Illustration by Rick Guidice, Ames Research Center, NASA (mid-1970s)
News from 2047
by Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese (Cambridge, USA)
EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was originally published as a chapter in Drew Pendergrass and Troy Vettese’s 2022 book, Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change and Pandemics. For in-depth treatments of all topics sketched out here, we enthusiastically recommend the book itself. The material is reprinted courtesy of Verso Books.
Go back again, now you have seen us, and your outward eyes have learned that in spite of all the infallible maxims of your day there is yet a time of rest in store for the world, when mastery has changed into fellowship.
WILLIAM Guest woke up to sunlight streaming through the window. He stood up slowly, as if pushing a lifetime of sleep off his shoulders. The light filtered through his tousled hair and tangled beard, revealing a few grey hairs on the fringes. Still groggy, he saw only that the room was small and faced the sunrise, with tufts of green emerging from pottery by the window. At least something is enjoying the morning, he thought, before disappearing down the hallway to the washroom.
Seconds later, he returned and stood in the doorway, his forehead furrowed in confusion. The floor was made of wide pine planks, darkened and smoothed from years of use, as if they had been recycled from an old house—but he was certain he’d gone to sleep in his vinyl-lined apartment. The bed had a simple frame but was covered in a now rumpled quilt stitched with interwoven organic shapes. Leaves, stems, flowers, and birds coursed together in patterns of increasing complexity, radiating the warmth of a summer picnic throughout the room, colouring the sunlight green here, red there. Following the beams of light towards the window, his eyes briefly stopped at a small desk, covered by a stack of thickly bound library books. As his gaze wandered across the creased spines, he noticed that the window was made of unusually thick glass, like a ship’s porthole. The walls, too, seemed strangely thick, forming an enormous windowsill that could support a flowerpot overflowing with basil and thyme on one side and a small purple cushion on the other. He sat down, folding his legs to his chest, and peered through the window. Just below him, twining stems of countless beans climbed up a trellis overlooking a small garden of eggplants, peppers, and tomatoes. He recognized the native flowers nestled among the food crops: Solomon’s seal, New England aster, and butterfly weed, which the bumblebees and monarchs seemed to be enjoying. Beyond the garden, rolling hills were planted with bushy green vegetables, interlaced with towering wind turbines and equally impressive oaks. To his left, the building itself soon merged with a hill, and the garden rose along with the land to blanket the roof with a thick pelt of earth. On top, he saw a large, contorted beech tree with deep purple leaves. He could have sworn it was identical to the one behind his apartment, though it was thickened with age.
Guest wracked his brain for memories of the night before. Nothing that unusual. He had spent an evening at a bar in Amherst with six fellow socialists, who, naturally, represented six different radical traditions, including four strong but divergent anarchist opinions. While seeing his friends had lifted his spirits, Guest remembered yesterday’s undercurrent of despair. It was a bad day, with the Left’s champion losing a primary contest to the establishment candidate, the same day that the last white rhino died. It seemed that much needed to be done to save the biosphere, redistribute the world’s wealth, and create a real future to replace the unending capitalist present. Perhaps he was still dreaming, a sort of solace offered by his anxious imagination. Yet, try as he might, he could not wake up.
Guest walked out his door and down the hallway, which seemed to him like an unusually whimsical college dormitory. Many other doors lined the hall, identical to his own, save that most had been intricately decorated by their residents. One was covered in a glass mosaic that must have been cut from old jars and bottles, given the colourful curved fragments freckled with raised text. There were a few hallway bathrooms and a kitchen, as well as several living rooms ranging from nooks fit for a solitary reader to expansive chambers with plenty of broad armchairs. Some had wooden toys and picture books strewn about, while another had a piano, a couple of guitars, and a kora. He peeked into the kitchen. It was as well equipped as a restaurant, but the wooden countertops—thick, oiled oak—took away the sterile feeling that he remembered from his old job at a fast-food joint. Guest walked inside and stopped by an enormous steel pot splattered with tomato sauce, sitting on top of a smooth, black induction cooktop. An older woman wandered into the kitchen, her hair a short mop of tight, greying curls, and jumped back a little when she saw him standing over the dirty dishes.
“I didn’t realize anyone would be up this early,” she said sheepishly. “I meant to wash up last night, but we played cribbage until late.”
Guest just stood and looked at her, unable to think of anything to say in response. Eventually, he mustered a weak smile and a nod.
“Don’t tell He-Yin, but we took a little bit of dandelion wine from the barrel in the basement pantry,” she said with a wink. “It may not be ready yet, but it was good enough to put me to sleep faster than I expected.” She started to wash the dishes, filling the sink with water and beginning with the cups and plates, which had been scraped mostly clean into a compost bin.
“Well, if you want to help me out, I’ll do the same on your day,” she said to Guest, gesturing towards a brightly coloured rag that looked as if it could have come off his quilt. He dried as she washed dishes from cleanest to dirtiest, ending with the big pot.
“What’s your name? Are you new here? I don’t think I’ve seen you around,” she said, her arms elbow-deep in bubbles. “I’m Amara, by the way.”
“William,” he said. “And I guess I am new here, though I don’t really know what ‘here’ is.”
“I think I know what you mean,” Amara laughed. “I’d never seen anything like this, either, when I first came out here. I only meant to stay for a couple of months. A break from Boston, plus I heard they needed help with the harvest. But I really took to it. There’s something wonderful about working with your hands.”
She paused and looked out the window. “I’ve been living in the dorms for two years now,” she said. “Loved every second of it, but I’m not sure how long I’ll stay.”
“Why not?” Guest asked, a note of concern in his voice.
Amara raised an eyebrow. “Did you not see the last plan? The summary is in the library downstairs.”
“The plan?” Guest muttered in confusion, but Amara didn’t seem to notice.
“They’re letting most of Massachusetts rewild, since the soil’s not as good as out west. Right now some vegetables still make sense to grow at scale in New England, since it saves a bit on transport, at least until they finish the electric rail lines out in the Midwest. Once that project is done, though, this farm’s days are numbered.” She paused for a second. “I think I’ll apply to work in Iowa when the time comes, unless these hands have gotten too old. But I’ll miss all of He-Yin’s harebrained fermentation experiments.”
