A new video game version of the book Half-Earth Socialism allows players to test out a range of possible ecosocialist futures.

The regeneration of a former deforested and clear felled sitka spruce conifer plantation in the Galloway Forest Park, Scotland. (Getty Images)

huTatjana Söding interviews environmental historian Troy Vettese about Half-Earth Socialism—a game based on a Verso book of the same name, co-written with Drew Pendergrass.

In the game, the player plans the world economy with the aim of achieving climate justice, global democracy, and ‘the good life’ for all. Here, Söding and Vettese discuss the game, the book, and the intense recent debates over what form ecosocialism might take.

The Five-Year Plan Simulation

Tatjana Söding

Troy, in May you released the free video game Half-Earth Socialism, where one plans the world economy within planetary boundaries. How did you come up with the idea for such a game?

Troy Vettese

At first we wanted to make a website for the book that would include a linear programme that my co-author Drew made. With that tool, you can see the trade-offs between energy production, conservation, and animal husbandry, because you quickly run out of land or room in your carbon budget. In 2021 we were speaking to the designers at Trust about them designing our site and they counter-proposed making a video game with help from Francis Tseng. This opportunity was impossible to turn down. We hoped the game would introduce ideas from the book to a much bigger audience and potentially could be used as an educational tool in universities and high schools.

The game adheres closely to the pedagogical principles laid out by one of my favourite philosophers: Otto Neurath. Neurath was the central planner of the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919 and then in the 1920s became a curator of a museum in Vienna, where he put on exhibitions to portray the economy to a working class audience using ISOTYPE (a sort of proto-data visualisation). He thought that if the working class of Vienna could see the economy, they could imagine controlling it. In our game we want people to perceive how the biosphere and economy are interconnecting wholes, and thus trade-offs are inevitable—do you want more meat and a high extinction rate? Energy quotas or more fossil fuels combined with geoengineering? Right now, we are having stupid debates over the environment, where one sees only their own consumption but not how it relates to the totality of production. We want to encourage people to think more concretely how the environmental crisis can be addressed and what a socialist society might look like.

Tatjana Söding

In your game, you set the player’s goals to keeping global warming to under one degree, the extinction rate to under twenty percent, and greenhouse gas emissions to zero. No easy task!

Troy Vettese

The game may not be easy, but hopefully it’s fun! Overcoming the environmental crisis will be extremely difficult, no matter how we choose to go about it. Hopefully the game gives players a sense of the scale and complexity of the task without feeling like homework. What I like about our game is that it manages to be quite scientific, quite serious, but still has a fair bit of humour in it. In the game you play as a central planner for the world, where you design five-year plans that develop new technologies (e.g., fusion), build infrastructure (bike lanes or more nature reserves), and implement policies (energy quotas, veganism, etc.). You get points if you manage the climate and biodiversity crises while maintaining high living standards, otherwise you’ll lose your job.

At first, we wanted to make a multiplayer game where people would represent regions and negotiate with other players to create a global plan. Perhaps one region would reduce meat consumption and send more doctors abroad, while another region would expand nature preserves. This, alas, was too complicated for the first version of our little game, so we made a global parliament which has many different parties representing factions within the environmental and socialist movements (ecofeminists, utopians, accelerationists, etc.). By developing certain plans, you win their support in parliament and perhaps they’ll help you pass more controversial policies, such as banning meat. There is the possibility in the game of ruling in an authoritarian manner, but terrorist groups might emerge (there are meat terrorists called the ‘Leather Underground’) or you might be deposed by your parliamentary enemies.

Tatjana Söding

When I played the game, initiating a research programme into lab-meat was one of my first moves! It took me many turns in the game to undo ‘the myriad harms of centuries of capitalism’, as you say, and win. How does the game evaluate whether a five-year plan contributes to a more ecologically-stable world or not?

