Half-Earth Socialism – Troy Vettese – Sentientism Ep:191

Find our Sentientist Conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism podcast.

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian who specializes in environmental economics, animal studies, and energy history. In 2019 he completed his doctorate in history at New York University. From 2019 to 2021, he worked at Harvard University as a William Lyon Mackenzie King postdoctoral research fellow. He has collaborated with Drew Pendergrass, an environmental engineer, on numerous projects including their book Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics .

Troy is currently revising his dissertation on neoliberal environmental thought into a book, tentatively titled ‘Beyond Externality’. In addition to his academic work, Vettese writes on a wide array of environmental topics for a popular audience, and has had essays published in the Guardian, the New Statesman, Jacobin, N+1, Book Forum, and Boston Review.

In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”

Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” In addition to the YouTube video above the audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.

00:00 Clips!

01:04 Welcome

02:58 Troy’s Intro

– Half-Earth Socialism “what does it look like to have an ecologically stable society… a good relationship with other beings on this planet and also to ensure a good life for everyone”

– The Half-Earth Socialism computer game & maybe a future board-game

05:44 What’s Real?

– #Ecosocialism and #neoliberalism in conversation with each other

– Growing up in a fairly conservative but non-religious household

– Being a Young Tory, reading Milton Friedman

– In early 20’s “a crisis of faith in terms of this conservative worldview” due to the Iraq war and the 2008 financial crisis

– Reading Marx and New Left Review

– Exploring the environmental crisis

– A sensitive child, then a toxic masculinity phase as a teenager (callous, eating meat, machismo), then, alongside the crisis of faith in conservatism, a wish to return to childhood passion for nature

– Gravitating towards ecosocialism

– Didn’t “grow up with red diapers” (being brought up in a left wing family) so feeling inoculated as knows the political right very well as “I came from the right to the left”

– #greenwashing measures “I wanted to understand where these ideas had come from… no one had done an intellectual history of these things”

– Challenging the common leftist view that the right & neoliberalism doesn’t have any real intellectual depth “I took it more seriously than most socialists”

– “I thought the left should have more concrete ideas of their own… match the rigour of these conservative ones”

– “‘We’ll figure it out after the revolution’… that’s not enough”

– Mother who ran for the Green party in elections

– Not religious now

– “Sceptical of thinking that there’s one true path… one true way of relating to each other or to animals”… relativism, Kuhnian (paradigms)?

– The neoliberal view of the market as the optimal information processor

– Being rational but also appreciating the spiritual/subliminal/subjective? “that’s why I’m a big bird watcher”

– The “spark bird” that gets you into #birdwatching

– #deleuze “Becoming animal” vs. #Haraway’s notion of “becoming with”

– “This planet is pretty crazy… full of life… we just get used to it… get jaded… these moments when you really see how wonderful existence is”

17:50 What Matters?

– “People only change their minds when the cracks are starting to appear and they’re looking for something else”

– Seeing neoliberal policies of privatisation & lower taxes “I’m not sure if that is actually working”

– Knowing some vegetarians & arguing against them to defend meat-eating “I always felt dissatisfied with my own efforts”

– “Marxists tend to be pretty bad at ethics”

– “I want to scold other Marxists for being so bad about the animal question”

– “Every creature including humans wants to engage in certain behaviours”

– “Humans have this Hegelian quality where they want to see themselves in the world”

– “The problem with #capitalism is… it’s not our own ideas… it’s capital… we’re doing things we don’t care about… no one is in control of this process… the human race is being subordinated to the ends of this non-human intangible thing we call capital”

– “This idea that we want to return to this unalienating labour of actually doing what we want to do”

– Also an “intense attention to empathy… caring about the species being of other creatures”

– Marxists: “we want to liberate humans”… “but then they sound like reactionaries when they say ‘we will dominate the world and we’ll have so many slaughterhouses and factory farms… and re-shape nature and do geo-engineering’… they sound like conservatives. I don’t think they realise the switch.”

– “I’m not an anarchist… how do we create institutions where we can democratically decide between these trade-offs?”

– “Do I want to garden, do I want to write a book? If I want to eat today I might need to garden myself.”

