The Political Economy of Half-Earth

That the “extermination, enslavement, and entombment of the aboriginal population in mines […and] the transformation of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skin” was essential to capitalism’s emergence has long been recognized. Few, however, realise that capitalism has been changing the climate since its “rosy dawn.”1

An estimated sixty million indigenous people lived in the Americas in 1492, but by the mid-seventeenth century only six million remained due to genocide, epidemics, enslavement, and war. Over four centuries twelve million West Africans were sent along Middle Passage in shark-trailed ships, though only ten million survived the voyage. The ecological implications were equally dramatic. Millions of hectares of cropland were left fallow by New World and West African farmers, allowing forests to invade abandoned fields.

These tragedies were intertwined. Mass death in the New World catalysed the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a profitable business that would undergo three centuries of expansion. As early as 1516, Bartolomé de las Casas advocated the enslavement of Africans so he could liberate indigenous peoples from the Spanish yoke. By the time the English had settled Barbados in 1627, they had already adopted much of Spain’s novel racialized caste-system.2 Within four decades, the majority of Barbados’ population were Black slaves and the tiny island had become England’s most lucrative and most populous colony in the New World. The profitability of the Barbadian system led to its proliferation across the Caribbean Sea, increasing demand for slaves.3

Little Ice Age

Botanical regrowth across the Americas and West Africa sequestered approximately seventeen gigatons of carbon (Gt C), lowering the store of atmospheric carbon dioxide by ten parts per million (ppm). This represented a significant share of the total, which then sat at 276 ppm (compared to today’s 410 ppm), enough to lower temperatures in the northern hemisphere by nearly one degree centigrade. Evidence of these bizarre climatic shifts were noted worldwide; Icelanders starved when the frozen sea choked off their ports, the Swiss dreaded alpine glaciers crashing through their villages, and Manhattanites could walk along the frozen bay to Staten Island. The poor harvests during the cool, wet seventeenth century made peasants desperate and states weak, destabilizing ancient polities, contributing to the Thirty Years’ War and the collapse of the Ming dynasty. Yet, creating a new, bloodless and democratic Little Ice Age may be the Left’s best hope.

The Little Ice Age reminds one that capitalism has been changing the world’s climate since the beginning, but it also inspires a more utopian possibility for the future: natural geo-engineering (NGE). NGE could accelerate carbon sequestration through processes such as afforestation, which would mitigate the effects of global warming. NGE leads one to recognize the centrality of land-use in political economy. The problem of land-scarcity heralds the return of classical economics, as that issue had been fundamental to the works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Henry George. Fossil fuels allowed capitalism to break free of shackles chaining it to the British countryside so it could conquer the world, but the end of the fossil-fuel era will reinstate those fetters. It is the scarcity of land, not natural resources, that will ultimately prove to be the constraint on economic growth.

In addition to NGE, the problem of land-scarcity is integral to two other issues: implementing renewable energy systems and stopping mass extinctions; both also require a great deal of space. It is nearly universally assumed that if there is any chance of containing the destruction of climate change then fossil fuels will have to be completely replaced with other forms of energy. Yet, what is often overlooked is that fossil fuel substitutes, mainly solar- and wind-based systems, take up a great deal more space. Fossil fuels have a much greater ‘power density’ than renewables, in that they provide more energy in terms of surface area, usually measured in watts per square metre (W/m²). There is simply not enough space for the endless expansion of energy systems.

Aggravating this problem is the third goal of the environmental movement – stopping the death march of the ‘Sixth Extinction’. The main cause of mass animal and plant death is not climate change or poaching, but rather the human appropriation of territory, what experts call in bloodless jargon ‘land-use change’. The close relationship between land-area and extinction means that it will be necessary to set aside half of the world to ensure most species survive. Edward Wilson, the naturalist who devised the concept of a Half-Earth, argues that if his proposal is not realised then half of all flora and fauna will be extinguished by 2100.

The return of land-scarcity demands a new political economy based on furthering the three goals of 1) furthering NGE; 2) preserving biodiversity; 3) and transitioning to a 100% renewable energy system. Such a political economy could be called half-Earth economics. These goals are difficult to achieve – indeed, much more difficult than most environmentalists admit – but they are worth pursuing because the alternative is an ever more brutal fossil-capitalism. The stark demands required by half-Earth economics is useful for clarifying thought; as there are only a few ways to realise all three goals, it becomes possible to adumbrate what an eco-socialist society looks like.

