Monday, July 10, 2023

Interview with Drew Pendergrass (2023)

From the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard
Drew Pendergrass, the co-author, with Troy Vettese, of a striking new book entitled Half-Earth Socialism: a Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics (reviewed in the March 2023 edition of this journal) talks to the Socialist Standard to discuss why he thinks both human society and the natural environment can only survive through a new model of social and economic organisation, a moneyless, wageless one of democratic planning, voluntary cooperation and free access to all goods and services.
In the book you co-wrote with Troy Vettese, you put forward the idea of a world non-market society and outline how you see it as operating in practical terms. What brought you to this idea in the first place?

By day, I am a climate scientist — in my work, I see how incompatible our current economic order is with an ecologically and climatologically stable planet. Even more radicalizing than this, I am a scientist at Harvard University, a place unafraid to take the status quo to its logical conclusion. People at Harvard don’t believe in the possibility of social change, at least not beyond marginal adjustments. However, the scientists there are just as aware as I am about the incompatibility of capitalism and the climate, though they would not use those terms. This is why solar geoengineering, the idea that we could spray particles into the stratosphere to dim the sun and cool the planet, has become a central part of the environmental research and curriculum at this university. Rather than change our society to meet the demands of our planet, it is more realistic to them to change the planet to meet the demands of capitalism. And I think they are right — to keep the status quo, you need geoengineering, even though the risks are profound. I have been a socialist since I was in high school and have no interest in preserving capitalism, so Troy and I wanted to offer an alternative.

There are others who advocate the kind of society you do, but, following Marx, they usually say that you can’t write ‘recipes for the cookshops of the future’. Why do think it’s feasible and useful to try to do this?

During and immediately after Marx and Engels were writing, utopia was in the air. Utopian fiction peaked in the 1880s and 90s with books like Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Morris’s News from Nowhere. At that time, even the mainstream thought capitalism really could be supplanted by something new. Although Marx himself does not lay out in one place his vision of a socialist or communist society, this does not mean he didn’t have ideas about what that society would entail: scholars like Bertell Ollman have reconstructed in some detail the outlines of Marx’s utopia. More importantly, workers had clear ideas about what alternatives to capitalism might entail — many had memories of non-capitalist lifeways to draw on, such as the peasantry, and a wide-open sense of possibility catalysed by revolutionary moments like 1848 or the Paris Commune.

Now, alternatives are not self-evident. With the failed utopias in the twentieth century and the rise of the world market in the twenty-first, there is not a sense that an alternative to capitalism lies in wait — many doubt that an alternative exists at all. With this recent history, the nineteenth century advice to avoid ‘recipes for the cookshops of the future’ seems outdated. Certainly, when coming up with proposals for how a socialist society might work, one must remain humble. But the concreteness of this exercise is a necessary corrective to a world that has lost its utopian spark. As Robin D. G. Kelley reminds us, no social movement exists without a concrete vision for a better future as its north star.

You describe the common idea that the earth is over-populated as ‘dangerously exaggerated’. But wouldn’t some say that there too many people for the resources that the Earth, even in a non-market society, could make available to give everyone a decent, comfortable life? Wouldn’t some also say that this is especially the case for the system that you advocate, one that would see half the Earth (‘Half-Earth Socialism’) being occupied by rewilded ecosystems in order for it to recover and prosper?

One of the exercises we follow in the book is to imagine what it would take to provide the material basis for human flourishing to ten billion people, a fair bit more than live today, while staying within planetary boundaries. We make the point that both sides of this equation — what a ‘comfortable’ life means, and where exactly planetary boundaries lie — are political questions that can only be answered by reference to values. Science cannot tell us what we should or should not do; it can merely advise on the consequences of certain material pressures on the Earth system.

We argue in the book that it is certainly possible with present technology to provide a comfortable life for ten billion people, rewild much of the biosphere, decarbonize the economy, and begin to repair the damage of centuries of capitalism. The trick is what you mean by the ‘comfortable’. If you mean US levels of energy and material use, then you will be dissatisfied by our proposal. Instead, we propose energy quotas and a change in diet towards veganism for most people.