They silently put away the clean dishes, then scrubbed the wooden counters and black stovetop of all specks of tomato sauce. It smelled like summer in the room. Fresh herbs overflowed from pots by the window, and heirloom gourds with flamboyant stripes were piled up in bowls by the refrigerator. Guest spent the whole time wracking his brain. How could he ask Amara basic questions about this place without making her think he was crazy? He certainly felt crazy, and hiding that would be a delicate task. Quickly, he settled on a story.
“You know, I was born in Amherst, but I’ve been abroad for a long time,” he said, watching her face carefully so he could make any necessary adjustments to his story. “I came home not too long ago and made my way here yesterday. I don’t think anyone but you knows I’m here.”
Amara had been polishing the dining table but paused on hearing this. Guest held his breath until she burst out laughing a few seconds later. “You must have been a long way away!” she said. “Well, if you’d like, we can get you registered here. Always need more hands. And Edith will be able to answer all your questions. She’s the farm’s rep to the regional council.” Guest sighed with relief as he followed Amara down a staircase just outside the kitchen.
The walls of the staircase were painted with elaborate murals of fields, forests, and rivers. The landscapes were in several styles, done with varying skill. “The dormitory spent a weekend painting these last winter,” said Amara. “It might have looked better if we’d invited folks from the artist’s colony up north, but we voted to do it ourselves, have a bit of fun. I did that lake over there, with the moose, but I never managed to get the antlers right.” Guest looked over where she was pointing and saw a blob with sticks coming out of its head. “There are some real talented people here, though. You should chat with Morris. He’s the one who made the quilts.”
‘Is he a full-time artist?’ asked Guest.
“Nobody is a full-time anything around here!” Amara said with a laugh. “You know how Marx said that one day we’ll all ‘hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner’? Well, we’re vegan so we don’t do that stuff literally, but you know what I mean.”
Guest gave her a startled look, but she seemed not to notice.
“Our main job is to tend to the vegetables,” she continued, “but that’s not too much work. Harvest and planting season are busy, though we grow so many different species that the work is spread more evenly throughout the year than in monocrop farms. There’s always maintenance to do, but most of the time we only farm a few hours a day. That leaves plenty of time for second jobs and hobbies. He-Yin cooks and makes moonshine, but she’s also a biologist focusing on apex predator reintroduction. Morris weaves and fixes up old clothes and shoes, while Edith is always in the library poring over the regional and global plans. Plus there are study groups on everything from architecture to mathematics. It’s a very vibrant place.”
“And what do you do?” asked Guest.
“Oh, I dabble in lots of things,” she said. “I like to keep up with Edith so I can send my comments on to the regional planners, and lately I’ve been helping He-Yin crunch some numbers about the deer population. My parents spoke Igbo, but not with me so I never picked it up. I’ve been practising with some climate refugees from Nigeria at the university in Amherst.” She paused. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m also trying to write a mystery novel, since painting does not seem to be my forte.”
The downstairs hallway looked much like the rest of the building, except the shared rooms off to the side were much bigger. There was a library stocked with shelves of books and velvet armchairs, but also some long tables scattered with a few worn but sturdy laptops and phones. The bedrooms seemed bigger than upstairs, and some of the doorways were decorated with children’s crayon drawings. Amara stopped in front of a door marked DR. EDITH LEETE, along with the words REPRESENTATIVE FOR FARMING DISTRICT 11. She knocked.
The door swung open, revealing a spartan room decorated only with two computer monitors, piles of textbooks on everything from soil ecology to educational theory, and an enormous binder made even thicker by all the dog-eared pages and colourful bookmarks poking out. Standing in the entryway was a woman whose straight red hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and who held a mug of black coffee.
“Good morning, Amara,” she said curtly, and turned towards Guest. “Are you visiting someone in the dormitory?”
“Actually, he’s new here,” said Amara, before Guest had the chance. “This is William. He kind of wandered in. Not registered in the system, and he has the softest hands I’ve seen in a while, but a good worker.” She winked at Guest. “He helped me out this morning in the kitchen. I was thinking we could get him assigned to our unit.”
Edith frowned. “We haven’t done that sort of thing in a while. The whole point is to centralize these kinds of decisions. Make sure jobs and workers are optimally matched and all.” She paused, then sighed. “But, even ten years in, I suppose there are still plenty of kinks.” She hung on to that last word as she stared at Guest’s messy beard. She waved her hand at a corner chair and said goodbye to Amara.
Guest sat down as Edith pulled up a database on the computer. “Any agricultural experience?” she asked.
“Nope,” replied Guest. “I’m a programmer, but in undergrad I took a class in botany once, if that helps.”
“It doesn’t,” said Edith flatly” ‘We’ll assign you to the school. Your first month will be intensive training, which will get you ready to take on most of the field chores. We always encourage people to take more classes afterwards, especially if they want to be a shift leader or contribute to the local or regional plans. Your computer skills would come in handy there.”
“I was telling Amara this, but I don’t quite understand what you mean by the plans.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “I’ve been away for a long time.”
She eyed him sceptically, but the confusion on his face must have seemed genuine. “Well, the system is new, and large parts of the world are still transitioning from the old regime, but the basic pieces are in place. Do you at least know about the Gosplant office down in Havana?”
Guest shook his head. Edith raised her eyebrows.
“Well, the parts of the world that have joined the Half-Earth bloc all provide data, technical expertise, and proposals to the central planning bureau in Cuba,” she said, leaning forward in her chair. “They have had the most experience with planning, decarbonization, and organic agriculture, so I guess it made sense to put the bureau there. You should really see a picture of that place. It’s enormous.” She spread her arms as far as they could go, then turned to her computer and brought up a picture of a renovated Art Deco building with trees growing on its wide, flat roof.
“What do they do there?” said Guest, amused by how excited Edith was getting about an office building.
“Thousands of people work there from all over the world,” said Edith, her sparkling eyes betraying her otherwise tight-lipped demeanour. “They use these massive supercomputers to make a series of global plans simulating snapshots of the future: say, five detailed blueprints of the planet five years out, ten for the coming decade, and a couple dozen for the next quarter century.”
Guest looked at her quizzically. “How do they do it? How would they have enough data for the whole world, let alone several possible futures? And even if there were enough, what kind of computer could process it?” he blurted out, and then immediately worried about coming off as hostile.