The Alternatives

If there is no swift transition away from fossil fuels, then artificial geo-engineering (AGE) becomes inevitable. There are several forms of AGE, but the most likely candidate is ‘solar radiation management’, which requires the release of millions of tonnes of sulphate aerosols by balloons or cannons into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space. In this way, AGE mimics volcanic eruptions by releasing tiny suspended particles of a sulphur-based compound. Much of the research on AGE focusses on the last large volcanic eruption, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1992, which cooled the Earth by half a degree.

Given the complexity of climatic systems, it is impossible to have a good idea what effect AGE will have once it is introduced. It could cut off the Gulf Stream, South Asia’s monsoons, increase vitamin D deficiency, and bleach the sky white. Some countries may baulk at being disadvantaged by the new climatic regime. They might initiate wars to defend themselves or undertake their own AGE schemes, resulting in interactions that would be impossible to predict. AGE is also dangerous because carbon pollution would likely continue unabated under the climatic shield, but should it ever fail – say, in case of a war – then the world would quickly roast. Like storing nuclear waste, AGE is a solution that requires millennia of foresight. It was seen as dangerous quackery only a dozen years ago, but has been made respectable through its recent embrace by Nobel Prize winners, elite universities, and even the IPCC.

Many environmentalists abhor AGE and still want to pursue a carbonless energy system, but they are aware of the shortcomings of renewables and thus they grasp for the only other alternative: nuclear energy. This is the path of thought taken by environmentalists of impeccable ideological credentials like George Monbiot, James Lovelock or James Hansen, leading them to recklessly endorse a massive increase in the number of nuclear power plants, while downplaying the substantial risks such a plan of action would have. Hansen, NASA’s famous climate scientist, calls for 2135 new reactors, far exceeding the world’s current sum of 444. And that would only replace fossil fuels used for electrical production and thus not even put a dent in fossil-energy used for transportation or climate-conditioning buildings. Building even more reactors would further increase the risks of both nuclear power mundane dangers in terms of waste and persistent local radioactivity, and the spectacular threat of a meltdown.

There have been enough accidents over the past half century to discredit nuclear power as a form of energy production, and the latest disaster in Japan is a reminder of this. The clean-up crews at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant don’t even know where the fuel-rods belonging to three destroyed reactors are. Six hundred tonnes of still-fissioning uranium melted through their containment vessels and from there went deep into the earth beneath the plant. Yet, there is no way to retrieve it; the robots that could do so have yet to be invented. Five robots sent to look for them “died” when radiation destroyed their wiring. Just cleaning up the sunken fuel rods might take forty years and cost twenty billion dollars.4 The total cost of the disaster is estimated to be $188-billion.5 According to the ‘largest statistical analysis of nuclear accidents ever undertaken’ another disaster on the scale of Fukushima in 2011 or Chernobyl in 1986 has a fifty per cent chance of occurring before 2050. One can imagine that those odds would worsen commensurately should nuclear power be accorded a greater role within a carbonless energy policy.

The Return of Land-Scarcity

Despite the many reasons to abandon nuclear power and fossil fuels for solar- and wind-based energy, these latter two are hampered by their extremely low power densities. The most efficient solar energy plants have a power density of about 10 W/m², but a rate of 2–4 W/m² is more common. This figure isn’t likely to improve much and certainly not by an order of magnitude. Renewables’ puny power-densities become blatant when compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power. The disfigured and hellish wastelands created by mining, drilling, and spilling are relatively tiny. Even the most inefficient forms of fossil fuel extraction, such as Alberta’s tar sands, still have a power density of 1,000 W/m². Fukushima-Daiichi boasted a respectable 1,300 W/m². The richest coal and petroleum deposits can have an incredible power density of 10,000 W/m². This is one reason why only half of one per cent of U.S. territory is currently dedicated to energy production. In densely populated countries, like the UK and Germany, all of their national territory would have to be covered in wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuel crops to maintain current levels of production. Even a country as large as the United States would have to sacrifice between a fifth to half of its landmass, depending on whether its cars are powered by electricity or biofuel crops (the latter have an extremely low power density, c. 0.2 W/m²).

