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Technology, Ecology and the Commons – Huber and Phillips’ barren Marxism

March 21, 2024

There is a point in the new Jacobin article by Matt Huber and Leigh Phillips where they accuse Kohei Saito – advocate of ‘degrowth communism’ and prominent Japanese scholar of Marx – of turning theorists into ‘prophets, rather than the fallible human theorists they were’. But by the end of their 8,000 word piece, in which they try to resuscitate an orthodox Marxist approach to the ecological crisis, you have to wonder if this doesn’t ironically boomerang back on them. The desire to cling to orthodoxy at a time of novel and disorienting ecological change and social dislocation ends up looking uninspiring, anthropocentric and ultimately deluded. However, while critical responses to Saito’s work, including the Jacobin piece, are largely dominated by squabbles over the significance of certain footnotes in Marx’s thought, what is most remarkable and relevant in Huber and Philips’ (henceforth H&P) writing is their outline of pathways to ecomodernist socialism, and how narrow and wishful the latter comes to look.

The two authors were never going to take kindly to Saito’s proposition that Marx may have been a proto-degrowth communist. After all, Phillips has long oozed resentment towards the degrowth movement – calling it ‘austerity ecology and collapse-porn’ – while Huber has elsewhere stated that it is nothing more than an ‘academic fad’. In an attempt to explore where I feel H&P go astray, I will examine their article under three key headings: technology, ecology and the commons.


There is a long-standing dogma in Marxist thought that capitalism is a necessary step on the path towards an abundant socialist society – and that only by capitalising on social-technological advances within capitalism can the working class then bring about a socialist world. Taking aim at Saito’s proposition that socialists must technologically ‘start from scratch in many cases’, the article in Jacobin gives far too much credence to ideas of the ‘progressive role’ of capitalism. Indeed, H&P – despite claiming they point towards a radically different society – end up in the typical ecomodernist position of ultimately questioning nothing about contemporary life, embracing and cheerleading technological neutrality and capitalist innovation, while painting degrowth perspectives towards technology with lazy brushstrokes.

We are told in no uncertain terms that productive advances under capitalism – ‘harnessing not only labor-saving machinery, but also more social and cooperative divisions of labor and collective forms of scientific knowledge’, according to H&P – are key to developing ‘the material conditions and socialized production systems that could for the first time in history begin to abolish scarcity and thus lay the foundation for security and abundance for all.’ It is strange to read this view being put forward in the same piece where elsewhere the authors correctly emphasise that capitalism only fosters and develops that subset of innovations and technologies which are profitable, rather than those which are genuinely socially useful. What an incredible coincidence it would be that capitalist technological development has been both to the benefit of private accumulation, and precisely what would be needed to lay the foundations for a socialist future. This is about as likely as throwing a pack of cards in the air and having them land just perfectly in the shape of a house of cards.

Rather than judiciously assessing what is valuable in the present, as we move into uncertain futures, the authors live in a black-and-white world where you either cheerlead technological systems as we know them, or you are to be dismissed as a backwards-looking ‘anti-modernist’ romantic and luddite. There can be no critique of prometheanism without being ‘anti-technology’ – a dualism which allows H&P to completely skim over potentially rich discussions regarding the characteristics of intermediate, human-scale, convivial, focal and socially useful technologies, to take just a few terms used by critics of technological systems as we know them, Saito included.

The extent of H&P’s technological fantasies can be seen in their stated belief that “When we fully shift to clean energy sources such as nuclear, wind, and solar, that climate-related limit on energy use will have been transcended. The only true, permanently insuperable limits that we face are the laws of physics and logic.” Leaving aside what is meant here by ‘the laws of logic’, the authors ignore the inconvenient fact that recent declines in the price of renewable energy, and its quick expansion, has led to mere energy ‘addition’, rather than any real transition or displacement of fossil fuels. The authors simply ignore the vast stumbling blocks that a broadscale shift to nuclear, wind and solar would face – not least the scarcity of various key minerals and inputs for these energy sources (perhaps that is where their stated enthusiasm for asteroid mining comes in – ‘in our era of space-faring, the Earth is also not the only possible source of energy or material resources’). There is no questioning here of demand and the aggregated social patterns that provoke it, but only a frenzied concern with increasing human access to power.