“You’re right that the data requirements are staggering,” she said, and Guest was relieved to see the smile lines around her eyes deepen. “The thing is, it’s not necessary for all knowledge to be in one person’s head or one office. The planners in Havana have a lot of information at their fingertips, but they only need a rough picture of the globe, like maps of biodiversity and climate, estimates of worldwide food and energy needs, and constraints on resource use. Those were available long before the revolutions began.”
“Revolutions?” Guest interjected.
“New societies are not born on their own,” Edith replied with a wry grin.
“But—” Guest managed to suppress his bewilderment, and he tried to stay on point. “Surely that’s not good enough! It’s nice that the planning bureau is thinking about big issues, but how does that help you decide how many black-eyed peas to plant, or where to build the next train line?”
“That’s why the global model is coarse!” said Edith as she opened the binder, her voice raised in excitement. “Here, take a look at the maps from the latest short-term blueprints.” She flipped to a particularly dog-eared section and stuck her finger on a picture of North America, divided into a grid covered in multicoloured squares. It looked a bit like a pixelated version of the storm maps on the Weather Channel.
“This is the plot for Pasture Reclamation Plan 5-F,” she said, in a now enthusiastic tone that reminded Guest of his brother when he talked about his favourite baseball players. “The folks down in Havana made a few different plans for the next year assuming different energy quotas, ensuring in each plan that nature is always respected and no one is left behind. Plan 5-F is the most austere, keeping consumption at about 750 watts per person, which includes all of the industrial production and social services required to keep society running. Once they send out the global blueprints for many possible futures, regional and local planning offices make their own plans that both meet the conditions of each of the global plans and respond to local concerns.” Edith gestured at the piles of textbooks, scientific papers, and binders covered in red ink.
“I represent this farming complex of about a hundred dormitories, five thousand people or so, and my main job is to talk with the people here and use their experiences and needs to help form some local blueprints to propose,” she said proudly. “For us,” she continued, “Plan 5-F means we can let a lot of pasture return to wilderness, rather than planting more of those terrible biofuel plantations. There’s a lot of support for that in New England, what with the big hurricane of 2029 and the ghastly avian flu pandemic.”
Edith seemed to withdraw into herself after mentioning the outbreak. Guest squinted at the binder, unsure what to make of it. It was unbelievably detailed, like an encyclopaedia-sized scientific paper.
“We’re more in favour of energy austerity here than in many places,” she said after a long pause. “That’s probably because these dorms are passive buildings, needing little energy to cool or heat, even in the dead of winter. We can get away with those terrible electric heaters on the worst nights, because almost no warmth gets lost.”
“Really?” said Guest, eyebrows raised in surprise.
“Transportation is the only thing that makes people hesitate,” said Edith, a hint of frustration mixed with the excitement in her voice. “With a quota that low, we will need serious rationing of long-distance transit, but that’s a necessary sacrifice until we can bring more electrified public transportation online. I’m awfully jealous of places like Japan and Switzerland, where they already have extensive trains in rural areas. In the short term, though, we need to rely on biofuels for large parts of transportation, and those just kill the short-term plans with higher energy use. We end up planting so many energy crops that we take up too much of nature’s domain. In the long term, I think we will be able to move around almost as freely as in the before times, but there will never again be something like private car ownership. It just can’t work with the global plans. But from what the old-timers like He-Yin tell me, driving wasn’t much fun, anyways.”
Edith started flipping through the binder again, but Guest interrupted before she found the transit section. “What happens after you make all these plans?” he asked.
Edith put down the papers and motioned for him to follow her. They walked back into the hallway, which was now humming with morning activity. Three giggling toddlers ran by them and into the library, and Guest had to leap out of their way. “Sorry about that,” said a white-haired man with a laugh, as he tracked the kids’ trajectory.
Edith shook her head and smiled, then continued down the hallway. “Well, after having a few farm-wide meetings, I have a good idea of how our constituents will want me to vote and negotiate at the regional parliament. We also have a representative at the World Parliament in La Paz, who will take what we decide here and push for it on the planetary stage. The whole thing can still be a bit contentious, but we’ve always been able to come to an agreement. It’s been a lot easier to reach a consensus since we set global living standards a few years ago.”
“La Paz?” Guest said, barely able to contain his surprise.
“Yes, it feels a bit provincial here sometimes,” Edith answered absent-mindedly.
They walked out the front door of the dormitory into the garden. Around the side of the building, Guest saw a canopy covering a row of bicycles haphazardly arranged on the compacted dirt. A small silver pickup truck sat parked behind them, with a spare interior consisting of little more than a few seats and a steering wheel. The makeshift garage was framed on the right by the dormitory walls, and from behind by the rising hill, which was covered in wild flowers. An equally beautiful door was set into the rising meadow, decorated with intricate carvings. It opened, and Guest saw Amara come out with a crusty slice of bread.
“Hey, you two,” Amara said as she took a final bite and licked her fingers. She jumped on a bike and clipped on a helmet that was attached to the handlebars.
“Hi, Amara!” said Guest. “Where are you off to?”
“I’m heading into town,” she said, smiling. “Seeing an old friend before my shift this afternoon.”
They waved goodbye as she leisurely pedalled away. Guest’s eyes drifted back towards the garden in front of the dormitory. At the centre, there was a statue of a balding man with thick glasses, with the base of the pedestal taken over by some climbing beans.
“Who’s this?” asked Guest.
“Old Lyonechka!” Edith blurted, as if cheering on a mascot. “I mean, Leonid Kantorovich. We named the dorm after him. He’s a big inspiration behind this ‘parliament of blueprints,’ as we say. He described the problem of socialist governance long before our movement came to power.”
Guest read aloud from the plaque: “The problem is to construct a system of information, accounting, economic indices, and stimuli which permit local decision-making organs to evaluate the advantage of their decisions from the point of view of the whole economy.”
“Not the most eloquent guy,” Edith said, “but smart.”
They paused in the garden, enjoying the sunshine and the flowers. It was humming with life—Guest had never seen so many bees, insects, and birds. A forest extended back behind the hill, and he could have sworn he spotted the antlers of a moose peeking through the trees. Surely there aren’t moose in Massachusetts, he thought.
