Organisers of the UN’s COP26 conference have postponed the world’s most significant international climate summit. Paradoxically, the cancellation has taken place as scientists noted a fall in the very carbon emissions that COP26 was to discuss. The same COVID-19 pandemic that rendered the summit unviable delivered a result that three decades of talks hadn’t managed: a substantive reduction in greenhouse gases.

The Global Carbon Project now predicts that the virus-induced disruption to industry and transport will bring the largest drop in carbon dioxide emissions since the end of World War Two and the first fall since the 2008 financial crisis, when a comparable industrial slowdown resulted in a 1.4 percent reduction.

Carbon pollution appears to be practically unstoppable, a terrifying phenomenon almost beyond human control. Scientists warned about the so-called greenhouse effect back in the 1980s. Yet, despite all the political deliberations, emissions have continued to rise. In fact, more carbon was released into the atmosphere after the supposedly groundbreaking UN-backed 1997 climate summit in Kyoto, than in all previous human history.

The coronavirus thus reminds us of what should be obvious but isn’t: humans can stop climate change. We know what’s destroying the planet; we know how to prevent it. In the fight against COVID-19, carbon-intensive activities such as air travel have been greatly restricted. As a result, greenhouse emissions have declined. If governments took the climate crisis as seriously as the pandemic, they could, quite obviously, have shut down polluters. But that doesn’t mean that either COVID-19 or the recession associated with it should be celebrated by environmentalists.

A few weeks ago, a meme about the effects of the virus spread across social media. The twitter account @ThomasSchulz posted a popular version:

Wow… Earth is recovering

- Air pollution is slowing down

- Water pollution is clearing up

- Natural wildlife returning home

Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine

We’re the virus.

Even at that stage, COVID-19 had killed thousands and the unemployment rate was beginning to soar. It’s hard to imagine another context in which mass death and economic misery inflicted upon millions of people would be celebrated by those who regarded themselves as progressive. The currency of the “humanity is a virus” slogan should, then, serve as a warning of the extent to which deeply reactionary ideas can bubble away underneath an ostensibly environmental rhetoric. Specifically, as ecological crises worsen, we need to confront the Malthusian legacy that still shapes much “common sense” about humanity’s relationship with nature.

In 1798, English parson Thomas Malthus published the first version of his famous Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, he argued that population and food supply tended towards equilibrium because disease and famine prevented the exponential growth of human fertility from outstripping the arithmetical growth of agricultural productivity. As John Bellamy Foster notes, Malthus made his case not to defend the environment but to oppose welfare (specifically, the so-called poor laws), insisting that any effort to alleviate the population’s misery would backfire by allowing the survival of more people than could be fed. In a particularly notorious passage, he argued that the starving had “no claim” at “nature’s mighty feast”. Indeed, Malthus explained, nature would tell a hungry person “to be gone, and [would] quickly execute her own orders”, unless the unfortunate could somehow persuade others to share. If they did that, however, “the order and harmony of the feast [would be] disturbed”, bringing misery to all the guests, who would “learn too late their error, counter-acting those strict orders to all intruders issued by the great mistress of the feast”.

The idea that starvation might restore “order and harmony” clearly foreshadows today’s depiction of coronavirus as “Earth’s vaccine”. But how did such a monstrous doctrine gain such currency as to circulate as a meme shared by thousands of well-meaning liberals? Malthusianism took on a more explicitly environmental complexion after the Second World War, with writers such as Fairfield Osborn, William Vogt and others attributing the intensifying destruction of nature in the mid-20th century to an expanding population coming into conflict with a finite planet. Perhaps the most important presentation of this “populationism” came from biologist Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. The argument was simple: “Too many cars, too many factories, too much detergent, too much pesticide, multiplying contrails, inadequate sewage treatment plants, too little water, too much carbon dioxide – all can be traced easily to too many people”.

Today, with Ehrlich’s star considerably dimmed, it’s easy to forget just how influential his populationism once was. He featured on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show explaining his ideas an astonishing 20 times, with the publicity helping The Population Bomb to sell 2 million copies. Historian Thomas Robertson notes that there were few signs of a mass environmental movement when Ehrlich’s book first appeared. Yet, by 1970, when the first Earth Day attracted 20 million people to environmental teach-ins, “Americans could hardly pick up a magazine or a newspaper without seeing mention of ecology and the environment”. The group Zero Population Growth – formed as a direct result of Ehrlich’s book – featured on the cover of Life magazine and quickly grew to perhaps 35,000 members. Over the next years, a string of publications – including Garrett Hardin’s famous “Tragedy of the Commons” essay, the 1972 Club of Rome publication The Limits to Growth and the 1974 report by the Rockefeller Commission on Population Growth – spread versions of the same message.

