Play Half-Earth: Planning Fantasies and Eco-Politics

One half of the world does not know how the other half lives…

—Francois Rabelais, Pantagruel, II.32

Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s 2022 book Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics taps into the post-COVID anxiety about zoonotic disease and constant talk of crisis about both climate and biodiversity to propose a drastic solution: put aside half the earth for ‘nature’. Pendergrass and Vettese defend a socialist version of the socio-biologist E. O. Wilson’s argument for a ‘half-earth’ reserved for nature. The book represents the epitome of a set of trends in environmental politics, including a dramatic degrowth agenda paired with scientifically-ordained animal liberationism, all packaged into a hyper-rational plan for a socialist utopia.

The planned aspect of Pendergrass and Vettese’s vision lends itself to the production of a tidily designed role-playing game. The game simulates a postrevolutionary future in which a planetary sovereign has emerged, and lo and behold, YOU sit at the head of a planning console that governs the next sixty years via successive five-year plans. The game is designed to illustrate a dominant thread in the book: the necessity of planning. If this is the premise, the game contains subtle affordances that promulgate the book’s argument. It is these background nudges, built into the game’s mechanics, that interest me, since they work on the level of both fantasy and abstraction to guide the player towards particular policies.

Governmental (bio)diversity

Pendergrass and Vettese imagine the neatest revolutionary aftermath, with political constituencies falling into nine factions that represent what the authors view as the different interests still tenable in an eco-political planning authority. The ordering flatters leftists in the Global North, with the easily pleased liberal Environmentalists and commitmentless ‘social engineering’ Utopians sharing ground with Ecofeminist, Animal Liberationist and Fanonist factions to push more particular agendas. More dubiously, the Accelerationists and Malthusians seem to exist to demonstrate the ‘hard choices’ and trade-offs involved in planetary sovereignty. Reasonable environmental policies will get you allies enough for a majority, if you can stomach cosying up to one of the two more misanthropic factions: the Malthusians or the Animal Liberationists.

Two final factions, the Consumerists and the Authoritarians, operate as foils, tempting the player to acknowledge features that are actually built into the game: the authoritarian policy-making set-up and the need to please ‘the people’, whose primarily role seems to be consumption of raw materials and who are therefore encountered only as units on info-graphic charts measuring fuel and electricity use or caloric intake and contentedness. Indeed, the mass deaths contemplated by the game’s projection of unfolding environmental disasters go uncounted. Mortality rates are reserved for the presentation of biodiversity loss. Adding to this profound distortion in even a metrical survey of policy effects is the uneven weighting of political power that nudges the player towards policies agreeable to the authors. While the Ecofeminists and Malthusians share four out of thirty-three ‘seats’, the Fanonists, who appear to represent the entire Global South as a homogeneous bloc including all Indigenous peoples, receive only three. One wonders what kind of revolution this was.

The scale of the changes necessary to enforce such a proposal would require not only the kind of quasi-authoritarian planetary sovereign described by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann as Climate Leviathan, but also the more subtly ‘rational’ planning techniques that Pendergrass and Vettese derive from early twentieth-century socialist planners like Otto Neurath. The gamified version of the half-earth argument is consistent with the genealogy they give to socialist calculation, through Neurath, Soviet mathematician Leonid Kantorovich and computer scientist Paul Cockshott. Cockshott in particular developed a ‘toy model’ economy, enabling planners to reduce decisions to simple metrics based on energy, goods and technological development, and envision simplistic trade-offs.

This trust in techno-scientific authority makes for a technocratic fantasy, one that the authors allow us to play out in their canny online version. Brian M. Napoletano calls their vision ‘post-political’, or ‘post-historical’, on the basis that the solution to environmental crisis they propose is, they argue, a ‘complete’ one. The idea that one can ‘solve’ a ‘problem’ in a complete way requires a reductive conception of politics and society in their multifarious interweavings with the natural world. The idea also involves a strong emphasis on ‘our ability to control the economy’, but perhaps paradoxically renounces any attempt to understand natural processes, insofar as it ‘underscores our ignorance of nature’.

Using a tendentious argument that since the economy is ‘a human creation’ it is ‘infinitely easier’ to manage, Pendergrass and Vettese write, ‘To return the world to a stable enough configuration, to undo climate change, the Sixth Extinction, and the explosion of new zoonoses, we will require a massive effort of “un-building”, to rewild continental swaths of land and consciously plan the rest without recourse to the unconscious processes of the market’. Not to be trite, but this plan reminds me of a (possibly generational) view that the only way to ‘solve’ a difficult relationship is to leave it.i Nature is to be left to its own devices, since humans have proven poor stewards. Adam Kirsch, in The Revolt Against Humanity, lays bare the theological genealogy of this divide, describing the growing Anthropocene anti-humanist movements’ call for a ‘human tzimtzum’, a ‘voluntary contraction, in order to leave an open space’. It is up to us to disentangle ourselves by a planetary segregation; nature is to be given back to itself, and humans…

The ecstatic thrill of planning

Although your plan may not work, or may be responsible for the deaths of millions, in the half-earth game what you say goes for the tenure of your office. Like the book, it presumes a global government exercising authority by fiat. Questions of enforcement—‘the means by which such power is exercised’, in Wainwright and Mann’s terms—are invisible. The world waits on your command, which you dispense with the click and slide of cards and buttons, as in your average table-top game.ii The structure of the game is to make a five-year plan that earns you ‘political capital’, which you spend on research, infrastructure and policy decisions to advance your vision of a future.