Figure 1: Energy addition, in place of transition.

While dismissing degrowthers as quixotic and romantic, H&P themselves entirely romanticise contemporary technologies and their promethean ability to frictionlessly transcend limits. While Saito points to Marx’s concerned readings of the work of German chemist Justus von Liebig, with regard to urban metabolic rifts and ‘robbery’ of the soil emerging in agriculture, H&P argue that any limits in agriculture were simply overcome with the invention of artificial fertilizers. A very one-sided view of the Green Revolution ensues, with the Haber-Bosch process merely banishing famine and ushering in a new age of abundance, rather than a balanced perspective which acknowledges the ongoing ecological dark sides of that development. The Green Revolution, after all, was highly dependent on widespread use of fossil fuels, led to agricultural monocultures with dire consequences for local environments and cultures, and displaced peasant smallholders from the land (they admit the latter but fail to address the wider ecological implications).

Towards the end of the piece, the author’s technological naivety again emerges in relation to the stubborn and growing carbon-emitter of air travel: an industry which is an ever-greater contributor to climate change and where we are yet to encounter any real possibility to replace fossil fuels. We are not to worry about aviation emissions, however, because ‘the pathways to making it sustainable likely include greater numbers of air traffic controllers, retraining of pilots and ground staff in clean fuels and battery safety and servicing, and alterations to flight attendant schedules’. While it is not clear how ‘alterations to flight attendant schedules’ will have any major impact on aviation emissions, luckily, governments (such as in France and Spain) and communities are – I’m sure much to the chagrin of H&P – beginning to think otherwise and setting personal and societal limits on short-haul flights and private jets, at least to begin with. This is a start towards realising that – in the absence of any breakthroughs on ‘clean fuels’ – there are actual possibilities for setting technological limits for the benefit of the environment and wider society.

Figure 2


Despite H&P’s examination of human society and its relation to a perfect storm of ecological crises, there is actually nothing ecological about these thinkers, if we take ecology in its etymological sense of establishing meaningful ways of being at home in an environment. Elsewhere in Philips’ work, he has noted that – with the earth eventually to be engulfed by a dying sun, in a billion years or so – humans must look to expand beyond earth, and even the solar system. Here they repeat this nihilistic and anti-ecological train of thought – there is no possibility for ‘ecological balance’ because ‘The history of life on Earth is not one of fragile balance at all, but instead a story of constant dynamic change.’ From this perspective, humans can do what they like – the rest of life on the planet be damned – because ‘So as far as the rest of nature is concerned, whatever we humans do, via the capitalist mode of production or otherwise, from combustion of fossil fuels to the invention of plastics, is just the latest set of novel evolutionary selection pressures.’

Figure 3: Orangutan facing Huber and Phillips’ ‘novel evolutionary selection pressures’ AKA ecocide

There is furthermore nothing ecological about these thinkers, because the only reason they find to be concerned about climate change, or biodiversity collapse, or microplastics being found in every aquatic species tested, is due to the impact it might have on one species: us, Homo sapiens. There can be no actual disruption of ecosystems for H&P, but only ‘a disruption of ecosystem services upon which humans depend. Agricultural soil fertility decline, climate change, or nitrogen pollution and so on are threats to us humans, but are not, and cannot be, a rift with a balance of nature that does not exist.’ This is a restatement of promethean Marxist dogma, and carte blanche for human chauvinism, ecological destruction and a denigration of any sympathy we might have for fellow planetary beings. Rather than pause for thought, as Phillips has written elsewhere, ‘We must push through the Anthropocene, indeed accelerate our modernity, and accept our species’ dominion over the Earth.’

Rich threads of philosophy of nature which might see humans as just one part of a greater whole is just spiritual, tree-hugging nonsense according to this perspective. The article instead espouses a dead, mechanistic world, ripe for ‘rational’ human domination – It is a repetition of the ideology of environmental economics, which emerged as a field to quantify the decline of the non-human world and its implications for human society through ‘ecosystem services’, as opposed to ecological economics, which is interested in broader questions of humans being at home in the world.