– “Make visible and conscious these economic choices instead of having them being decided by the market… and also pursuing that goal of liberation for other creatures”

– “Realising that we cannot control nature… not being hubristic”

– Digging down to the philosophical foundations that sit underneath different political models

– Neoliberal assumptions that “this market will produce the best possible outcome in the most rational way… almost a semi-divine thing… emerged spontaneously but it is also very fragile”

– “Neoliberals and Marxists talk about the market in very similar ways – but Marxists would say that this is bad… this unconscious, powerful entity… where neoliberals say this is a miracle”

– Adam Smith acknowledged market failures but “neoliberals would never say that… the solution to a market failure is always more markets… they’re much more extreme”

27:33 Who Matters?

– Considering sexism in academia and elsewhere & feeling empathy

– Spending time in environmental and socialist movements “they would never talk about animal rights”

– Learning about the catastrophic environmental impacts of animal agriculture yet “people would just refuse to talk about it… we were just not having the right debates”

– Anthropocentrism, sentiocentrism, biocentrism and ecocentrism

– Learning about the history of the Cold War… beyond “US good guys, Soviets bad” and learning about the terrible things done by many governments including the US and Canada

– “You realise you’re the baddies… that’s an important moment”

– The risks of selective solidarity: only caring about the victims of those you consider an enemy while disregarding others

– “There’s lots of weird left positions… ‘actually China’s not oppressing the Uighurs’… you can say ‘I wish China was socialist and democratic and respected the rights of self-determination of people within its borders”

– The bizarre phenomenon of those on the left supporting Putin / Assad… “I don’t think they’re on your side… don’t support these regimes”

– In Half-Earth Socialism focusing on trade-offs “We care about the lives of every creature… but supporting everyone’s wellbeing will come at a cost for some”

– Scientists worrying about whether to destroy a fossil in order to better understand it, while unthinkingly destroying vast numbers of sentient animals. The fossil is treated with reverence, but the living beings are not

– “There will be some real costs… we should reckon with that… not just wave them away”

– Ideas of ending predation through genetic engineering or feeding tigers lab-grown meat “we do not know how these systems work well-enough to manage interactions between billions or trillions of life-forms”

– “Re-wilding is controversial… often species reintroductions don’t work very well… this is difficult and stressful for these individual animals… when does the care for the species matter more than the care for the individual? I lean towards care for the ecosystem but we shouldn’t dismiss care for the individual…”

– “People have this blood-lust… ‘what can I kill and not feel bad about it?’”

– Risks of biocentrism, ecocentrism, collectivism that those concepts are defined by powerful humans for their own ends

– “A huge problem in Marxism… Most eco-socialists… want a nicer way of dealing with the environment… it’s green, there’s a farm, a couple of little parks… that’s good enough… maybe a ‘humane’ farm… they don’t really care about animals”

– “If it wasn’t for the environmental crisis a lot of these eco-socialists wouldn’t care about animals at all… they wouldn’t care about the environment at all… that’s a huge mistake… they’re missing the point… if the world looked like the Netherlands that would be a disaster”

– “Most environmentalism unfortunately is very shallow”

– Dark ecology, Arne Naess, ecocentrism… “They then become very anti-humanist… Malthusian… ‘we’re better off without humans’… I don’t think that’s the solution either… humans can co-exist with many other creatures… figure out how we’re going to divide the earth between us and other creatures… enough space for everybody”

– How the left struggles to extend ideas of solidarity, oppression, exploitation beyond humanity and also neglects historical links between animal agriculture and colonialism

– Aphro-ism by Aph and Syl Ko. “Human” defined as only the white, heteronormative, male homo sapiens. Concepts of animality used to motivate intra-human discriminations as well as brutality to other species

– Cora Diamond’s “Eating Animals, Eating People”… “Who can you treat as a thing?”… personhood, dignity… “The left is trying to police that boundary… to make sure that border is very clear we have to exclude these animals”

– Hitler’s apparent vegetarianism… “these brutal people who kill millions… and they care about animals… what’s going on there?” Seeing out-group humans  as things while elevating animals?

– Potential essay on “sausage socialism… all these Marxists who just hate veganism so much”

– “I’ve had some very nice reviews [of Half-Earth Socialism] but some people are just very mad about veganism”

– Socialism and animal liberation “These were actually twinned at birth… a lot of the leading campaigners from one belonged to the other movement as well.. then there’s this break in the mid 19th Century”

54:15 A Better World?