Though Ehrlich was a liberal, the unsavoury implications of his ideas were never far from the surface. Then, as now, denunciations of people in general (for Ehrlich, population growth was a “cancer”) invariably manifested as a hostility to particular people: usually the poorest and most oppressed. In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich explained how he’d come to understand the case for population control “emotionally” during a visit to Delhi where, in a slum area, he saw “people visiting, arguing, and screaming ... people thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging ... people defecating and urinating”. As many critics noted, Delhi housed some 2.8 million people at the time, while the population of Paris stood at about 8 million – yet Ehrlich directed his revulsion at impoverished Indians rather than, say, crowds on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

The obsession of the populationists with the developing world had real consequences. In India, for instance, prime minister Indira Gandhi used Malthusian rhetoric in 1976 to declare a state of emergency over birth rates. “We should not hesitate to take steps which might be described as drastic”, she said. “Some personal rights have to be kept in abeyance for the human rights of the nation.” In the resulting campaign, some 8 million Indians, mostly poor and mostly lower caste, were sterilised, often under circumstances that smacked of coercion.

Ehrlich later came to oppose immigration, arguing that if people from the developing world moved to rich countries, they’d bring their high fertility rates with them. Many leading environmentalists of the era, including Edward Abbey, David Brower, Gaylord Nelson and Dave Foreman, made similar claims – and a small number of them transitioned to the far right. Susan A. Berger draws particular attention to the career of John Tanton, who started in the environmental mainstream, joined Zero Population Growth and then, in the late 1970s, either formed or worked with a bevy of anti-immigrant bodies, including the Federation of American Immigration Reform, Californians for Population Stabilization, the Center for Immigration Studies and others. Berger notes Donald Trump’s reliance on claims sourced from the Center for Immigration Studies – an illustration, she says, of the role played by Tanton-linked organisations in fostering contemporary racial populism. Sebastian Normandin and Sean A. Valles go further: “Today’s immigration restrictionist network was built and led by – and in some cases is still led by – a network of conservationists and population control activists”.

Thankfully, in the late ’70s and 1980s, environmentalists took on – and, for the most part, defeated – the anti-immigrant tendency in their ranks. Activists became increasingly conscious of the need to link the defence of nature with campaigns for social justice. Contemporary eco-fascism – so horrifyingly publicised by the Christchurch killer and his imitators – remains a marginal force, despite efforts by its adherents to capitalise on the current pandemic.

At the same time, the repeated falsification of neo-Malthusian predictions revealed the flimsiness of its theoretical edifice. On face value, Ehrlich’s arguments seem like simple common sense: obviously, you can’t feed and house an infinite number of people when you have only finite resources and so much space. In one passage, he described how, if the population kept doubling, within 900 years, every square yard of land and sea would be occupied by 100 human bodies – and then, 50 years later, all the inner planets would be full. Yet that mathematical demonstration of physical boundaries obscures the extent to which the problems the neo-Malthusians confronted pertained entirely to social limits.

In apocalyptic passages, Ehrlich’s book prophesied imminent mass famine, arguing that uncontrollable population growth meant “the battle to feed all of humanity is over”. But, in the modern era, famines almost never stem from absolute shortages. On the contrary, millions starve in the midst of surpluses, their deaths the result of political and economic failures rather than scarcity. Demography, in and of itself, explains very little about any economy. The low population of sub-Saharan Africa does not result in wealth, any more than the density of New York brings starvation. As Ian Angus and Simon Butler argue in their important book Too Many People?, social relationships determine even biological processes like reproduction, in ways that cannot be reduced to Erhlich’s simple formulas.

The relative prosperity of the post-war era meant that birth rates in the developed world were already falling when The Population Bomb appeared in 1968 – and they have continued to fall. Most experts agree that fertility rates must exceed 2.1 for a population to replace itself, a figure higher than the average rate across the European Union. Across the world, the UN expects the total number to stabilise by the end of the century.Meanwhile, between 1960 and 2000, scientific advances meant that food production increased by a factor of about two and a half. In blaming environmental destruction on population growth, the neo-Malthusian position emphasised the average consumption of resources by individuals. But inequality within and between countries makes such charges grotesquely unfair: small numbers of the very wealthy typically consume far more than large numbers of the poor.