For H&P, Saito’s vision of alternative economic organising is criticised as reading ‘like a laundry list of buzzwords of the (largely ineffectual) left around the turn of the millennium: commons, autonomous zones, mutual aid, and horizontal solidarity.’ Given that over two billion people depend directly on common pool resources for their livelihoods around the world, the unnuanced relegation of a term like the commons to mere ‘buzzword’ shows the how ideologically blinkered these authors are. They accuse degrowthers of being out-of-touch with the realities of social change, and yet are so out of touch with deep wells of human sociality as to understand commoning, mutual aid and horizontal solidarity as mere buzzwords, not crucial modes of existence with histories spanning millennia.

It could be said, as Chris Smaje points out, that those interested in socio-ecological transformation have sometimes put too much emphasis on specifically modern understandings of commoning, instead of seeing its historical value as supplementary to the livelihoods of smallholders and family-unit production, for instance. But if we take a broader view of the ‘commons’, and how we all rely on various types of common resources, we can see it as nearly ubiquitous, crucial and multi-faceted. As Ivan Illich has written:

‘People called commons those parts of the environment for which customary law exacted specific forms of community respect. People called commons that part of the environment which lay beyond their own thresholds and outside of their own possessions, to which, however, they had recognized claims of usage, not to produce commodities but to provide for the subsistence of their households.

The customary law which humanized the environment by establishing the commons was usually unwritten. It was unwritten law not only because people did not care to write it down, but because what it protected was a reality much too complex to fit into paragraphs.’

Toeing the Marxist line, however, H&P ignore this complexity and reduce all contemporary strategic possibility in socio-ecological transformation to the power of working class trade union organisations – and industrial workers in particular. They have a very fixed idea of this class and what it might ‘want’, arguing that Saito’s interests in alternative initiatives like cooperatives and community gardens are misled, because the working class are ‘too exploited and overworked to find time for urban gardens’. This generalisation appears to contradict evidence, however, that collective initiatives like community gardens are often crucial lifelines for poor, marginalised and working-class communities, and not at all simplistically to be associated with privilege (see, for instance, Cuba’s organóponicos and their role after the collapse of the Soviet Union).

With H&P seeing trade unions as the only viable way of taking back democratic control over the future of the economy, they place unions and other forms of economic democracy, such as worker cooperatives, at loggerheads, as if there were no way to think about them as flourishing and co-existing. Coooperatives, however, should not be so quickly dismissed. They, for one, provide jobs and work opportunities to around 10% of the world’s employed population. To take just one specific and high-profile example, the Mondragon group of cooperative enterprises in the Basque Country employs over 80,000 worker-owners across hundreds of companies, who have their hands directly on the levers of industrial production. Is this not also a site of possibility, if we want democratic ownership and redirection of the economy?

The Earthworker group of cooperatives in Australia, meanwhile, perhaps demonstrates even more sharply the falseness of this dichotomy drawn between trade unionism and cooperatives: Supported by Australian trade unions, they seek to create ‘dignified, safe and sustainable livelihoods in a network of unionised worker-owned cooperatives – supporting and enabling social ownership of the Australian economy’. The Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative, for instance, produces heat pump and solar hot water systems in a worker-run factory in the Latrobe Valley.

Huber and Phillips will brook no deviation from the party line, however. By obeying the ‘laws of logic’, they know what is good for us, and we should just sit down and wait for our nuclear-powered and ‘clean’ energy future. Taken to its logical conclusion, a human-centred global rationality will be imposed and should you – a peasant farmer or indigenous laggard – get in their way, then you should be offered up to the socialist gods, for the greater good. Jump on board, Comrade, the future is waiting.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a member of the Community Economies Institute and recently founded Nowtopia as a space for multi-media exploration of issues around postcapitalism, degrowth and sustainable economic alternatives. He previously worked as an editor at the Dark Mountain Project, and has written for outlets including OpenDemocracyThe ConversationPermaculture Magazine and  He received his PhD in Geography and Sustainable Development at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.