The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast

Is a utopian future still possible with climate breakdown?

July 01, 2022 Economy Land & Climate Insight Team
The Economy, Land & Climate Podcast
Is a utopian future still possible with climate breakdown?
Show Notes Transcript

Bertie talks to Drew Pendergrass, coauthor of Half Earth Socialism, recently published by Verso books. They discuss geoengineering, population scaremongering, climate colonialism, and the big question for many on the left: will we be able to mitigate the climate crisis under capitalism?

Further reading: 

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Hello, and welcome to the Economy, Land and Climate Podcast. My name is Bertie, and today I'm talking to Drew Pendergrass, PhD candidate at Harvard in environmental engineering. We're going to be discussing his book, 'Half Earth Socialism', which was recently published by Verso Books, and coauthored with environmental historian Troy Vettese. It's part utopian fiction, part climate policy analysis, and political theory. So we have a lot to talk about.

Drew:

You can definitely go a long way to addressing these crises within capitalism, if you are willing to kind of have aggressive sort of industrial sector planning, and you're willing to break some eggs...

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I began by asking for Drew to give us a bit of an intro to the book and what it's about.

Drew:

The book is, it's a bit of a strange book, it's a mix of genres. But the general idea is that it's a book about the environmental crisis and all its facets, about climate change, about biodiversity loss, about eutrophication from fertilizer, all these things to try to unite all these crises within kind of one vision of the environmental crisis. So we have a chapter on sort of the philosophy of the environmental crisis. Why did we get in such a mess? Why have rates of carbon emissions and biodiversity loss gone up recently? How can we link this to capitalism, the capitalis accumulation, but how is that different from maybe Soviet Union environmental crises and environmental crises from farther in the past? So we try and disentangle all those concepts in the way of some material chapters like kind of getting in the weeds of various proposed climate solutions, criticising some, accepting parts of others. One of the main arguments of the book is an engagement with this idea of geoengineering. So geoengineering is a set of proposed methods to modify the climate intentionally. These include things like carbon dioxide removal, various technologies to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, but we argued that the most likely form of geoengineering will be solar radiation management, where you take some planes, fly them up to the stratosphere, spray some sulphur, or maybe another particle, sulphur particles, and then you form particles that will ccool the climate, and then this is, would be quite cheap, it costs a few billion dollars, has a lot of support from neoliberals. So this sort of political movement that's associated with Friedrich Hayek, and you know, the administrations of Thatcher and Reagan. So a lot of these think tanks like this idea of geoengineering, because you can basically engineer the climate to make it safe for markets. So neoliberals think that markets are this sort of information processing machine that allows the economy to function and any intervention into the market will disturb the process of the market, will distort prices will distort the economy. So we should instead not interfere in the market. But climate challenges this, right, because we do need to interfere to change the economy. So a potential solution to this would be to engineer the atmosphere to make it safe for our markets. And we counter the opposite, which is that we need to engineer the economy, control the economy, democratically plan the economy, in order to leave nature, you know, unplanned and allow it to function properly. So it's an argument in terms of 'we have to plan something, I'd rather plan the thing that's a human invention under our control'. Capitalism is only a few hundred years old, the climate and the biosphere are many millions of years old. So that's sort of a key gambit in the book.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I mean, you may have already covered this in that, but I was just going to ask you next to lay out a little bit what half earth socialism looks like, and maybe for anyone that is unaware of the history, what are the differences with your version of half earth socialism to the old uses of that term?

Drew:

Yeah, so the book kind of functions on two levels. The first level is an argument for this idea of scientific utopias. So we engage with this kind of forgotten thinker Otto Neurat, and he has this idea called scientific utopias. Economic democracy is sort of the practice of coming up with many possible futures in some detail. We might have a future with more energy use and a future with less energy use. And we can kind of work out the details of what exactly does that mean for us, if we have more energy and less energy, what are the costs in terms of labour, in terms of the environment? So all the kind of incommensurate consequences of these decisions and then we can have this array of different scientific utopias, very kind of practical and choose maybe which one we'd like to go with. So the first part of the book is just kind of making a case that scientific utopias, this is sort of a nice idea. And we should be kind of thinking about things and how they all intersect, because a lot of environmental debates are like, very piecemeal, partial perspectives of this whole problem. And it's hard to see, you know, what exactly are the consequences of organic farming? It probably will take up more land, right? How do we waive that trade off? The second part of the book is our particular scientific utopia, which we are offering, having in mind that people will offer different perspectives. But our scientific utopia involves a transition to renewable energy with power quotas. So with that quota on how much energy we should use so constraining power consumption, the idea there is to constrain this to make it easier to transition and then also make it easier to give everyone in the world access to plenty of energy to live the good life. And then we also propose veganism. It turns out that a lot of the proposals for drawing down carbon, whether you're doing geoengineering, or you're just rewilding ecosystems, and you know, getting rid of so much fertiliser, which is another crisis, you start running out of land pretty fast, and animal agriculture takes up a very large amount of land. Agriculture takes up about half of habitable land, animal agriculture takes up 77% of that, and it doesn't provide that many calories. So it's pretty irrational way to eat. So we propose large scale veganism. And we propose this idea, the Half Earth, which is an idea popularised by E.O. Wilson, the conservationist. And that idea is to take half the earth and set it aside for nature, his idea is nature preserves, expanding nature preserves, and the argument there is that one of the main drivers of mass extinction, we're living in the sixth mass extinction in Earth's history, one of the main drivers of that is land use change, when we take land and convert it to agriculture, or to other uses. And if we stop that, then we can stop the worst of this mass extinction. And he has some work based on the biogeography of islands to kind of give a rough estimate about half maybe a reasonable amount. But E.O. Wilson has gotten a lot of flack, rightly so, for his sometimes quite conservative ideas, this idea of sociobiology, kind of biologically determinist, you know, a lot of people don't like this and then, but he's pretty benign compared to a lot of the conservationists, who can get pretty nasty. We have a long history in our book about conservationists allying with the white supremacist government in South Africa and all these other nasty histories. But just because the conservationists have been nasty doesn't mean that biodiversity loss doesn't matter. And it doesn't mean that land is not a driver for biodiversity loss. So we propose making the Half Earth socialist, so making it democratic, making it part of our, you know, discussion that we'll all have. That can't be imposed from above by a bunch of philanthropists, that would be pretty dystopian. We also point out that Indigenous managed lands tend to be both more biodiverse and sequester more carbon than other forms of land. So the land back movement, right, returning land to Indigenous peoples, that should be part of the Half Earth, right? That's a great thing to do. And also, Indigenous peoples are some of the most powerful environmental advocates, they're most effective. So it'd be very foolish to not ally with them. And it's also the the right thing to do.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Just to pick you up on nasty ideologies. I don't want us to get too stuck into the analysis of 19th century philosophy that is in the book. But I did want to bring up Malthusianism, because it's still so present in environmental discourse, certainly within the Anglophone sphere anyway, it's visible at all levels. People from mass shooters in the States, through to Prince William and David Attenborough in the UK, support these narratives that overpopulation is driving climate change. Why is this still so prevalent?

Drew:

Yeah, it's a really interesting question. There's a real moment in the '60s and '70s where Malthsusianism, like this idea that environmental crisis are caused by overpopulation hits a real peak, there's a book called The Population Bomb, which is a multimillion copy bestseller. The author Paul Ehrlich goes on Johnny Carson many times, it becomes quite a popular concept. And you know, you can still see what people like Attenborough, people of that generation, it's still very prevalent. It ends up I think, reflecting a little bit the composition of the conservationist movement, which is a quite, maybe white and elite movement historically, which doesn't mean that a whole diversity of people don't care about the environment it's just a small cadre of them tend to be like this. And I think in that sense, they're blind to their own role in the crisis. They're blind to basically the role of consumption, right? Like, how much are you consuming? It's just you can kind of these numbers, so many ways that like, something like the top 1% of wealthy consume, you know, much more than the bottom 50% Something like this. I don't know the numbers off my top of the head, but they go something like this. So a good climate policy is not being panicking about overpopulation because frankly, the vast majority of poor people contribute almost nothing to the environmental crisis. It's this top, this top fraction, which is why we emphasise equity in our book and emphasise, you know, cutting energies for the rich while we raise it for the rest of the world. So yeah, I think it's just this blindness to this extreme inequality, I think.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

The thing that I was remember with this is reading that we already produce enough food to feed 10 billion people, which is about where population is predicted to peak, we just throw too much of it away.

Drew:

We throw a lot of it away. And then we also like do silly things like, you know, like, you know, over half of soybeans are fed to pigs and chickens, something like that. That's not very rational.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

So to get on to some of the more specific issues, I think you referenced this earlier, but you talk about three blinkered visions mere demi utopias, that modern environmentalists are stuck with. They are bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, greater nuclear power and a colonial half earth. I wondered if you could break down those three a little bit. What are the problems with them, and what should we do instead?