Luckily, half-Earth economics’ other goals of preserving bio-diversity and furthering NGE are mutually reinforcing, but they still require huge tracts of land. Upholding an ecosystem’s biodiversity ensures that NGE functions effectively. In this way, Wilson’s goal of preserving species is indispensable for NGE to function. For example, studies have shown that kelp forests need predators to protect them from herbivores. When otter populations in the North Pacific rebounded, they reduced the number of sea urchins, which in turn allowed kelp forests to flourish. They now absorb one-tenth of British Columbia’s annual carbon emissions. Similarly, wolves protect the forest from marauding elk that would otherwise feed on bark and saplings. Wolves were re-introduced into Yellowstone U.S. National Park only in 1995, but their effects on ecology are already tangible.

Like the effects of wolves and otters, there have been recent events demonstrating that NGE could influence the climatic system rather quickly. After the collapse of communism in 1991, agriculture in Russia contracted drastically in the 1990s, a decade that saw forests in its western region increase by a third, absorbing significantly more carbon. China has long had an extremely effective state-directed afforestation program. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, the carbon sequestered by its forests increased five-fold as a result of increased tree plantations and the expansion of protected wild forests. Chinese scientists have noted that wild ecosystems sequester more carbon per hectare than their managed equivalents. The relative speed of NGE matters as it will be necessary to counteract the worst effects of climate change that are now occurring, as recent events have already made manifest how destructive the new climatic era is.

It must be from pasture that an eco-austere world will derive the land needed for NGE. The agricultural sector produces almost a third of greenhouse gas emissions – more than the transportation sector – and most of that comes from meat production. Nearly half of the world’s non-mountainous land is already dedicated to agriculture. Of these 5 billion ha, 3.5 billion ha is pasture, and much of the remaining agricultural land grows crops for industrial use or animal-feed, which leaves less than a billion hectares to grow food directly for people.6 Yet, a vegan requires only a tenth as much land as an omnivore to grow her food. If the world were vegan, there would easily be room for a 100% renewable energy system, biodiverse NGE-efficient ecosystems, and vegan agriculture. The potential for such abundant land is immense. One study estimates that if 800 million ha of land is reforested, then billions of new trees will sequester 215 GtC over the next century. NGE at this scale would decrease atmospheric carbon pollution at the scale of 85 ppm, bringing it to a much safer level in the low 300s ppm.7 This feat would be relatively easy to accomplish in a mostly vegan world, even though an afforestation of this scale is five times greater than the last massive rewilding during the Little Ice Age.

A carbonless energy system with enough space to further NGE and provide space for a Half-Earth can only come about if the global bourgeoisie makes drastic cuts to their energy consumption. A useful framework to guide this discussion is the ‘2000-Watt Society’, proposed by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich. Two thousand watts as a rate of primary energy use per person equates to 17,500 kWh per year or 48 kWh per day. This goal marries environmental and global economic justice because it would allow the poorest to increase their consumption while demanding a commensurate reduction by the richest. An average U.S. citizen uses 12,000 W, which is twice as much her counterpart in Europe and twelve times more than in India. This is a useful framework that can easily be incorporated within Half-Earth political economy. Indeed, it is a perfect fit for once energy consumption in the rich world is reduced, then suddenly there is enough space for all of those wind turbines and solar panels as well as an expansion of nature preserves. It should be mentioned too that though these demands may seem spartan in the global North, half-Earth economics is hardly austere on a global scale as it champions doubling the consumption of poor people.

Swiss technocrats believe they can reach their goal through greater energy efficiency. But gains in this field are unlikely to suffice. They overlook Jevons’ Paradox, which states that greater efficiency actually increases total consumption because energy becomes relatively cheaper. To reach 2000 W resources must be rationed; asceticism must become more than a ‘lifestyle’ choice. The market cannot fix problems that it creates – only planning can. The 2000-Watt Society’s creators skirt these political implications. Nevertheless, their framework underscores that the good life for all is possible once wasteful practices are shed. Meeting this challenge would require that everyone live in a house that requires little heating or cooling energy, abstain from meat, and rely on trams, bikes, and walking to get around.

There is room for some optimism, as a great experiment in creating a nearly fossil fuel-free society has already taken place. Cubans had to make do with much less in the 1990s during the Período Especial, when Soviet petroleum exports evaporated along with the superpower itself. This was a difficult transition because Cuba during the 1980s, known as the ‘years of the fat cow’, depended on a massive industrial sugar sector oriented toward export, grew few crops for sustenance, and catered to extremely carnivorous tastes. Getting by without petroleum or petroleum-based inputs (e.g. fertilizers and pesticides) forced the largest and most compressed experiment in organic and urban gardening in history. In the 1990s there were twenty-six thousand public gardens in Havana alone, turning the city into a big urban farm that supplies enough produce for about half of its nutritional needs.8 Cuba bought over a million bikes from China to replace their idle fuel-starved buses and cars.