More importantly, the focus on consumption misrepresents capitalism as a system driven by human need – as though a desire by ordinary people for more stuff forced businesses to expand. Hence Ehrlich told Newsweek in 1970 that the “real villains” in the environmental crisis were not industrialists but the “consumers who demand ... faster, bigger, cheaper playthings without counting the cost in a dirtier, smellier, sicklier world”. That’s a presentation that entirely reverses reality, in a way that obscures the environmentally destructive tendencies of the contemporary order.

In the past – indeed, throughout the vast bulk of human history – most people did produce things for use, for direct consumption. Unlike other animals, humans don’t have claws or beaks or other physical attributes to guarantee our survival. To live, we must grow crops, hunt, build shelters and so on. In other words, we rely on the natural world almost as other creatures rely on their own bodies. Capitalism dispossessed the majority of people from the land on which they had produced what they needed. In his book Fossil Capital, Anders Malm captures the significance of this by inviting us to imagine woodpeckers suddenly deprived of the hard bills by which they interact with the world. The separation of people from their fields, he suggests, represented a similar – almost existential – dislocation; a crippling loss that transformed peasants into workers, forced to sell their capacity to labour (their “labour power”) to survive.

In contrast to earlier societies, capitalism organises production for market exchange, rather than immediate use. Capitalists must eventually find buyers for the goods emerging from their factories, but their endeavours aren’t driven by the desires of consumers. In fact, they don’t need to know or care anything about those consumers, other than that they can pay. Conversely, human need, in and of itself, doesn’t stimulate capitalist production: starving people in Sudan require food desperately, but their manifest want does not start assembly lines moving – unless, of course, they come up with some money. In that way, capitalism changes fundamentally humanity’s interaction with nature, in ways that Malthusian environmentalism entirely fails to consider.

The relationship between production and use meant that people in pre-class societies generally valued the land on which they relied. The hierarchical systems that emerged in class societies could be more destructive, since an exploiting class living on the labour of others inevitably paid less attention to the conditions under which those others toiled. Nevertheless, the connection between production and use provided something of a brake. The feudal lord might have forced his peasants to exhaust their fields and deplete their forests. But he did so for specific purposes – to, say, produce food for his retinue or fund an army. And those ends were finite; even the most dissolute aristocrat could feast only so often.

Capitalism, by contrast, knows no such limits. Capitalist production culminates in money, rather than the satisfaction of a specific need. The capitalist strives for dollars – and the number of dollars can always increase. Indeed, if a business is to succeed, the number of dollars must increase: profits are, by definition, an excess over investment. But, unlike feudal rulers, capitalists cannot devote all their wealth to personal consumption (though they invariably manage to devote some). Market competition means that those who don’t plough expanded earnings back into production risk being eclipsed by rivals who invest in new technology or more staff. That’s why, unlike any previous social order, capitalism requires constant economic expansion. The minute expansion ceases, the system sinks into crisis, as we’ve just become painfully aware.

The Malthusian argument blames the environmental emergency on the birth of people rather than the growth of capital. As such, it shifts responsibility from the elite to the masses. Oxfam recently revealed that the 22 richest men in the world own more wealth than all the women in Africa. If population causes ecological destruction, those women – simply by existing – are a bigger problem than the 22 billionaires. Ethically, that’s a grotesque conclusion and one that leads to vile politics. As we have seen, some populationists argue for forced sterilisations. And eco-fascists take the same logic even further. The man who last August killed 20 people in El Paso, Texas, explained in his manifesto that immigration had swollen the US population to an environmentally unsustainable level. “So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America”, he wrote, before taking a gun into the street. Most people, thankfully, want nothing to do with fascists. Nevertheless, populationism, almost by definition, is anti-human in character.

