‘There is no technology riding to the rescue while capitalism is the dominant political philosophy’

A new book argues that rewilding is the key to saving the planet from mass extinction, says Dan Carrier

Thursday, 28th April — By Dan Carrier


WE are tumbling head first into mass extinction, with half of all animal and plant life on earth predicted to be wiped out by the end of this century.

It is grim news and no longer can the oil capitalists and wealth-hoarders responsible for impending mass death deny it is happening or pass the blame.

With such a starkly frightening future ahead of us, the questions over how to avert disaster – and what a planet saved from environmental catastrophe might look like – are vital. A new book, Half-Earth Socialism, gives a wide-ranging but approachable critique of where we are now, and authors Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass offer a radical vision of how to build a better world for all.

Vettese is an environmental historian teaching at the European University Institute, while Pendergrass is completing a PhD in environmental engineering at Edinburgh University. They draw on numerous sources to lay bare the mortal danger our species faces, and then show how there are answers to these problems, but the problems need a radical approach.

When Karl Marx published Capital, a review in the London Gazette said he was “a thinker who dreams and a dreamer who thinks”. Both laudable characteristics are apparent in this work, which details a theory of climate crisis caused by the exploitation and hoarding of finite resources. Calling their theory Half Earth Socialism, they say its goals are straightforward: prevent a mass extinction, practise natural geo-engineering to draw down carbon through re-wilded ecosystems, and create a global renewable energy system.

The authors describe the Late Devonian Extinction, a catastrophe that hit the earth 375 million years ago. Plants had taken over land: roots broke rocks, and the minerals were washed into the sea, creating algae blooms that in turn starved swathes of the sea of oxygen.

“Ancient plants wrecked their earthly home with plagues of eutrophication, climate change and mass extinction,” they add. “One would think the difference between humans and archaeopteris – an extinct genus of fern-like trees – is that our species is aware of its impending doom. Yet given our continued inaction in the face of disaster, this is difficult to discern. The only way to demonstrate our vaunted powers of consciousness is to end the thoughtless capitalisation of nature and to limit our species interchanges with nature through extensive but careful planning. Otherwise, a world of greater inequality, disease, climatic disaster and ecological impoverishment awaits.”

To avoid mass extermination requires understandable answers to troublesome questions. The problem, as the authors point out, is ensuring information is easily available and digestible, with the benefits of their suggestions highlighted instead of just the threat of extinction

The authors say “rewilding” half the planet would drastically cut carbon emissions and restore biodiversity. This would mean a huge swathe of land mass and oceans was not there to be exploited: and for this to work, we need to be more efficient in providing for our needs.

They tackle the meat industry from a moral and animal welfare perspective, and laying out the impact the industry has in terms of energy, land use and emissions.

While calling on us to curb our consumption of meat – and producers to alter the way they work – the book cites the work of small pox vaccine inventor Edward Jenner.

Working in the late 1700s and early 19th century, Jenner noted how a range of diseases emerged hand in hand with changes to our diet. He said disease was not a “timeless burden”, but instead he “historicised it as an interspecies relationship.

“It is not accepted that prior to the rise of animal husbandry, humans suffered no disease apart from the occasional parasite or unlucky infection, suggesting that the pathogens that now plague humanity ultimately come from other animals,” say the authors.

Measles is said to have evolved from a bovine disease 7,000 years ago, flu began affecting humans when wildfowl became domesticated 4,500 years ago, leprosy came from water buffalo and some variants of the cold came from horses. Jenner noted that indigenous nations in the new world, who did not keep domesticated animals, suffered very little disease.

“Jenner recognised animal husbandry was one of the most consequential and dangerous ways humans shape life on earth,” they state.

Tackling meat industry emissions, its role in poor public health, and the moral vacuum it operates in is a key aspect to sending our world down a different path.

The question as to why capitalism might offer grave danger to the environment as opposed to a socialist system is answered by going back 500 years to where the authors say capitalism was born – the English countryside.

“Capitalism emerged from animal husbandry as well as its relationship to the Industrial Revolution,” they write. “Replacing peasants with flocks of sheep and a few shepherds was a sort of proto-mechanisation that increased relative profit by increasing labour productivity.”

This was to the detriment of the land workers, the earth and animals – all to increase a landowner’s profit margin. It is a business model that has been extrapolated into every other section of human production and wrecked our earth.

Pendergrass, whose work in environmental engineering gives him the knowledge to critique technological answers to the climate crisis, warns the reader that there is no magic fix coming from scientists, who cite biomass power stations, fast breeder nuclear reactors and carbon credits as ways forward.

“There is no technology riding to the rescue while capitalism is still the dominant political philosophy. It can’t be,” they write. “While neoliberals care little if their schemes of cap and trade actually work as long as the markets autonomy is preserved, mainstream environmentalists seem to think that their demi-utopias might fix a broken planet.

“These proposals have almost no chance of being implemented despite political concessions to appease the rich and powerful. The frothy excitement over some green miracle cure such as fast breeder reactors or third generation biofuels will soon fade alongside the hopes of reversing the crisis within capitalism.”

They argue that these approaches are doomed to fail, not just because of technological shortcomings, but because they also lack a utopian imagination. They offer little motivation to create a better planet, which is at the heart of this book’s argument – without being able to imagine Utopia, how can we ever hope to get there?

Half Earth Socialism. By Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, Verso, £14.99

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