Deep decarbonization is very hard. Fossil fuels are energy dense (lots of energy per unit mass) and can be burned anytime, day or night. Decarbonizing electricity is the easy part, though load management with intermittent renewable sources presents an engineering challenge. Replacing fuels in industrial and transport processes is much harder. Planes, for example, need energy-dense power sources like kerosene so they are light enough to fly. However, replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels require vast amounts of electricity to transform carbon from the atmosphere into fuels for planes. For example, decarbonizing flights in the UK alone would require more electricity than the entire country generates today. The other option would be biofuels, but these require vast swaths of land to grow; in the UK, for flights alone, this would be two thirds of its croplands. Quotas are the only way to make a world without fossil fuels work for everyone.

Similarly, animal husbandry eats up 77 percent of agricultural land while providing only a fraction of the nutrients people need. The industry emits gobs of greenhouse gases, including vast amounts of the potent short-lived methane; cutting methane rapidly is a useful way to ‘bend the curve’ on climate change, limiting near-term warming as we build up our capacity to replace carbon dioxide emitting infrastructure. Abolishing the meat industry and eating mainly plants instead would clean up the atmosphere and free up lots of land for rewilding. Remember that habitat loss is one of the main drivers of mass extinction, and one of the main drivers of habitat loss is animal agriculture — both fodder (soy and corn) and grazing land.

A life with no meat, fewer flights, smaller homes, limited cars, and reduced consumption may seem intolerable for some. But that does not mean such a life isn’t comfortable. Guaranteed housing, health care, and education in a built environment that prioritizes sharing and community sounds luxurious to me.

You seem very lukewarm about ‘green’ solutions to the environmental crisis. But wouldn’t some people argue that the policies proposed by mainstream advocates of environmentalism at least contribute to offering some partial remedy to the degradation and despoliation of the Earth that you describe in your book?

Certainly we encourage the development of policies and technologies that can repair the damage to the Earth system. For example, in the book we are bullish on hydrogen for electrifying the industrial sector and management in grid load; lots of capitalists like this investment too. I spend much of my day as an environmental activist in Boston, pushing for reforms like strict building energy use codes and decarbonizing municipal buildings. None of these reforms are incompatible with capitalism, although we hope that our movement will grow in strength and demand more. The argument we make in the book is that the unconscious force of capital will always be dominant in a capitalist society, and that this force is incompatible with the flourishing of the biosphere because of its metabolic need to ingest ever-increasing swaths of nature. Reforms and technologies that limit the damage are welcome, but we need to do all we can to align these forces towards a larger social transformation.

How close do you think the biosphere is to the ‘extinction’ you refer to in the title of your book?

Human beings and the biosphere are not in danger of extinction. The extinction in the title of the book refers to the ongoing Sixth Mass Extinction event in the nearly four-billion-year history of life on this planet. Life is robust; it will continue, however damaged. Still, we have a responsibility to maintain biodiversity both as an end-in-itself, but also out of self-interest. Healthy ecosystems are robust to disease, maintain productive agriculture, and sequester carbon.

You talk about how we can run things rationally and sustainably without money and the market and instead by democratic planning ‘in kind’. But how do you see this planning taking place? How would you argue against those who might say that a society without monetary accounting would quickly degenerate into shortage and social chaos?

This is a hard question, and certainly I will not be able to answer it to your readers’ satisfaction here. I’ll also note that Troy and I are continuing to think about moneyless planning and are planning a follow-up book on the topic.

In the book, we present a thought experiment about how moneyless planning in a world socialist society might work. A global parliament would create a few coarsely-resolved global plans, reflecting different coalitions in power; these plans might offer proposals about energy quotas, the energy generation system, food production, and material throughput needs. After debate, a plan would be adopted for a period, subject to constant revisions. The implementation of these economic plans would take place at more local levels of government, which would have wide leeway to decide how to govern themselves so long as they fit within the parameters of the global plan. Although there should be considerable flexibility, we think that a global plan is necessary. Because humanity has become a planetary species, able to unintentionally alter the climate and biosphere, we argue that we need a form of government that is commensurate with the scale of our power. We want to consciously debate and control our society, rather than let capital blindly trash the biosphere.