The current economic shutdown might lead to a substantial decline in emissions, but only for a short time. Eventually, production will resume and factories will once more pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. You could conclude that production itself is a problem, that it’s incompatible with a healthy environment. But we have to produce things. Humans, precisely because we are human, need to interact with nature so that we can eat, shelter and clothe ourselves. As Karl Marx explained in a letter, “Every child knows a nation which ceased to work, I will not say for a year, but even for a few weeks, would perish”. Work means shaping the world. Without labouring on our environment, we die. That’s why an argument that identifies human activity as an innate threat to nature inevitably leads to such odious positions. If people can’t live in the world – if we’re a virus or a disease or a cancer – then the sooner we’re exterminated, the better.

But if we understand how capitalism reshapes our relationship with nature, we can imagine – and fight for – a very different way of being in the world. After all, the fact that our enforced idleness produces better environmental outcomes than when we’re active is a tremendous indictment of the way we live. For instance, Dimitri Deheyn, an oceanographer, recently told the New York Times that microfibres from clothing can now be found in water everywhere, with unknown consequences for the animals and humans unwittingly consuming them. His work provides more evidence of the destructive consequences of the garment industry, which, according to the World Bank, now contributes nearly 20 percent of industrial water pollution annually, consumes 25 percent of chemicals worldwide and releases 10 percent of carbon emissions.

On face value, Deheyn’s research would seem further evidence of the pernicious influence of humanity, with even our clothing polluting the oceans in ways we barely understand. Yet none of us declared that we wanted our shirts made from synthetic, non-biodegradable fibres. Rather, the industry campaigned to make a reluctant public accept disposability in clothing because, for garment manufacturers, our preferences – and our safety – matter less than our intensified consumption.

What would happen if decisions about production – what got made and how – weren’t determined by markets, if instead people consciously determined their interactions with the natural world? What would be the result if, instead of asking what was profitable, we could opt for what was useful? No-one would opt to make shirts out of materials that could potentially poison the entire food chain. If we allocated resources rationally, rather than for profit, we could wear any number of fibres. That’s not all. If we could decide how to produce, we could stop flooding the ocean with garbage. We could also use our knowledge and resources to clean up the waterways.

The synthetic materials of fast fashion do not necessarily degrade quickly – or, indeed, at all. The substances polluting the deepest oceans and highest mountains will take hundreds of years to break down. If we weren’t fettered by the anti-human priorities of capitalism, we would surely make repairing the planet a priority. That would mean closing some industries. But it would also mean ramping up others, as we provided scientists and environmentalists with the equipment and resources necessary to undo the destruction capitalism has wrought.

That’s the deeper problem with hailing a virus-induced shutdown as somehow environmentally progressive: the misanthropic denunciations of the entire human race discount the possibility that people might improve, rather than destroy, their environment. In pre-colonial Australia, Indigenous people interacted with the land free from the imperatives imposed by the commodity form of capitalist production. They implemented a complex program of planned burning that increased soil fertility and biodiversity. Colonisation – and the imposition of capitalist agriculture – rendered traditional land management impossible. Remarkably quickly, the consequences became apparent. In south-western Victoria, John G. Robertson told lieutenant governor Charles La Trobe that, very soon after white settlement:

“Many of our herbaceous plants began to disappear from the pasture land; the silk-grass began to show itself in the edge of the bush track, and in patches here and there on the hill. The patches have grown larger every year: herbaceous plants and grasses give way for the silk-grass and the little annuals, beneath which are annual peas, and die in our deep clay soil with few hot days in spring, and nothing returns to take their place until later in the winter following. The consequence is that the long deep-rooted grasses that held our strong clay hill together have died out; the ground is now exposed to the sun, and it has cracked in all directions, and the clay hills are slipping in all directions; also the sides of precipitous creeks – long slips, taking trees and all with them.”

That was nothing to do with population pressure. According to some estimates, the colonists did not outnumber the diminished Indigenous population until the mid-1840s – and in 1850, the population was still probably 25 percent smaller than before colonisation. A relatively tiny number of Europeans thus prevented a larger number (at least at first) of Indigenous people from maintaining the environment in the way that they’d done for tens of thousands of years. In other words, the land changed not so much because of human activity but because of the wrong human activity.

The argument can be extended further. The planet will not be healed by us ceasing to interact with nature. It will be healed by us interacting with nature in a different way. Indigenous people tended the Australian continent through methods codified in traditions, songs and religion. Today, science and technology should make environmental stewardship easier, rather than harder. We know what to do, we just need an economic system that allows us to do it. But that’s something only humans can create. People aren’t the virus. Capitalism is the virus. People are, or can be, the cure.