialists of magical thinking, the real fantasy is a future where capitalism is constrained within planetary boundaries. […]

Meeting the needs of nature and humanity is fundamentally a material goal, measured in food and carbon molecules, and seeing the world in natural units allows us to directly confront trade-offs without the obfuscation of money. […]

The goal of socialism is not to replicate the market, but to allow humanity to consciously regulate itself and its interchange with nature.