With its effective and low-cost social policy and post-fossil fuel economy, one can see in Havana the outline of eco-socialism in practice. Despite a severe economic recession and the tightening of the U.S. embargo, universal health care and education were maintained and many indices even improved.9 Eating less meat and more vegetables, combined with pedalling or walking to work generally led to improved health within the general population.10 Plantation monocultures could not be managed without massive fossil-fuel inputs, so Cubans cultivated less land more intensively, returning about a third of farmland to wilderness.11 This has helped Cuba maintain its incredible biodiversity – indeed, it is listed amongst Wilson’s global biodiverse hotspots – and led the World Wildlife Fund to recognise it as the world’s only ‘sustainable’ country.12 All of these accomplishments were possible even though the average Cuban used much less than 2,000 W.

Renewable energy, biodiversity, and climate-focussed afforestation should be viewed as interlinked political objectives. Other environmentalists have struggled to unite green goals under a single banner because they lack a distinct theory of political economy. The proposal sketched here can produce red–green responses to a number of issues and open up new ground for utopian political programmes. Half-Earth economics provides a framework for the realisation of fundamental environmentalist goals while simultaneously achieving for all good housing, health, education, and transportation. In short, the good life.

The global bourgeoisie can no longer pretend that their society can solve its own problems: it cannot be both nature’s destroyer and savior. Greens and leftists need new concepts, goals, and tactics. Radically reducing consumption is a price worth paying if it prevents capitalism from enriching a few rentiers while impoverishing billions and irrevocably turning the planet into either a farm or garbage dump. Indeed, if environmentalists are to realise their ambitions it is hard to imagine another way to do so given the constraints of land. The Left must embrace vegan communism to destroy the meat-grinder of capitalism. •


  1. Karl Marx, ‘Das Kapital’ in Karl Marx – Friedrich Engels – Werke, Band 23, vol. 1, section 7, East Berlin 1968, p. 779.
  2. Jerome S. Handler, “Custom and Law: The Status of Enslaved Africans in Seventeenth-Century Barbados,” Slavery & Abolition, vol. 37 no. 2, pp. 237–239.
  3. Simon Newman, A New World of Labor: The Development of Plantation Slavery in the British Atlantic, Philadelphia 2013.
  4. Aaron Sheldrick and Minami Funakoshi, “Fukushima’s Ground Zero,” Reuters, 11 March 2016.
  5. Yuka Obayashi and Kentaro Hamada, “Japan Nearly Doubles Fukushima Disaster-Related Cost to $188 Billion,” Reuters, 8 December 2016.
  6. The remaining 300,000,000 ha is used for industrial purposes, like biofuel and bioplastics.
  7. Sebastian Sonntag et al. “Reforestation in a High-CO2 World—Higher Mitigation Potential than Expected, Lower Adaptation Potential than Hoped for,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 43, 2016, p. 6548.
  8. Wright, Cuba, 138.
  9. This is the main argument of Emily Morris’ piece, in which she compares Cuba favourably against post-communist ‘transitional’ economies in Eastern Europe: “Unexpected Cuba,” New Left Review 88, July 2014. The major crisis of the period, however, was Cuban Epidemic Neuropathy. In 1992 thirty thousand people lost their eyesight due to nutritional deficiencies, but once the state had diagnosed the cause of the epidemic, it was able to respond quickly by distributing vitamin supplements thanks to its robust primary care system. Christina Mills, “In the Eye of the Cuban Epidemic Neuropathy Storm,” MEDICC Review, vo. 13, no. 1, January 2011, pp. 10–15.
  10. Sarah Boseley, “Hard Times behind Fall in Heart Disease and Diabetes in 1990s Cuba,” Guardian, 9 April 2013.
  11. Elisa Botella-Rodriguez, “Cuba’s Inward-Looking Development Policies: Towards Sustainable Agriculture,” Historia Agraria, no. 55, December 2011, p. 160.
  12. World Wildlife Fund, Living Planet Report 2006, Gland 2006, p. 19.

Troy Vettese is an environmental historian at New York University. He tweets at @TroyVettese.