You decide between a range of environmental and social interventions, broadly aimed at lowering emissions and variously emphasising different kinds of eco-politics, running the gamut of the aforementioned factions from hard-right Malthusian, Authoritarian or Accelerationist to soft-left Environmentalist or friendly Utopian to sectional interests like Ecofeminism, Fanonism and Animal Liberation. Provided you keep ‘the people’ (never humanised) relatively ‘content’, and manage the aforementioned constituencies, which are given a set number of ‘seats’ in a rubber-stamp parliamentary chamber, the decisions are entirely up to you (within the range of the game, of course).

Once your five-year plan is ready, you hit a red button and the scenarios play out in a cascade of extreme weather events, disease outbreaks and extinction events intended to remind the player that we’re effectively locked into a certain level of environmental catastrophe. In the reality described by Wainwright and Mann in Climate Leviathan, however, these events come before the plan; reaction precedes and overtakes decision as the dominant mode of climate governance. A planner confronted with the cascade of crises might make different decisions. But Thermidorean intoxication (euphemistically termed ‘revolutionary optimism’ in the game) has taken hold.

The magical efficacy of the game’s planning procedure conceals problems of how power is exercised, and proposed policies carried out. The reality requires what Wainwright and Mann call a Schmittian authoritarian exception, ‘proclaimed in the name of preserving life on Earth’. This authoritarianism is a necessary ‘means of legitimising aggressive means of surveillance and discipline’ required to render any kind of planning effectual. The game also affords opportunities to simulate Climate Mao, the more nakedly authoritarian but non-capitalist, Third-Worldist version. Climate Mao ‘expresses the necessity of a just terror in the interests of the future of the collective’, a collective which Pendergrass and Vettese expand to the entire spectrum of biodiversity.

Half-earth political disfigurations

Returning to the game, you, the planner, remain eerily disembodied. Political factions are represented by symbolic icons (a green blob for the Environmentalist, a Space-Invaders-style yellow spaceship for the Accelerationist, and so on). While in the book the role of the global planning authority appears somewhat more limited, the game reveals what I think is a tendency in leftist eco-politics to believe that once free from capitalism, people will accept whatever scheme is put forward as the alternative. Planning becomes the dispensing of wisdom from on high: technocratically rendered, scientifically calculated, rationally managed.

The game’s architecture of command, then, reflects unspoken and undefended political assumptions. The Animal Liberationists’ four seats also grant the faction outsized power, which tilts the game’s architecture towards Pendergrass and Vettese’s emphasis on compulsory veganism. This position was given impetus by the discussion of wet markets and zoonotic disease during the pandemic, but it is taken to its limits in the half-earth vision, including dispossessing the livestock industry to make use of its vast land-use alone. The policy language of the game leans towards soft-authoritarian bans (cars, zoos), mandates (vegan, vegetarian) and prohibitions (hunting, fishing). The Consumerist chimes in with humorous plaints, becoming a ‘soy boy’ after the Ecofeminist-endorsed ‘Masculinity Detox’ is passed into law.

As Brian Napoletano points out in his consideration of Half-Earth Socialism, Pendergrass and Vettese seem insufficiently cognisant of the ‘anticolonial reflexivity’ demanded by decades of Indigenous criticisms of conservationism, especially of the ‘re-wilding’, nature-preserve sort the book recommends. Never mind climate migration; the scale of reforestation and land reclamation for rewilding necessary for the carbon sequestration imagined by Pendergrass and Vettese would require the displacement of hundreds of millions of people, including Indigenous people. The triumphal liberation of all animals runs roughshod over subsistence and Indigenous cultural practices, homogenising all hunting, fishing and animal use as a violation of nature’s unknowable interior and a disease risk. Add to the general prohibitive impulse a politics of degrowth and energy-use quotas, and Pendergrass and Vettese appear to imagine an entire bureaucratic planning system operating a system of economic development with almost exactly the same (anti-)environmental tendencies as our own. Once again, one wonders exactly what kind of revolution this was.

Eco-game theory

Despite a concern they inherit from Neurath that the price mechanism is a reductive determination of value, Pendergrass and Vettese’s translation of the half-earth proposition into a game involves framing decisions around points. Points in this game are ‘Political Capital’, which you spend in order to perform research, create infrastructure or enact policies. The game rewards emissions reductions above all else. Measures to cut emissions result in disproportionate gains in political capital, regardless of their flow-on effects of fuel shortages, electricity blackouts or caloric deficiencies. This reflects the abstract level at which the game is played; the player is encouraged to ignore how people live except for the way in which it affects resources or earns political capital (points).