We argue that the algorithms and technologies necessary to plan on this scale already exist; in the book we outline the history of linear programming and other algorithms in the fields of optimization and control theory. The challenge is (1) gathering the necessary information to plan effectively, (2) foregrounding democracy, and (3) ensuring that plans are actually implemented. There were experiments in the Eastern Bloc with algorithmic planning as a reform measure, but they failed in these three challenges. Our argument is that these challenges are intertwined and fundamentally emerge from the need for democracy. If planning is carried out by a richly democratic society, with participatory institutions at every level from the workplace to national and global parliaments, then planning will have a legitimacy that technocracy could never hope to achieve. That legitimacy helps with information gathering, at least with enough quality to create passable plans, and with successful plan implementation. No one will work for a socialism they don’t believe in.

Although there is a lot to say about this topic, I think that there is no reason to believe well-formed institutions cannot operate a complex society without the mediating power of money. However, more utopias and thought experiments would be useful in working out some first principles in designing such a society. Here, again, there is a need for more ‘recipes for the cookshops of the future!’

How would you respond to the argument put forward by some that a society based on voluntary work and cooperation to produce everything humanity needs could not work owing to the frailties of ‘human nature’?

I don’t believe in human nature as some timeless, unchanging category. One of the useful lessons of history is that people in the past are wildly different from people today. Even the Ancient Greeks, who we in the West see as our ancestors, lived by practices and beliefs and motivations that are incomprehensible to us today. However, I do take your point that human nature as it exists today has been imprinted with capitalism. While Margaret Thatcher’s line that “there is no such thing as society” is obviously ridiculous, capitalist social relations make it more and more true each day. Hostility towards strangers, paranoia, and loneliness all are outcomes of capitalism that, while not part of human nature, nevertheless make building solidarity hard. That said, I’ve seen people transform when they are brought into genuinely solidaristic institutions like trade unions or activist groups. Being part of a union myself will always make me hopeful about the possibility of socialism.

For socialism to work, you don’t need to believe human beings are angels. Instead, you need to believe that people are shaped by the institutions and social situation around them, and that those infrastructures can be changed by humans because they were constructed by humans.

As an additional note, socialism need not be entirely voluntary. Abolishing alienation in labor and establishing social control of the economy will both involve vast new democratic institutions, but vaccine mandates, for example, will remain necessary to protect public health. Coercive measures like these are obviously a risk for any society, but I am confident that robust participatory institutions can prevent necessary coercion from expanding beyond its remit into tyranny.

How do you think it’s possible to convince enough people that a world socialist society is possible and feasible? And if that does happen, what practical steps do you think will be necessary to bring that society into being?

I think a great way to convince people that alternatives are possible is to use utopias as a method. Real utopias, in the form of democratic rank-and-file trade unions, show people that participatory democracy can transform lives. Fictional utopias and thought experiments like ours demonstrate that even knotty crises like environmental collapse can be remedied. We even made a video game, available at, that allows people to experience what planning a world economy might feel like. All these things together might convince enough people to form the seeds of a movement, which could grow into a revolutionary moment. Our chances are better if we can unite different splinters on the left into a fighting movement. Of course, the odds are against us, but I think that if we can assemble a large base with a radical imagination, design institutions that prefigure the world we want, and build enough power to achieve real intermediate victories, we will be on our way towards a winning socialist movement.

You seem to see some regimes within capitalism (e.g. Soviet Union, Maoist China, Cuba, Allende’s Chile) as genuine but failed attempts to establish socialism. But do these regimes really have any relationship with the socialism that you describe and advocate in your book?

You are absolutely right that these regimes are not socialist. I am sympathetic to interpretations of the USSR and other similar regimes as ‘state capitalist.’ In particular, I like Moishe Postone’s argument that because these societies are still governed by the law of value they have not overcome capitalism, no matter what the party claimed. However, I think it is also important to remember that the people who built these regimes (here I’m thinking primarily of China and the USSR) really were socialists and really did want to build an alternative to capitalism. It is on us to learn from their failures. We may not have the same youthful optimism as socialists from a century ago, but we do have many examples of how not to do socialism — that’s useful data as we shape our demands and imagined alternatives today. This is why in the book we engage deeply with attempts to reform the Soviet economy, even as we are strongly critical of the USSR.