“My hunch is that the global energy quota will be settled at more like 1,400 watts for the next five years, with the goal of boosting it up to 2,000 watts in the long term,” said Edith after a while, emerging from her own thoughts. “If that’s the case, I don’t think it will affect us too much. We’ll just use less than we’re allocated, which will free up other areas to use more power as they develop infrastructure. I just hope we don’t have to grow too many biofuels. Ever since that big BECCS plant down south caused all those water and soil issues in the 2030s, I’ve been sceptical.”
“How would that work?” asked Guest. “How will, say, your counterpart in Mumbai know that her region is able to use more energy to build housing or transport, just because a farm in the Connecticut River Valley kept its energy use low?”
“That’s a good question,” said Edith. “So far all I’ve been showing you are plan blueprints, which we create using tools of mathematical optimization, not unlike what Kantorovich was doing a century ago. Once La Paz and the regional parliaments work out which one to adopt, then planning offices at all levels begin booting up their Half-Earth system models.”
“Half-Earth system models?” asked Guest.
“That’s a harder one to explain,” said Edith, thinking for a moment. “Let’s go to the school. There’s a nice display there. We’ll bike.”
“What about that truck?” Guest asked nervously. He hadn’t cycled in years.
“We try to save that for people who need help getting around, or for moving heavy things,” said Edith, before seeing a concerned look on Guest’s face. “Don’t worry, we can go at Amara’s pace. It’s always good to enjoy mornings like these. But I suppose we could catch the bus.”
Guest exhaled in relief. “No, biking will be fine,” he said. After all, the sun was shining, and the fields were even more beautiful than they appeared from his room. They climbed on a pair of bikes and pedalled down the road. He had always loved the sight of rolling hills planted with vegetables, but the way the intermixed crop species seemed to emerge from the woods made the place feel more like a park than a farm.
“Yes, we’re pretty lucky here,” said Edith, noticing his blissful smile. “Out in the Midwest there’s still lots of industrial farming. The corn that once went to cattle now has to go to biodiesel. Many other grains are still farmed on that scale too. Eventually, they want to rewild half of the Great Plains and get a few million bison back in it, but that plan always gets delayed.” She sighed. “Even after the revolution, change comes slowly. There are some perks to the Midwest as it is, though. We can store up plenty of surplus crops and send them to places recovering from geoengineering and climate change, where yields are a lot lower. Of course, we take in climate refugees too.”
As they passed more dormitories, Guest’s mind began to wander. “What do you do in other places?” he asked. Edith looked at him quizzically. “I mean, how do people live in places where there were already lots of buildings, like cities? You can’t rebuild everything from scratch.”
“Oh no, that would be a huge waste,” said Edith. “We filled in some of the suburbs to make them denser and more communal. Besides, the abundant lawn space allowed sports facilities and small-scale farming. Other suburbs needed to go completely, like where we are now. Maintaining them required too much energy and fuel, but at least we were able to recycle the wood in these dormitories. Before, I heard they would just demolish a house and send everything to the landfill.” She scrunched up her face in disgust. “In general, people have been very creative about reusing old buildings. One of the most common jobs assigned these days is a retrofitter. We need huge numbers of carpenters and other artisans to stuff extra insulation in the walls, split up McMansions into multifamily apartments, and generally prepare cities and towns for the low-carbon future.”
After about twenty minutes they arrived at the school. “Shawmut College!” Edith said, proudly.
At first, the building seemed to have a design similar to the dormitories’, except it was much bigger and shaded by a grove of towering oak trees. Gardens in raised beds surrounded the building, with some chairs and outdoor chalkboards interspersed between them. They stepped inside, and Guest was taken aback by the apparent chaos. There was an enormous main chamber with a glass ceiling, and tables and desks arranged haphazardly in what appeared to be makeshift classrooms. Some had dirt and leaves scattered over the surface, others blocks, still others electronic components. Brightly decorated rooms of every shape and size branched off the main hall. Edith walked directly into a room on the right, and Guest hurriedly turned to follow. Inside, there were about a dozen desks, all angled towards a big screen. Edith pressed a few buttons and the screen booted up, revealing a map of the globe surrounded by several charts and graphs.
“Once we figure out the plans we’d like to follow,” she began, “the central planners collaborate with mathematicians and worker-representatives to devise a dense group of interlinked differential equations modelling how industry, construction, and agriculture will need to change over time to meet the goals of the global plan.” The screen showed various animations of line graphs, all moving in different directions. Guest noticed that whenever an orange line ticked up, a green line seemed to tick down, and he was about to ask Edith about it. She spoke before he could. “You said that you studied programming, so I’m guessing your math skills aren’t bad, no?”
Guest nodded. “They’re not too shabby, but take it slow just in case. I work mostly in social media.”
“Good,” said Edith with a laugh. “We’ve been a bit surprised by how well our students have been doing in math here, especially the older ones who take classes in their spare time. Never thought they were any good at it, but I think they just needed to see the big picture. Socialism will fail if we cannot plan effectively, and there is no way to plan without math. Politics are a good reason to practise your integrals.”
She turned back to the screen. “The Half-Earth system model will need to simulate the resource flows required to build thousands of kilometres of track and construct millions of batteries, calculating throughout the impact on environmental systems. Each change in one part of society affects all other parts, and the environment too. In more rural areas of New England, for example, our energy quota is constrained by a lack of train lines, which forces us to use less-efficient biofuel buses to make up the gaps. As new rail stations open, an interlinked equation determining the energy quota can begin to slowly increase allowed use.” She pointed at a line marked with yellow thunderbolts that was slowly rising, as a purple line with a cartoon train rose even faster.
Guest must have looked lost, because Edith started laughing. “Sorry, I get too into this stuff,” she said, rubbing her arm with her other hand.
“No, it’s really cool!” said Guest. “I’m just still not sure how it works in practice. How does all this data get collected and combined with the original plan?”
Edith thought for a second, then smiled. “Say, for example, that a public transit project is falling behind schedule in some regions,” she said. “That’s not really an example. We were slow to build these things before the revolution, and we are slow to build them now.” She paused, as if expecting a laugh. Guest forced a chuckle, but the pain of riding slow, bumpy Amtrak trains was real for him in a way it wasn’t for Edith.