– Neoliberals “pumping out frameworks like crazy… try things… try something else… I just wish it was reversed. I wish socialists and environmentalists were putting out frameworks and trying things out…”

– Criticism without proposing alternatives is not enough

– “If socialists and animal rights people are trying stuff out… and neoliberals… all they do was write these very learned, very insightful critiques… but they don’t propose any alternatives.. that would be hilarious… I’d love to live in that world”

– “Marxism doesn’t want people to imagine these alternatives… this is Marx’s own philosophical problem”

– “This refusal to think seriously about the future has not served the left or the environmental movement well”

– “we’ve been co-opted in many ways… the frameworks we do have are coming from neoliberals… small communes [Elinor Ostrum – The Commons]… or dominate nature and geoengineering [Julian Simon]”

– “They’re just trying to prevent a state from intervening and shutting down market mechanisms”

– “If we’re not going to use markets… how do we plan the economy without markets?

– “There aren’t that many successful examples of a planned economy or of socialist democracy”

– Recognising the failures of attempts at socialism while learning from them (Eastern Bloc, Chile, Cuba…)

– “What can we take from nature to ensure a good life from everyone but also prevent a mass-extinction crisis… pandemic… climate change”

– “We have enough numbers to make some rough guesses… that’s what we tried to do in the book”

– E.O. Wilson’s idea “half the earth is wild… it solves a lot of problems… extinction… carbon to be sequestered… then what do we do in this other half?”

– The other half: renewable energy, agriculture, carbon sequestration projects

– “We have space for all these things – we just have to do the math… that’s where veganism is amazing… this silver bullet in a lot of ways… it makes solving these problems a thousand times easier”

– “In the book we don’t really make this ethical case… the argument for veganism emerges from this planning set of constraints… from the logic of this problem it leads to veganism very quickly”

– JW: Feed conversion ratios, inefficiency, waste and land-use “even if you ignore the ethical question seem to condemn the entire of animal agriculture as one of the craziest things humanity could ever want to do”

– “People don’t realise how bad the meat industry is… people talk about suburbs and sprawl… but it’s nothing compared to pasture… CAFOs & feed lots.” Human habitation is 1-2% of land use at most

– Co-author Drew Pendergrast’s linear programming “it could tell you very quickly whether your plan is feasible or not”

– Neoliberals: “The market is unknowable, you’re just a stupid consumer… you just live your stupid life… you have no idea what is happening… you can’t see that or control that… but the sum of these stupid interactions are the best possible thing to happen”

– “Socialism has to be the opposite… this democratic, conscious control of our economic relations amongst ourselves and also with nature… there are limits to what we can take so we choose to constrain ourselves”

Otto Neurath “A big influence… he ran exhibitions… graphic design… pictographs… to show the economy to the working class of Vienna”

– Citizen’s assemblies are more open to meat restrictions than government policy “people are not stupid… you don’t need a PhD in these things to figure it out”

– Individual choices (why should I bother?) vs. social decisions “we should decide collectively… make it easier for us overall to not eat animal products… it has to be political”

– “That’s why the whole fake / lab-meat stuff is a dead end”

– “People who would be like: ‘I know I should… if it’s easier, and if everyone else is doing it and I see it has an impact… I think there’s a lot of people like that”

– “What kind of knowledge production do we want?” The market is very good at some types of knowledge (these people want purple toothbrushes)… “but the market is terrible at capturing other kinds of information… environmental crisis… risk of pandemics… suffering of animals… it can’t include these externalities…”

– Neoliberalism suggests taxation and market mechanisms to capture those externalities e.g. cap and trade whereas socialism includes those externalities in the plan

– “We’re not really enthusiastic about AI or algorithms… to solve these problems”

– “Probably a socialist economy will be more inefficient and there will be shortages…”

– “Make work that is enjoyable enough… that means more artisanal work and that means less productive work… vs. work that is less fun”

– Making collective democratic decisions about trade-offs e.g. needing cheap things vs. doing boring work

– “Socialism doesn’t need to be perfect. Socialism just needs to be better than what we have now. It needs to be able to arrest these environmental crises that we’re facing because capitalism is unable to do that.”

– “Delving into a century of planning history is helpful… we’re not the first people to confront them”

– “Are we going to have fast fashion and really cheap shoes and shirts?… no because we don’t want to have sweat-shops”

– “Things would have to change drastically… Are homeowners who have a big suburban home – are they going to lose out – probably”

– “We have thousands of academics and think-tankers already but people are not connected and they’re not co-ordinated and they don’t have any foundational philosophical assumptions that can guide a bigger project… we have this kind of hodgepodge”

– Risks of authoritarianism… too much control… concentrations of power… collective goals that crush individuals…