You favour veganism as a way of feeding everyone while having the smallest environmental impact. But do you think that humanity as a whole, having been omnivorous throughout their existence, will ever accept the total exclusion of animal foodstuffs from their diet? And, more generally, isn’t it hard enough to persuade people to work for socialism without also telling them they may have to give up things they like?

I already detailed why veganism makes sense as an environmental policy, so here I’ll focus on the critiques. First, the amount of meat we in the Global North eat today is historically unprecedented. Our ancestors did eat meat, but only a small fraction of what we do today. As a result, there are cultural resources to draw on in most areas to create meatless dishes. For example, I’m from the South in the US, home of barbeque and fried chicken. But my hometown also hosts a large Seventh Day Adventist community, who do not eat meat for religious reasons; my great-grandfather, who was a farmer, lived basically as a vegetarian because he didn’t like to kill animals. As a vegan myself, my main practice is to show people that meatless food can be delicious and joyful. In Spain of all places, the minister for consumer affairs Alberto Garzon is working to reduce meat consumption with some success. There are ways to build campaigns around this issue, even though I agree it is a hard sell.

If I may, I’d like to expand your question further. Even if your readers disagree with me on the animal question, there are other aspects of socialism which are unpopular on their face. For example, fighting neo-colonial exploitation may not poll well in places like the UK. I like this quote from the first pages of the feminist writer Sophie Lewis’s Abolish the Family: ‘All of us—even those of us who own no property, who receive no guaranteed care, and who subsist at the blunt end of empire, whiteness, cis-hetero-patriarchy, and class— will have to let go of something as the process of our collective liberation unfolds. If the world is to be remade utterly, then a person must be willing to be remade also.’ One need not agree with Lewis’s position on family abolition to recognize the truth of her argument. Even if the world we will build is far better than the one that exists, things will be lost in the process. All socialists will need to confront this challenge, even if self-consciously they only demand what is ‘popular.’

Our afterword

Readers will appreciate that many of the ideas expressed in the interview are very much in line with the views the Socialist Party has long been spreading. We would give as examples the fallacy of ‘human nature’, the myth of over-population, and in particular the need for a global, ‘richly democrat’, wageless, moneyless, non-market society using advanced technologies already available. We must, however, also say that we do not see entirely eye to eye with Drew Pendergrass on certain elements of the analysis he puts forwards. In this regard we would highlight in particular: his vision of a future global socialist society as one still to be run by governments, if globally as well as nationally; his view that the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 20th century constituted, at least in their early stages, an attempt to establish socialism in our terms; and his insistence that, from the point of view of practical resource usage, we can only have socialism if everyone is vegan.

In our view socialism can only be a society without leaders and led and without national boundaries. It follows from this that it must also be free of governments, whether national or global. Its watchword must be administration of things rather than government over people. Of course we accept that the interviewee may be using the word ‘government’ in a wider sense than normal and ‘national’ more in the sense of ‘regional’. If so, then his view may equate closely to ours.

Our less than positive view of his seeing the Russian and Chinese revolutions as attempts at socialism arises from the fact that neither country was anywhere close to the advanced form of capitalism needed for socialism to emerge from them. Lenin famously said that, if the Bolsheviks had to wait for the masses to understand socialism, it would take 500 years (meaning never), while China under Mao was little more than the personal possession of a tyrannical ruler who was prepared to unleash and oversee the most profound atrocities to affirm and consolidate his power.

Pendergrass is open about the need he sees to propose a highly detailed picture of a future non-market society, which he conceives as arising gradually and imperfectly from tendencies within capitalism and being ‘ironed out’ into complete ‘socialism’ with time. We, on the other hand, insist on the need for a majority of workers to first win control of political power, probably via the ballot box, at which point detailed plans for running the new society will have already been made and the passage to it can be relatively seamless. As it will be up to those around when socialism starts to be seriously on the agenda to decide on specific details, we see it as arguably undemocratic and even maybe dogmatic to start proposing detailed plans now (speculative ideas perhaps, but not detailed plans), since we do not know at what point society will then be, in particular technologically.

Blogger's Note:
There is another expanded review of 'Half-Earth Socialism', which goes to into greater detail, at the following link: A plan to save the future (2023).