“Anyway,” she went on, “planning offices could use discussions with workers and reported data to understand why the project fell behind. Perhaps the problem is a bottleneck in steel-recycling plants, and more plants are needed than the original model expected. This is no problem for the Half-Earth system model. We use methods borrowed from climate science to adjust the model back towards reality.”
“But what’s this new plan binder you’ve been talking about?” asked Guest. “I thought we already were in the Half-Earth system model stage?”
“We’re always making new blueprints for the future,” Edith replied. “That’s the nature of democracy: permanent dissatisfaction with the present. We’re constantly learning, and there are always new concerns. For example, it seems likely that fishing is going to be more or less banned in the next parliamentary session, partly because we know more about the relationship between marine animals and the carbon cycle than before, but also because the animal-rights movement has grown a lot stronger. Anyway, once we’ve finished the regional blueprints for Massachusetts, we’ll open them up to the public and have a good discussion, I’m sure.” She winced a bit, and Guest imagined that a “good discussion” might involve a bit of yelling.
They powered down the monitor and stepped into the main chamber, standing in silence for a while. Guest’s eyes wandered over to a set of questions on a chalkboard beside a table covered in soil samples. He frowned as he tried to read from a distance:
UNIT EXAMINATION (Grade five)
“How well do you know your home?”
- Define the limits of your bioregion. Be able to justify the boundaries you choose.
- How many days until the moon is full (plus or minus a couple of days)?
- Describe the soil around your home.
- From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?
- Name five trees in your area. Which of them are native?
- From where you are reading this, point north.
- Which spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?
- Were the stars out last night?
- Name seven prominent landforms in your region. Whose language is used for those names?
- Give five aspects of your life that are independent of your bioregion. Where are they supported by Earth elsewhere?
Edith saw him staring and laughed. “Pretty tough test, huh?” “Yeah,” said Guest. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“We got that test from Axe Handle Academy, a curriculum proposed way back in the 1980s as part of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network. It seemed right for what we’re trying to do with Half-Earth socialism,” said Edith.
“I don’t think I could answer more than a couple of these questions, and I’m not ten,” said Guest.
“We still haven’t fully decided what socialist education should be,” Edith said thoughtfully, “but we have some principles. It should be free, lifelong, and critical. There are lots of specific things people need to know, since our society relies on everyone’s participation. Mathematics and natural science are indispensable for planning, but they’re far from the only knowledge required. There needs to be a sense of appreciation for the fragility of nature, and a deep respect for the cultural wisdom of the past and present.”
They paused, looking back at the exam questions.
“Reforms in the old days could only take us so far,” Edith said. “Calls for people to live more ecologically or for society to become more democratic never could take hold if they conflicted with the concrete realities of how people lived and the interests of capital. We’ve still got a lot to learn about what human nature is, even in this new world.”
Guest sat down at one of the tables, brushing some electronic parts aside so he could rest his elbows. “Amara said this place was going to be closed down soon,” said Guest. “I admit it makes me sad. You have such a paradise here.”
“We are building a new society, one that can exist safely on this planet for centuries while lifting up everyone,” said Edith. “That does not happen overnight, and it demands some temporary measures. This farm is one of them, and always was meant that way.”
“But what will happen to the dormitories, the fields, the people?” asked Guest.
“That’s up to us, really,” said Edith. “In the long term, the global planners want much of this place rewilded, although some tree plantations are required in most plans to help meet lumber demand. They don’t really care what we do with the dorms. Coarse plan, remember?”
“So what will you do?” asked Guest.
“We’ve started talking about this around the dinner table,” said Edith. “The dorms are built from standardized parts, so we could easily disassemble them and use them in other buildings. But I personally like Amara’s idea, which is to turn this place into a combined wilderness management site and educational centre. She’s in talks with universities and Indigenous leaders in the neighbouring district to turn this whole place into something like a giant Axe Handle Academy. Amara’s a polyglot, really good with languages, though she’d never brag. She is just thrilled at the thought of the Indigenous language revival movement having an institutional home here. There’s a radical promise there of a different kind of conservation, led by the local Nipmuc nation, with culture and science fused so that they build each other up. That movement has already taken root farther north. Did you hear how Canada elected its first métisse general secretary, Louise Riel?”
Guest shook his head and smiled. They wandered out of the hall and into the sunshine. Guest blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light of high noon. Edith spotted someone on a bicycle zipping by. “Hey, Carmen!” she shouted. The figure screeched to a halt, the bike falling sidewise as the rider leaped from the pedals and landed gracefully on the dirt road, a cloud of dust rising around their ankles. They bent over and grabbed the bike, carrying it over to Guest and Edith with a casualness that suggested the sudden stop had been planned from the beginning.
“Hey, Edith,” said Carmen. They sported close-cut black hair framing a tanned, ageless face with wrinkles around the eyes and forehead that could have suggested the imprint of age, wisdom, or laughter.
“Carmen, this is William,” said Edith. “He’s new here. I’ve just been giving him the tour and the rundown. Didn’t even know about the bureau in Havana.”
Carmen’s eyebrows rose. “Wow, really new. What did Edith sign you up for? Probably hard labour. You know you can tell her no,” they said, elbowing Guest playfully.
“Oh, stop,” said Edith, rolling her eyes. “He’ll start out with general farm chores. Luckily he met Amara first, and not your lot.”
Carmen laughed and turned to Guest. “Did Edith tell you that if you work on the assembly line, you get extra perks? Farm work is on the middle tier of the compensation charts, above the pencil pushers but below more unpleasant manual work or jobs that require high levels of training. I’ll happily take on a few shifts at the factory or grab a jackhammer to rip up the old interstates if it means I get more time on the Cape.”
Edith laughed. “Carmen thinks like such a capitalist. You should be doing those things to build a better world, not for extra time at the beach,” she said in a mock scolding tone. “But we would be nothing without such workers, regardless of their intentions.”
Carmen beamed with pride and took an exaggerated bow. “Finally, Edith says something nice!”
Edith brushed their comment aside. “Could you take William here with you for lunch?” she asked. “Maybe show him the factory or something. Carmen is right that you are certainly free to take on shifts if you’d like. If it seems really appealing to you, I can change your status in the system so that you are primarily a factory worker and not a farm labourer. We’re short on both, so it’s no skin off my nose which one you choose.” She looked at Guest, whose eyes had wandered back to the rolling fields. “But I think I was right to assign you to the training programme.”