Games, as theorists like Ian Bogost and C. Thi Nguyen point out, require and even thrive on specific constraints that shape the choices available to players, constructing space for the feeling of effectual agency rarely experienced in everyday life. For Nguyen, games ‘sculpt a choice space and an action space which give players an opportunity for rich, interesting choices, for thrilling actions’. As he points out, however, gamification involves the transposition of these qualities onto serious, real situations. Gamification imports the ‘mechanics’ of games, such as points, in order to ‘to transform apparently “boring” activity as work and education into something more engaging, compelling, and addictive’. Nyugen continues that he is ‘worried, however, that gamification might increase motivation, but only at the cost of changing our goals in problematic ways’.

Neurath’s non-priceplanning calculations required ‘a set of linear equations of clearly-defined variables’ that were amenable to computation. In the game context, it makes sense to simplify objectives, as an enabling constraint to give players a clear sense of the rules and scope of the game. However, translated to our lives—whether through games or in the rise of statistical analysis or the cybernetic tradition prized by Pendergrass and Neurath—quantification has a ‘profound cognitive stickiness’, the ‘appearance of unambiguity’ which makes statistics ‘powerful’ heuristics but also ‘blunt instruments, missing in much subtlety and detail’, according to Nguyen.

The ‘half-earth’ argument also attempts to limit calculation in a way that fails to recognise the ‘imperialism’ of economic rationality that is necessary for the kind of planning and calculation Pendergrass and Vettese endorse. While they frame their boundary in terms of ‘epistemic humility’, their argument suggests instead a mystical cloud of unknowing pertaining to ‘nature’. Ecological criticisms about human separateness or alienation from nature are here replaced with a recommendation to seal the two domains from each other, rather than imagine some kind of reconciliation. At the heart of eco-socialism, for Pendergrass and Vettese, is ‘the unknowability of nature’, a condition of ignorance paradoxically consistent with neoliberalism’s justification of the market as the only possible way to manage the complexity of society and the economy, including the distribution of natural resources.

The post-capitalist dispensation

In this condition of ignorance, the scope of human activity is dramatically curbed. Half-earth socialism, Pendegrass and Vettese write, will be ‘a world off less work’, especially once the work of ‘un-building’ is accomplished. They strongly oppose any Promethean impulse, but for critics like Napoletano, their curtailment of human activity dispenses not just with politics but with history as well, inaugurating a fraught period of static cohabitation whose primary task is presumably to strictly enforce the boundaries separating precious nature from its primary threat: humanity. Human reason, deliberation and activity are replaced with pre-programmed sustainability that no ‘democratic’ label can convincingly cover.

Pendergrass and Vettese criticise E. O. Wilson’s ‘half-earth’ policy for failing to ‘marry his scientific insight to a radical economic program able to bring it about’. Their program is economically socialist but remains politically neutered. Indeed, they share with Wilson a misanthropic vein. Half-earth is explicitly, in Wilson’s terms, a ‘retreat’, framed in terms of a palliative imperative to shepherd a relationship between humans and nature that has run its course and must now be severed. Framed as an innocent conservation project with a ‘moonshot’ goal, half-earth is defended as the natural and inevitable conclusion to be drawn from ‘the science.’ Like Pendergrass and Vettese’s concept of planning, this conceives of knowledge as a static set of facts, subject to neither critical scrutiny nor interpretive range, never mind subjecting decisions to democratic deliberation.

Half-earth programs, of necessity, require strict enforcement, as case studies examined by scholars in the EU have found. The program reinforced the ‘legal-scientific’ aspects of environmental management, putting ‘collaboration among lawyers, managers and conservationists’ at its centre. Yet as critics, including Büscher et al., insist, half-earth cannot ignore the ‘widespread negative consequences for human populations’, and so does not meet the standard for environmental justice. Despite its tempting simplicity as a solution, half-earth fails to understand the ‘main drivers of biodiversity loss’. Moreover, environmental restoration requires intensive and active management, not the segregation of humans from nature.

Games offer the illusion of agency and frame that agency in terms of a simplified grid determined by a points system or clear objective. Eco-politics in real terms has none of these features, but by translating their argument into a game, Pendergrass and Vettese propose to present it in these terms. From mere simplification to distortion and active manipulation, a game shapes how we think about a problem. As games are increasingly applied to everyday life, technocratic planning and administration offer a potent field for their machinations. Where playing a game is a kind of activity that embraces the constraints imposed upon it, political and economic planning require constant vigilance in order to avoid the misanthropic, calculating treatment of people’s lives.

i Here I am thinking of George Trow’s comment of from the 1980s, that ‘A child watching television will not encounter a discussion of how he might marry or how he might work, but he will find material relating to how he should be honest in coming to terms with his divorce, and he will encounter much material that has as the source of its energy his confusion and unhappiness’.

ii It may not be incidental that many popular table-top games (Risk, Settlers of Catan) involve a project of expansive imperial domination.

About the author

Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson is a writer and academic with work published in Overland, Arena, Memo Review, Index Journal and elsewhere. He is a former editor of demos journal and associate editor of Philosophy, Politics, Critique. His website is found here.

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