Troy Vettese

Some aspects of the game are quite specific, such as land-use requirements or CO2 emissions of various industries. We hired a researcher, Spencer Roberts, to help us with this work. Spencer is not only a solar-power engineer, he’s also a marine biologist, so he could cover quite a bit of scientific terrain. Of course, technologies vary in their efficacy in different conditions, so it’s hard to have a single number for, say, the power density of nuclear power, but the figures are based on good estimates. Our game developer Francis pulled off quite a feat by not only integrating a real scientific climate model (HECTOR) within the game, but also got it to run fast enough on a web browser. That being said, we didn’t include all of the scientific equations we wanted to because of time constraints. For instance, scientists have even come up with a formula to estimate the probability of a Chernobyl-scale nuclear disaster occurring—I would have loved to have that in the game. On the social side of things, a lot of the numbers are just rough estimates. I see this game more as a proof of concept. Hopefully we can make another game that will be more complex and accurate. The game has already been translated into Portuguese and Spanish, hopefully with many more translations to come.

Tatjana Söding

The game’s starting scene declares that ‘in 2022, a socialist revolution swept the globe’. Why is ecosocialism necessary in the struggle against the climate crisis, economic inequality, and the Sixth Extinction?

Troy Vettese

I am a socialist because it is clear to me that capitalism will destroy the natural world. Capitalism is a decentralised but coercive economic system, which means that capitalists must produce goods at the going rate of profit or go bankrupt. This economic imperative forces capitalists to find new markets or to make labour more productive, two tendencies that lead to capital subsuming ever more of the social and natural world. We already live in a capitalist dystopia of extinctions, pandemics, climate disasters, alongside massive economic inequality, and things will get much worse. Capitalism’s defenders like to say that capitalism is efficient or rational, but it is neither. Capital is blindly devouring the world because its human agents can only engage in profitable activities rather than do what is necessary, such as shut down the meat and fossil fuel industries. You have to be a fool to believe that cap-and-trade programmes or ‘green capitalism’ can address the many environmental crises we face.

Tatjana Söding

Can socialism?

Troy Vettese

There is no guarantee that socialism will solve the environmental crisis because there is no automatic utopia. Socialism only offers the possibility of freedom and ecological stability, but it will be difficult to simultaneously organise the global economy, protect the biosphere, and create new democratic institutions. Yet, under socialism we can pursue unprofitable goals because economic decisions can be guided by a variety of incommensurate measures subject to popular approval. Drew and I have our own vision of what ecosocialism might look like—a mix of energy-quotas, renewable energy, veganism, and large-scale rewilding, but of course it’s very much possible that such a platform would be as marginal under socialism as it is under capitalism. Perhaps people will vote for big cars and flights to soccer tournaments in the desert. Who knows? The hope is that by making the economic system more visible, we can see trade-offs more clearly and opt to protect the environment.

The game, hopefully, is a first step in this direction. There are still too many socialists in the thrall of Prometheanism—the belief that the total domination of nature is possible and desirable so that everyone can live in luxury. We wrote Half-Earth Socialism and made the game to spur the left to contemplate the benefits of a humble but ecologically-stable socialism.

Tatjana Söding

In the book Half-Earth Socialism you criticise many socialists precisely because of their belief that under socialism we’ll all live like millionaires, a hubristic dream predicated on the domination of nature. What is Prometheanism and why is it so pervasive on the left?

Troy Vettese

In Greek myth, Prometheus was the titan who taught humanity to master fire, making him synonymous with the desire to control nature. One can find endless quotations from socialists that in the future humanity will have the power to move mountains or irrigate deserts. I think it is rather revealing that the idea of solar radiation management—a Promethean technology par excellence—comes from a Soviet scientist in the 1970s. Prometheanism has been an important facet of the left because it counters the Malthusian critique of utopia by disregarding natural limits. Marxists believe that such abundance will create a new kind of person, totally unselfish because private property is meaningless when everyone can have everything. If everyone can have everything and robots will do all the work, then we don’t need to think too hard about trade-offs. I don’t find this convincing, indeed it’s a bit silly that Marxists have a hard-nosed critique of capitalism but a vague libertarian fantasy of socialism. We need a new, anti-Promethean socialism, especially because we live in an era of environmental catastrophe. Zoonotic pandemics are a good example of why the total control of nature is impossible. When we intervene in nature, we are acting in a system we do not fully know and thus cannot predict the outcome of our intervention. Any ecological disturbance—such as the scientific use of animals to suburbanisation—could potentially push a virus or bacterium to find a new host. This is why public health experts call for a moratorium on factory farms and the expansion of nature preserves to act as cordons sanitaires. In short, humanity needs to give nature space through energy quotas, veganism, and rewilding. Socialism does not mean an escape from scarcity, instead, it would be a society where scarcity is managed intelligently and fairly.