Drew:

Yeah, so this is the idea of scientific utopia, right, is to see the whole, see all these trade offs, and unfortunately kind of get stuck, I think, going down some rabbit holes... The first one, you mentioned, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, BECCS. This shows up all over the place in climate models. The idea is you grow some trees, the trees take up carbon as they grow, you cut down the tree, you burn it, and then you get electricity from burning the tree, you capture the emissions from burning the tree, and then you bury it underground, permanently, hopefully. And the idea is that this is a negative emission source of electricity. And you'll see in IPCC reports that, you know, (the IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, big un scientific group), and the 2018 report on limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees above pre industrial levels, there are various scenarios they have, based on how how fast we can start cutting emissions. If we start cutting emissions, you know, pretty slow, like, even you know, faster than we're doing now (our emissions are still going up), then, you know, to get it going down fast enough by the end of the century, they end up modeling about three India's worth of land will go to BECCS, something like this, huge amounts of land. It's just a very land intensive and very expensive form of energy. It's not clear also, if it would truly be carbon negative because soils contain much more carbon than trees do. And if you mess with the soil, the soil might start emitting carbon. So there's that problem. But it's also just like this problem of seeing these trade offs coming up. We think it's more likely that there'll just be solar geoengineering, it's much cheaper, doesn't require converting large amounts of land. So that's why we offer this kind of counter of reducing consumption, plus transition to renewables. Nuclear energy is something that some environmentalists have gotten really into recently. Historically, the environmental movement has been very critical of nuclear, that's sort of one of its original reasons for being. And to be clear, we're not like 'shut down the nuclear plants down tomorrow!' But we're just kind of trying to pour some cold water a little bit on this particular hobbyhorse. Nuclear plants take a very long time to put online, like over a decade, they are not very clean, you still have to mine the uranium. And if you build a lot of nuclear plants like some people are proposing, then the uranium will get of lower quality and that will require more energy to produce. There have been proposed ways to make this faster, like fast breeder reactors, which can use some waste to generate power. But those require liquid sodium as a coolant, sodium explodes when exposed to air, so they tend to catch fire. So they've not been very economical yet. So we're just skeptical that like a rapid buildup of nuclear is going to be our solution. And then the colonial half earth we talked about. Conservation is important. It matters, protecting the biosphere matters. But repeating the mistakes of conservation past is not good.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Yeah, we actually cover BECCS quite a lot on this podcast and on our site, but don't I don't think we've ever done anything on SRM, solar radiation management. So I was interested to see - just for listeners, you start the book, and end the book with these bits of fiction, right? And the beginning that is kind of an imagined history of the 2020s and 2030s. And it's not so utopian that bit, quite a lot of stuff goes wrong. And the kind of main thing that happens there is in 2029 I think you say that there's this big movement towards solar radiation management. Have we been sleeping on this? Do you think that's likely to happen? And maybe you could just talk a bit about SRM and what you think of it.

Drew:

So when exactly it happens, I'm not sure. But I think it's very likely. The new IPCC report has a lot more of a role for it. In that report, it's sort of proposes like we we temporarily do solar radiation management for a small period, while we get our act together, and start reducing emissions and deploying negative emissions technologies, probably. In some of these models. We kind of outlined in our fiction, I don't think that will happen. I think if we started doing solar radiation management, we'd just be stuck with it forever. Because you would maybe lose momentum. You know, it would cool temperatures, it would come at costs, right? We don't really know what would happen. Our models aren't very good for this sort of thing. They've not been tuned for this, the only thing we can really do is look at volcanic eruptions and sort of do a historical analogy. But you know, it could disrupt the monsoon, it would likely damage the ozone layer, and cause many problems that we don't know about. And we'll never know about until until we do it. It's a very uncertain technology. But Harvard where I am is a world center for geoengineering research, for solar geoengineering research. It's backed by people like Bill Gates. Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel 'Ministry for the Future' which some of your listeners might be aware of also opens with a geoengineering, basically, solar geoengineering chapter, although in his story, it's done by India after a heatwave. In ours, it's done by the US. I'm quite skeptical that geoengineering will be done by anyone other than then, you know, a superpower like the US, or maybe some of our our friends in Saudi Arabia. Yeah. So I think it is quite likely, I would say maybe next 20 years, it's just very uncertain, because it's so cheap that, you know, even a billionaire could could fund this. But then you have governance issues, like, well, people shoot down your fleet, if they don't like how you're changing the climate, like, there are all these uncertainties around there that even if it's technically feasible and cheap, you know, exactly when it would happen. I don't know.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Sorry, I'm not sure we've actually explicitly set what it is. So it's probably worth, are you okay to just run through in a couple of sentences.

Drew:

Yeah, definitely. So solar radiation management is this proposal to fly planes up to the stratosphere and shoot up particles to dim the sun and reduce temperatures that way. It's probably releasing precursors to make sulfate aerosols. So cooling the planet like that, simulating a volcanic eruption, basically. And yeah, it would reduce sunlight coming into the atmosphere. That's the proposal.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

So just from memory in the book, the issues with that that you prophesise are hits on agriculture, and maybe an effect on the ozone layer. Is that right?