– “Socialism has had a lot of failures… it will be difficult… [but] capitalism will definitely fail, it’s definitely getting worse, it will definitely destroy the planet, it will destroy culture… human interaction and relationships. We’ll all just be on phones or have chips in our brains – playing video games while the world dies. There’ll be one trillionaire and everyone else will be working these gig jobs… that’s where we’re going”

– “Socialism offers the possibility of freedom… of ecological stability… but it means that we have to choose how we’re governing ourselves and we may not do a good job with that. We have to be honest about these risks – there’s no automatic utopia… it’s going to be hard… but it’s the only thing that can allow the good life”

– Trotskyist CLR James’s essay “Every cook can govern” and the socialist problems of a party elite (tyrannical) or a bureaucratic elite (self-serving and anti-democratic)

– In capitalism “the coercion is caused through the market – you lose your job, can’t feed yourself… go bankrupt”

– “To what degree can we motivate people to not rely on coercion?”

– “To what degree have other regimes substituted market mechanisms for… a gun?”

– Stalinism was so violent “because it had to replace that market coercion with a very intense coercion”

– Direct democracy. CLR James looked to ancient Athens “everyone took turns running the state… people were very literate… they cared more about education… they wanted to participate”

– The Greek origins of the word “idiot” as “someone who did not want to participate in public life”

– Random, fair selection, sortition and citizen’s assemblies “we can do these things… we should have them instead of parliaments… all the way up to a global parliament”

– “These are difficult institutions to imagine… I don’t think socialism is just going to look like bourgeois democracy but more left… it’s going to require totally different institutions to work”

– The risks of primitivism and the potential for positive uses of technology and innovation? (nuclear, GMO, clean meat?)

– “We’re not anti-technology where we have to go back to the land… but it’s not fetishising technology”

– “When you make a plan you should assume existing technologies because developing and scaling technologies might take 20-30 years… or may never happen”

– Nuclear fission, carbon capture and storage (CCS)…

– “People don’t like nuclear… you don’t want to demobilise people”. Challenges of scaling, mining impacts, running out of accessible uranium…

– Simple solutions: “Renewables work… rewilding works… we have public transport… get people on trams… and I’m not going to wait around for lab-meat… you can eat lentils.”

– “If the problem is serious enough… as it is… then we shouldn’t have to wait for these fussy eaters. They should just get on board. Either it’s serious or it’s not.”

– “We have to be doing all this stuff now… we just don’t have time to wait for these technologies”

– Considering wild animal ethics in re-wilding. Can we re-wild to lower suffering density ecosystems (short trophic chains, larger herbivores)?

– “I think it’s condescending for us to decide what’s the best life for these animals… suffering is not the most important problem” vs. freedom / autonomy

–  “I’m sure being a wild animal is very difficult, very painful and very terrifying but I’m sure there’s also plenty of beauty that they get to experience as well… I don’t think we should intervene just out of respect for their own species being or autonomy”

Heather Browning episode (re: work on the positive aspects of wild animal life)

– “Capitalism is trying to create a second nature… change these natural flows and redirect them towards commodity production… it doesn’t matter if that’s coal, solar power, animal flesh, human labour – they’re all redirected… As Marxists we should be horrified by that but also find sympathy for our fellow suffering beings and try to free them”

– “Even if all these capitalists agree they care about animals these capitalist pressures are just so intense I don’t think they can be avoided”

– “Neoliberalism is having a hard time… getting harder for them to really convince people that the market is working for them… they have to make alliances ever more frequently with fascists”

– “Fascism is on the rise… it’s strange that people don’t want to call it what it is… it’s a threat in a lot of places”

– “Either the left and environmentalists and animal liberationists are going to come up with a compelling alternative or we’re going to have this neoliberal fascist hybrid”

– “We will have to come up with something… or it’s going to get really bad… there’s only two possibilities”

– The aim of Half-Earth Socialism is an attempt to put that alternative forward “we can’t just be satisfied with critique”

– HES has been covered in the left-wing press but “veganism is the problem”. Have struggled to get traction in the animal rights community but where they have, there’s more openness to socialism “yeh maybe capitalism isn’t working”

– “We really want to talk to vegans more… people who care about animals more”

– Mainstream environmental movement “It’s been tough… people are either put off by the socialism or they’re put off by the veganism…”

– “Every group has to learn from another and see that they are facing a common enemy and unify”

01:29:55 Follow Troy

Half-Earth Socialism (play the game (although on Steam) and see if you can save our world!)

The HES book at Verso
Troy at the European University Institute

– Watch for the HES paperback book tour

– Join the HES Discord server

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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.

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