Tatjana Söding

In refusing Marx’s Prometheanism, you turn instead to Edward Jenner as the unsung hero for Half-Earth Socialism. Jenner popularised the small-pox vaccine in the late eighteenth century and warned against the danger of intervening too deeply in nature. Is global veganism connected to your argument of ‘Jennerite eco-scepticism’?

Troy Vettese

It’s incredible how little we talk about animal husbandry when we talk about the environmental crisis. Not only does it produce new zoonoses—including diseases with mortality rates fifty times higher than SARS-CoV2—but the livestock industry also takes up 40% of the inhabitable global landmass and more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation. The food system is also a part of the global economy that is the easiest to transform. The overwhelming majority of us could become vegan next year, but the energy, housing, transport, and industrial sectors are much harder to change because infrastructure takes time to build. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to keep up high rates of meat production if we decarbonise the food sector because growing all of that fodder requires mechanisation, fertilisers, and pesticides. We need a lot of land not only to rewild half the planet (i.e., ‘Half-Earth’), but we also need it for renewable energy systems, which take up a hundred or a thousand times more land than fossil fuels. There’s not enough space for everything—which is why there are already fights over renewable energy infrastructure in ecologically sensitive areas. We’ll have to make trade-offs somewhere, and abolishing the meat industry makes every other goal easier to accomplish.

Socialist Calculations

Tatjana Söding

As you write in the book, neoliberal economists like Friedrich August von Hayek won the ‘socialist calculation debate’ because they convincingly argued that it was the market that is too complex to be known. Since then, the price mechanism, not planning, determines production and demand.

Troy Vettese

Half-Earth Socialism belongs to the century-long ‘socialist calculation debate’, which began with Neurath’s memorandum on planning the Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919. While I wouldn’t say that neoliberals have won the debate, perhaps they are still winning. The few planning theorists around today concede too much to neoliberals by including markets within their vision of socialism. As a Neurathian, I believe that ‘market socialism’ will fail and instead we need to rely on non-market mechanisms. Furthermore, unlike other socialists, Drew and I try to challenge neoliberals on their terrain—epistemology.

The basic question of political economy is what can we know? Neoliberals argue that markets are unknowable and thus should not be controlled. Drew and I counter that nature is far more complex than the market, thus we need to restrain the economy so that self-willed nature can flourish. Such economic restraints are only possible under socialism. While I have no illusions regarding the ease of planning the global economy, it would still be easier than trying to control nature. We are dependent on ecological systems that we cannot fully understand, and therefore it is essential that nature has enough space to function properly. I think at some level neoliberals recognise that capitalism cannot solve the environmental crisis, which is why they have embraced hare-brained schemes like geoengineering. They are willing to sacrifice the Earth on the altar of their omniscient, god-like market. Socialists and environmentalists should be doing their damnedest to stop them.

Tatjana Söding

You borrow the concept of ‘Half-Earth’ from the entomologist E. O. Wilson, who called for leaving fifty percent of the planet’s surface to nature. In the book, you convincingly argue against Thomas Malthus, whose heirs have time and again reiterated their racist and classist arguments that population control is the only effective measure to counter environmental problems. But if you want half of the Earth rewilded, wouldn’t that imply that many people—especially indigenous nations—will be forcefully removed from their lands?

Troy Vettese

In our book, Drew and I are clear that indigenous rights are compatible with conservation. Indeed, indigenous-managed territories have more biodiversity and sequester more carbon than conventional nature preserves. Of course, one doesn’t have to be utilitarian about this—indigenous rights matter in themselves.