Guest blinked out of his reverie and nodded as if he had heard what Edith had said.
“Okay, come with me, William,” said Carmen. “Let’s see if I can pry you from the hands of those hippies.”
“Christ,” said Edith, as she hopped on her bike and pedalled down the road. “I’ll see you at dinner, William!” she yelled over her shoulder.
Guest mounted his bike and started pedalling slowly, face towards the fields. He looked up and saw Carmen far ahead, a trail of dust spreading from behind the rear tyre. Guest stood up to push his pedals down and raced down the dirt road after Carmen. His thighs were burning, and his forehead grew slick with sweat. It had been years since he had had this kind of workout. He looked to the fields again and saw a crowd of people building fences, weeding, and harvesting some of the beans that had ripened early. He marvelled at how healthy and relaxed everyone looked.
“Hey, William,” Carmen yelled, “stop day-dreaming, we’re at the factory.” Guest turned and saw they were in front of an enormous red brick building, covered in solar panels, with more panels spread in an arc nearby.
“Welcome to the solar panel plant!” said Carmen, leaping off their bike without bothering to brake, landing with the same nonchalance as before. “Doesn’t make a ton of sense to have it here, honestly. They don’t mine much silicon in New England, so we have an inefficiency from transporting all the material up here. But we do have lots of industrial capacity and technical know-how, so the planners calculated that some production here would be optimal.” Carmen was already walking through the solar panels and towards the door of the factory, and Guest once again had to hurry to keep up.
“Are we working a shift?” asked Guest, struggling to speak as he caught his breath. “I don’t know the first thing about how to make a solar panel.”
“Nope,” said Carmen. “Just getting some lunch in the mess hall. I picked up an afternoon shift, but I’m sure someone will be heading back towards the farm afterwards that you can follow.”
They walked in the door and into a white hallway, lit by bright LEDs. A group of people wearing blue gowns and surgical masks passed by, making the place feel a bit like a hospital. Through some windows, Guest could see the manufacturing floor, complete with vats of chemicals. “Not quite as romantic as the fields, is it?” said Carmen. “If we don’t keep this place super clean, then the panels will be less efficient or might fail entirely.”
Guest frowned. “I always thought socialists would have robots doing the unpleasant work,” he said.
“Socialism isn’t magic!” said Carmen, snorting involuntarily, then covering their mouth in embarrassment. “If anything, taking out the profit motive slowed down automation. Difficult jobs will be with us for a very long time.”
“Why does anyone work here, then? This is socialism, right? You’re not going to starve or be homeless if you just stay at home,” said Guest.
“Now you’re the one thinking like a capitalist!” said Carmen. “All caught up in imagining the individual self-interestedly responding to incentives. Of course, there is a bit of that going on. The planners and the councils all understand that some jobs are harder or less appealing than others, and that getting enough workers to do them will require more than prestige or a sense of duty. Edith mentioned the extra vacation time, and I do like taking the train to the beach and staying in one of those fancy houses they converted into a resort. Plus the extra credits and priority housing don’t hurt.”
Carmen paused and smiled, thinking about the sand and the salt breeze. “But the main thing for me is that the work time is so low. I’m only expected to work here four days a week! The farm workers usually have chores five days a week, though it fluctuates with the season. But I get bored and take on more shifts anyway, or help out on the farm sometimes.”
Carmen paused and smiled. “‘The good thing is that other hard jobs, like mining and manufacturing, are also at the top of the charts. Way above us here. This job is pretty cushy compared to refining silicon. Before, that type of work could be almost like slavery. Now at least the people are in control, talking with the planners and the councils to figure out their work conditions and how they should be rewarded.”
They wandered into the mess hall and sat at a long table next to a couple of workers.
“This is William,” said Carmen. “He’s been abroad for a while. I swear, talking to him is like stepping back to the twenties.”
“Thomas,” said one in between bites, stretching out his right hand while his left gripped a falafel pitta.
“Octavia,” said the other, shaking Guest’s hand afterwards. She shot a glare at Thomas, who in response started theatrically chewing with his mouth open.
“Where are you staying?” Thomas asked, after chugging a glass of water.
“One of the dormitories,” Guest said, and searched his brain for a moment. “On Farming District 11.”
They all laughed, and Guest gave them a puzzled look. “No one talks like that, William!” said Carmen. “Here’s some free advice: just say you’re working on the farm. Leave all the divisions and numbers and units to Edith.”
“I can’t stand those dorms,” said Octavia between spoonfuls of stew. “Feels like there’s just no privacy. The apartments are so much nicer. Our own kitchen and bathroom, without all the prying from the neighbours.”
“I still think it’s crazy that you moved out when you had your baby,” said Thomas, waving his falafel in emphasis. “Parents love living there. There’s always someone to watch your kid! And you don’t have to cook and clean after all your meals. Like a giant extended family, though plenty of those live in the dorms too.”
“A way of making your own, chosen family, without all the old scripts,” said Carmen, serious for a moment.
“I can see myself living there when I’m old,” said Octavia. “There’s so many elderly people living in the dorms. They love it; you can just see it in their eyes. There are plenty of ways for them to help out the community, like watching the kids or tending the garden. So much better than in the old days, when they were shuffled away in isolation because they weren’t profitable.” She paused, a look of disgust appearing briefly on her face. “I’ve heard that some of the regional plans have proposed moving nurses and medical equipment into some of the dorms. Renovate some of the rooms for elder care. I think it’s a nice idea. Good to know that we’ll be taken care of when we get old.”
“But not now?” said Thomas.
“People are always on your case when you have a baby,” said Octavia. “So many opinions. The schools all have childcare anyway. And I want to be able to take all the time I want in the bathroom.”
“To each their own, I guess,” said Carmen. “Takes up a lot more power though,” they said, with a wink towards Guest. Always making trouble, he thought.
“Not that much more!” said Octavia. “By the way, I can’t believe that those self-righteous people you hang out with on that farm—no offence, William—are pushing for a 750-watt quota. I know there’s a crisis, but that’s just absurd. We’ll all be living in dorms soon if they have their way.”