Drew:

Yeah, decrease, they would likely damage the ozone layer, it might disrupt the monsoon. But we kind of are a little vague, we basically are like, well, you know, suppose there's a harvest failure that could be linked to SRM. And then we kind of in our dystopian first future are like, well, you know, they tried to, like, make people go along with this by selling some green bonds that will pay out, you know, if there's a disaster, but couldn't quite prove the disaster convincingly enough, so you didn't get your payout. And then, you know, you have this, you know, double catastrophe. So we're very skeptical that we'll be able to manage solar radiation management with our current, our current system, but we don't know the consequences. That's the thing I want to really reinforce. The model is not very good, because it's not something you can really tune very well with data. Something we'll only know when we do it. Maybe it'd be fine. But I think more likely, there'd be some consequences. Maybe the ones I mentioned, maybe likely ones I didn't, maybe something no one expects.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

In the book, you talk about how climate models are undermined when money is used as a limiting metric, rather than just things like space, energy materials, right? Your analysis is anti capitalist. But could we switch to policies and models that work on this basis within the current kind of socio economic political systems that we have?

Drew:

Our book is utopian, we open with utopian quotes. And we end with like this idea of a world without money, where we're democratically planning things, and that we have a world that safe for, you know, this sort of fact that we do affect geological cycles, and that we can really mess things up. And we need to kind of restrain ourselves collectively, democratically, fairly. And so our Utopia involves moneyless planning, expanding democracies, the economic sphere. Abolishing capitalism? I think that'd be really helpful in terms of avoiding the environmental crisis, but it doesn't look like we'll be abolishing capitalism soon. Although things could change. You can definitely go a long way to addressing these crises within within capitalism. If you are willing to kind of have aggressive sort of industrial sector planning, and you're willing to break some eggs and take on entrenched power, both in terms of the power of the wealthy, and even the moderately wealthy to consume a lot and the power of fossil fuel corporations and other corporations, if you're willing to break that power, do large scale planning in terms of like funding these new technologies, deploying them at large scale very quickly, dedicating a large percentage of GDP to this transition, confronting things like diet, you can do that within capitalism, but it will require a pretty aggressive, one way or the other, I think.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

I was also interested to just ask you about the theory of change, because I think your utopia does rely on revolutions. And obviously, we've got a pretty short time span now. But do you think we could get to a world somewhat similar to yours without worldwide revolutions?

Drew:

We kind of intentionally bracket immediate politics in our book, because we just kind of wanted to break out of this kind of narrow vision that we found ourselves in. [We] kind of wrote this book for ourselves to kind of think through what it would be like to really change and really solve the crisis. Yeah. So how do we get there? Well, we mentioned a little bit in the introduction, that change looks different in different places. Even Karl Marx thought running in elections is a great thing to do. That's part of, you know, building revolutionary change. But other places, you know, we talked about the example of South Africa's transition out of apartheid, which is a combination of elections, yes, but mostly things like boycotts, protests, violence, right. Nelson Mandela was in jail for for violence, like it was this whole massive society wide upheaval for for a very long period of time. So what does it look like in different places to get the sort of movement that can take on these really powerful entrenched forces? It depends on maybe what you want to call a revolution. You know, Bernie Sanders in the US always liked to talk about a revolution, but it was much more modest, maybe in scope. Yeah. So I guess, theory of change. If I knew the answer for how we get here, I would have written it down. And I would be telling you, but it's probably everything right? Like, it's probably it's allying with struggles like the land back movement, it's building up the working class movement, working class power, labour unions to confront some of these forces. It's building on the momentum of the climate movement, expanding it, getting more people involved. Yeah, elections matter, too. But they can't be everything. It's just everything, I guess, is the theory of change.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

My thanks to Drew Pendergrast, for coming on the show. If you've enjoyed this episode, please do check out my review of the book at www.elc-insight.org. And also make sure you go to www.play.half.earth and you can enjoy the simulation game that Drew and Troy have created. I'll let Drew say a little bit about that now.

Drew:

If you disagree with us on nuclear, if you disagree with us on solar radiation management, other things, you should propose your own utopia. And so we have a video game based on the book, it's on the website, www.play.half.earth, just put that in your browser, press enter and then you can play as the you know, global planner who's trying to solve the environmental crisis. It's designed to be fun, even though it's very detailed. It even has a little climate model that runs inside it to calculate the impacts of your decisions. And you can play with different energy mixes, you can play with different policies. Be warned that if you try and ban meat, you have to get parliament on your side and you know, we might spark some reactions against you. So the game kind of tries to model this. It's a fun way to you know, try your own hand at solving the environmental crisis, propose your own utopia.

Bertie Harrison-Broninski:

Next week, I'll be talking to a climate activist from Sri Lanka, who's going to discuss the current economic crisis, political crisis the country is facing through an environmental lens. Until then, make sure you follow or subscribe on whatever platform you're listening to us on. And we'll be back soon. Thanks for listening.