Drew and I decided to foreground the goal of ‘Half-Earth’ because we wanted to emphasise that massive changes on a planetary scale are needed to deal with mass extinction and climate change. We like the sheer scale of Wilson’s Half-Earth proposal. That being said, Wilson was wrong to think that Half-Earth could be achieved in capitalism and it’s wrong to rely on billionaires to buy up huge swathes of land. Our book includes an extensive critical genealogy of the Half-Earth concept, but we try to rescue a key insight that the primary driver of biodiversity collapse is land-use change. Wilson’s eco-tourism and exotic ranches aren’t going to cut it. Instead, Drew and I argue for planning, energy quotas, and veganism to free up space for Half-Earth.

Veganism has been the most contentious part of Half-Earth Socialism, but to our critics I would ask, well, what are they willing to give up to maintain high levels of meat consumption? How much extinction can they stomach? How many more pandemics should we risk? How many more gigatonnes of greenhouse gases should be emitted? There are going to be trade-offs either way. Personally, I don’t think we should mourn the end of the culture surrounding industrial cattle feed-lots or illegal ranches in the Amazon rainforest. Good riddance. The harder question is what happens with smaller-scale producers. Only about two thirds of meat production is industrial, but the rest comes from small farmers. Max Ajl, for example, has criticised my work for depriving peasants of their livestock. I think it’s fine to debate where to draw the line when it comes to global veganism, but it’s not useful to be overly romantic about the figure of the peasant. Lots of these pro-peasant socialists blind themselves to questions of animal rights as well as the ecological consequences of animal husbandry to the point of parroting nonsense from the livestock industry about ‘carbon neutral’ meat.

I think the thrust of your question is whether it is right for the left and environmentalists to imagine demanding that other people change how or where they live. These are difficult issues, but they are inescapable if we believe in economic democracy. We have to give up naïve liberal myths of neutrality. Many people are comfortable demanding others change how they live so that the fossil fuel industry can be abolished. It should not be surprising that stopping the Sixth Extinction similarly requires drastic changes. Again, Neurath’s approach of ‘total plans’ allows us to see these trade-offs and decide collectively the broad contours of production and consumption.

Tatjana Söding

What would such planning look like?

Troy Vettese

Plans should not try to mimic the market or be guided by a single metric like labour-time, energy, or CO2. Rather, plans should try to fulfil many different, incommensurate goals that can only be understood in their totality. As I mentioned at the beginning, Drew made a linear programme, where one could see if their imagined future was feasible, given the constraints of land or tonnes of carbon. We imagine planning to be a two-step process. Linear programming tools would allow everyone to devise their own ‘scientific utopias’—which is what Neurath called the practice of detailed, technical planning—which could then be decided upon democratically, say, at a global parliament. Linear programming, however, is too static to run an economy, so it must be complemented with various cybernetic approaches to update the plan as crises or bottlenecks emerge.

The cutting edge of Soviet planning theory in the 1960s and 1970s was never implemented because planning bureaucracies did not want to relinquish their powers over distribution. Thus, many Soviet cyberneticians and mathematicians went to ecological institutions like IIASA and built the first earth-systems models, as historian Eglė Rindzevičiūtė has shown. The question now is how can advances in earth-systems science now be redirected back to economic planning. There are also informational problems that need to be addressed. Drew and I imagine that the global plan set out by a global parliament would have only broad goals, such as each region having to double renewable energy production over the following planning period, then regional planning agencies would come up with more detailed plans on how to achieve that goal, all the way down to the local level. Drew and I follow Neurath in making the argument that a certain amount of centralisation is needed—we cannot solve global problems as isolated anarchist communes—but obviously it is also impossible to plan everything from a single centre.

Which Ecosocialism?

Tatjana Söding

Just as you have criticised ecomodernists for their desire to control nature, the self-proclaimed ‘ecomodernist’ Matt Huber has compared you to the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot. To Huber, you are forcing eco-austerity upon the working class, who have already suffered from neoliberal austerity for over forty years. How do you respond to this critique?