“Octavia is practically a liberal,” said Carmen, winking again.
“I am not! Stop it, Carmen!” she said. “I’ll just be voting for a representative who will push for a little more energy; 1,750 watts is not luxurious, and you know it.”
“Pretty tough to make that happen while we are still building so much new infrastructure,” said Thomas. “Tell your man he needs to step up that hydrogen research. Pull some all-nighters so we can all relax a bit more.”
“I would love to take a hydrogen-powered plane somewhere,” said Carmen. “Maybe Tahiti.”
“The beach is the same everywhere,” said Octavia. “I’m so surprised you always use your travel allotments to go to the Cape. The mountains are so much more beautiful.”
Carmen stood up. “That’s it!” they said in mock rage. They motioned to Guest. “Seriously, let’s go get our food.” They walked over to the serving line.
“No steak again, huh?” grumbled a man with a greying, curly beard to no one in particular. He stood with his tray ahead of both Guest and Carmen and looked with distaste at the entrées on offer that day. Guest couldn’t understand what he was complaining about. Under the label “country stew” was a delicious-looking pot of blue potatoes, purple onion, fragrant yellow and red tomatoes—probably heirloom—and homemade seitan sausage. But then again, since he hadn’t eaten all day, he probably would have devoured anything in front of him.
“Oh, knock it off, Conner,” said Carmen. “There’s a crisis on, and you know it.”
“Fodder for pigs,” glowered Conner.
Carmen shook their head. “He’s fine,” they whispered to Guest. “Just a little grumpy today.”
Carmen headed back to the table, but Guest hesitated for a moment. “Where do we pay?”
“You mean with credits?” said Carmen. “You don’t have to use those here. Factory leadership puts in all the food requests.” Guest frowned. “What do credits do?” he asked. “Are they like money?”
Carmen looked at him thoughtfully. “A bit,” they said as the two of them walked to the table. “There are food credits, which can be used at the grocery store or in cafés. Those of us in the dorms only get a few because our meals are taken care of, but people like Octavia get more since they need to shop for food. You’ll have to ask her about it.”
“What about other stuff?” said Guest.
“There’s another credit for all the random little things people want, but you’d be surprised how few of those you need. Since housing, food, education, and health care are all covered, there’s not much left to spend on. Plus, resource-intensive items are all handled by a separate system. For example, you have to put in a request for long-distance transport. In the dorms, especially, we hardly ever use credits of any kind. Dorm leadership handles orders for the building, and you can just ask for a new bike tyre or another shirt if you need it,” said Carmen as they sat down with Thomas and Octavia. “We’re talking about credits and the request system,” they said, to bring the two in on it.
“Well, most people don’t live in the dorms,” said Octavia. “The majority are in traditional apartments, like me, and we have to deal with the system a lot more. My oven totally died last year. So dead that even those hippie repair guys didn’t think it was worth fixing. Just recycle it, they said. I did not want to hear that, since they’re always short on appliances, especially the big ones, and the family units are lower priority than dorms and cafeteria kitchens. Requests take an awfully long time.”
She paused to pick up her last piece of bread and mop up the last of the stew. “A huge pain. I know so much about oven production now, since I spent a whole afternoon on that section of the plan. Had to cook on the stovetop for a month and a half. My neighbours let us use their oven for baking cakes a few times, which was kind of them. Anyway, the system uses a matchmaking algorithm to process requests. There’s an estimate of the number of ovens needed built into the giant planning model. A bump up or down in the number of requests in a month will adjust the flow of raw materials from the base model, like nichrome for the heating elements. A low-oven month might allow more production of electric heaters, for example. The finished ovens are distributed according to a priority queue. We were pretty low at first, but after a nice long wait we managed to make it to the top.”
“Another reason to live in the dormitory,” said Thomas with a laugh. “One of our ovens went out and we had a new one in a week.”
“What about smaller things, like food for your kitchen?” asked Guest, looking at Octavia. “Or a desk lamp, or clothes, or a new curtain?” He was surprised how hard it was to think of stuff to buy, with all the most expensive parts of life satisfied.
“Carmen probably told you about food credits,” she said. “There’s a bit of a market socialist system when it comes to all the little things people need. Planners experiment with prices until there’s a match between supply, demand, and environmental costs. Coffee and cocoa are a tad pricey, what with transportation, but since they keep for so long they’re not as expensive as tropical fruit. We get oranges from Florida in the winter, but not many. On the other hand, we’ve got plenty of local berries here that I never knew about before. Grains and local fruits and vegetables are the cheapest, and in the winter people often eat food they canned themselves. Everyone has more than enough credits to meet their needs, but it’s up to them what they eat. Something similar works with the other stuff too.”
They finished their meal and dropped the dirty dishes off by the serving line. “Off to my shift,” said Carmen, giving a stiff salute. “Thomas, you’re off, right? Can you take William back to the farm?”
“Sure thing,” he said. Carmen and Octavia walked farther into the factory, while Thomas and Guest turned the other way and emerged into the sun.
“Longer lunch than I anticipated,” said Thomas. “Socialists love meetings.”
“Very true,” Guest said with a laugh.
They biked back to the farm, and Guest was struck by how much he felt at home already. As if triggered by his thoughts, he heard someone yelling to his left. “William!” shouted Amara, and he saw her waving. She was in a broad hat and boots, with thick gloves covering her hands, and stood among a couple dozen workers.
“I think I’ll stop here,” he said to Thomas. “Nice to meet you.” The other man nodded and sped off, while Guest lumbered down the hill.
“Big mistake,” said Amara after greeting him with a quick hug. “We’re putting you to work, new boy!”
The group laughed. Amara handed him boots, gloves, a hat, and a pair of overalls. “Figured I’d see you today. Put this on and get ready to sweat,” she said.
Guest obeyed, though it took him a few embarrassing minutes to wiggle into the work clothes. Amara didn’t wait and was already explaining the farming methods while Guest struggled to push his boot through the bottom of the overalls.
“In this field, we’re growing an ancient set of crops called the Three Sisters: maize, beans, and winter squash,” Amara said. “A clever arrangement, passed on from the region’s original inhabitants, the Nipmuc, who, of course, are still here. The beans can climb up the tall corn stalks, instead of a wooden or metal pole. The maize and squash are fertilized by the nitrogen released by the beans, while the bristly squash stem keeps animals away. All increase yields and protect the health of the soil. A lot more labour, for sure, but at least we don’t need chemical pesticides or fossil fuels anymore.”
She paused as she lifted up an enormous yellow flower from one of the squash vines. “This will be a handsome butternut squash, if all goes well,” she said. “Perfect for Christmas dinner.” She tugged at a beanstalk. “In many of the fields, we use trellises for the beans. Because a lot of our corn still comes from the industrial farms out west, we need a different ratio now than in the traditional arrangement.”
She turned to Guest. “But you’ll learn all that in school! Today, tough guy, you’ll be with me on ditch duty.” They walked towards the edge of the field and saw a half-finished ditch marking a border between the crops and the woods. “We call it ‘drainage management.’ The worst chore to be assigned. It’s your lucky day, William,” she said, handing him a shovel.
They went to work, along with about half of the other workers. Luckily the sun had fallen lower in the sky and was hidden behind the tops of the trees. Guest quickly fell into a rhythm, and the crunch of the shovel gave a percussive background to the murmuring conversation.
“So what’s Boston like now?” he asked Amara, wiping the sweat from his eyes with his forearm. “Half-buried and rewilded, like the farm?”
“No, not at all,” she said with a laugh. “But there is less of a difference between cities and the countryside now. Lot more workers out here these days, tending the crops. It’s funny how much labour fossil fuels really saved. We still use plenty of machines, to be sure, but oil went into other things too, like fertilizer. Muscle power has to make up the gap.” She flexed her arms and laughed.
“And plenty of city workers were in industries that don’t matter much anymore, like advertisement or gig economy delivery people,” she added. “Boston’s still a vibrant place, and the regional hub for New England’s planners and councils, but I think it’s nice to have these smaller towns and communities come back to life.”
They worked for a while. “It’s much more beautiful now,” Amara said, emerging from deep within her thoughts. “Boston, I mean. There are salmon and great blue herons in the Charles River now, and the parking lots and golf courses are now gardens or rewilded ecosystems. Many of the buildings look different too. The planners have been pushing a programme to make passive homes for everyone, almost entirely by expanding, adapting, and retrofitting old buildings. Like the dormitories, super-insulated and everything. All the cold regions of the world are pushing something similar. But it’s slow work.”
“Are most of the people here from Boston?” Guest asked.
“Some of us are, and some of us are from the Connecticut River Valley,” said Amara. “A fair number on the farm are climate refugees of one type or another. Carmen came here when they were a baby, after a horrible storm set off landslides in Guatemala. The twenties and thirties were a hard time for the planet. Lots of disasters.” She shook her head. “Hopefully the worst is over, but the planners still assume that there will be bad fires and storms every year. Probably will be for many years, because unbuilding takes a long time. Were there problems where you were living?”
“Huh?” said Guest, before remembering that he said he had been abroad. “Oh no, nothing too crazy,” he said hurriedly. Amara smiled, and they returned to the ditch.
About an hour in, Guest found himself slowing down, his shoulders and back exhausted from the digging. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it eventually,” said Amara, laughing. “Plus, since we got the hard shift, we can quit before the others.”
Guest pushed through another quarter hour before he had to throw in the towel. “Here, take the dirt over to the side of the fields,” said Amara, pointing to a wheelbarrow. Soon, he fell into a pleasant routine, moving piles of earth and chatting leisurely with other workers on the way. The hours fell away.
Eventually, Amara grabbed his arm. “Time for dinner,” she said.
Guest was surprised the rest of the shift had passed so quickly. They biked back to the dormitory in silence, tools pulled behind them in a rattling cart, enjoying the smells and sounds of the evening. As the cool air whipped through his hair, Guest thought he heard a howling in the distance.
“Yes, wolves,” said Amara. “It took a long time, but they’re back. They’ve done wonders for the ecosystem. We were overrun with deer, which disrupted plant life cycles and carried all sorts of nasty stuff like Lyme disease. This place was meant to have an apex predator. Crazy we ever drove them away. He-Yin must be proud.”
They walked into the dormitory, and Amara led him to the dining room. Much more welcoming than the solar panel factory’s, he thought. The circular tables were draped with tablecloths with woven rose patterns. Morris’ work, he was sure.
He turned and saw Edith, sitting at a table with two young families. He joined them, recollecting his day and listening to theirs. Eventually he stood up and walked to the serving line. The food was delicious, a bit more indulgent than his sinless lunch. He licked his fingers from the crispy fried squash and bit into an enormous black bean burger, bursting with lettuce and tomato. The sesame bun must have been fresh from the oven; it was soft and yeasty, with a surprisingly crisp crust. The beer was dark and malty, but not too heavy. “He-Yin’s work,” said Amara as she walked by, flanked by a small entourage of friends.
Guest mostly listened as his table talked about the local baseball league, music, and the next painting project for the dorms. The kids were especially excited about being able to draw on the back stairwell and talked among themselves about their design schemes. The conversation went on for hours, and some tables pulled out cards and games. Guest felt exhaustion setting in and excused himself from the table.
“We’ve already set you up in the room you slept in last night,” said Edith. “You’ll report for classes first thing tomorrow morning.”
Guest walked to his room and saw that it had been decorated with colourful welcome signs. He was surprised by his tears; he wiped them away with the back of his hand. As he lay beneath Morris’ beautiful quilt, Guest felt his heart grow heavy. The next morning, he knew, he would awaken back home, in the world as he’d left it. But as he thought back to his conversation in the bar the night before, he felt something like hope start to grow. “If others can see it as I have seen it,” he said to himself, in something like a prayer, “then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998, 53.
 Leonid Kantorovich, “Mathematics in Economics: Achievements, Difficulties, Perspectives,” lecture given for the 1975 Sveriges Riksbank (Bank of Sweden) Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, The Nobel Prize, 11 December 1975 [30 November 2023].
 Ron Scollon and Suzie Wong Scollon, “The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education,” in Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned: Teachers’ Reflections on Schooling in Rural Alaska, edited by Ray Barnhardt and J. Kelly Tonsmeire, Juneau: Alaska State Department of Education, 1986, Alaska Native Knowledge Network [30 November 2023].