Troy Vettese

I expected there would be some critical reviews of Half-Earth Socialism—after all, cybernetic vegan socialism is a very niche political position. Of course, it was always going to be hard to win over ecomodernists, but I was surprised by the unfairness of their attacks. Ecomodernists conflate the good life with having more stuff, which is a rather impoverished way of seeing the world. E. P. Thompson speaks instead about socialism requiring a new ‘education of desire’, so that we can live richer, more fulfilling lives. I’m not fighting on the barricades so that everyone can have a three-car garage. The difference between utopian socialists and scientific Marxists is that the latter think that socialism is merely the fulfilment of capitalism’s promised abundance, while the former see it as an opportunity for a whole new way of life.

Ecomodernists also have to ignore the environmental crisis to maintain their fantasies of ultra-consumption. The average American eats over a hundred kilograms of meat a year and uses 12,000 Watts. There’s no way the whole world could match that kind of consumption without destroying the planet. As internationalists, we have to aim for equal conditions to avoid perpetuating an ‘imperial mode of living’. I can’t imagine a global parliament agreeing to such inequality to keep US socialists happy. Nor do I think this way of life makes Americans happier or healthier. Giving up meat, cars, flying, and mcmansions gives humanity the chance of stabilising the biosphere. The bet we make in Half-Earth Socialism is that veganism or energy quotas may not sound appealing, but they are when compared to the consequences of geoengineering and nuclear power. At some unconscious level, Huber must realise that consumption has to be restrained in some way because despite his antagonism to veganism, he supports lab meat. Regardless, it would be nice to have less mudslinging among socialists and more intelligent debates over how the left would address the environmental crisis.

Tatjana Söding

Huber also criticises your attempt to revive the tradition of utopian socialism. He cites Marx and Engels’ critique of that tradition and juxtaposes it to their ‘scientific socialism’. Your book and game are clearly utopian projects, encouraging people to imagine a radically different world. Why is utopianism crucial to overcome the climate crisis?

Troy Vettese

Present-day socialists often exaggerate the divide between ‘scientific’ and utopian socialists in the nineteenth century. Right now I’m reading Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, so clearly some Bolsheviks were fine with utopianism. The text that Huber cites, Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, also contains much praise for utopians like Robert Owen. Marx himself spoke highly of Percy Bysshe Shelley, seeing him belonging to the ‘advanced guard of socialism’. Notably, Owen, Shelley, and many other utopian socialists were vegetarian. Indeed, I think animal liberation was so important to early utopian socialists because they wanted to imagine a better world than they lived in, one without oppression and suffering, and such sympathies lent themselves naturally to trying to liberate animals too. Conservative socialists appeal to tradition, hierarchy, pseudo-science, and ‘might makes right’ in order to justify the oppression of animals. These are not good reasons for us to harden our hearts.

I believe that socialists need to return to utopian socialism. That doesn’t mean abandoning Marxism, but rather aspiring to a synthesis of the two traditions. After all, the refusal to contemplate the future has not served Marxists well. We need a long-term vision of the society we want to create. The only really effective social movement in recent years has been Black Lives Matter, which is openly utopian in its aims. Utopianism inspires people to fight for a better future. Telling people they cannot imagine the future—or that socialism is simply having more stuff—is not going to work. Utopianism is crucial for convincing others to join us, for few will think it prudent to abolish capitalism without having a clue of how socialism might work in practice.

Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass’s book Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics is published by Verso.

The Half-Earth Socialism game was designed by Francis Tseng (Jain Family Institute) and the Berlin-based design network Trust. The team included Son La Pham (graphic designer), Prince Shima (composer), Spencer Roberts (researcher), Liu Xinyue (image curator), Lucy Chinen (dialogue writer), Lukas Eigler-Harding (website designer), Chiara Di Leone (seminar leader), and Justin Saint-Loubert-Bie (fact-checker).

The game can be played free here or on Steam.

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