In his Essay on the Principle of Population (1789), the Reverend Thomas Malthus theorised that the human population would grow geometrically, doubling every 25 years. There would be millions of hungry mouths that agricultural production, which grew only arithmetically, could not hope to fill. Like fruit flies or rabbits, he thought, people breed and eat in their ravenous masses, and die the same way. He described the famines, wars and plagues of the 18th century as ‘positive checks’, and opposed the poor laws for only prolonging suffering.

If Malthus was driven by concern for the masses of the future, his sympathy for already existing people seems to have been limited. The temporary suffering of the poor, in Britain and its colonies, was unfortunate but necessary to secure the wellbeing of ‘humanity’ – in whose future they could not be allowed to share. Malthus exhorted rich families to do their civic duty by having fewer children, but didn’t give much weight to the fact that, then as now, the wealthy consume far more than the poor. Or that even without stern clerical rebukes, people tend to have fewer children the richer they get. From a Malthusian perspective, redistribution makes little sense: if there isn’t enough to go round, no system of resource distribution will solve the problem. It’s a convenient view if you happen to be the one with the resources to start with.

In 1805, Malthus took up a post as professor of history and political economy at the East India Company’s college in Hertfordshire, where the sons of merchants and the minor aristocracy were trained for colonial administration. Malthus lectured them on the dangers of overpopulation. The starvation he prophesied to his students was not theoretical. Under British rule, tens of millions of Indians had already died of famine – caused in no small part by the policies of the British East India Company. But Malthus’s students were taught that famine was a natural consequence of overpopulation, a result of the incontinence of the lower classes. The assumption endured at least as long as the empire: in the 1940s, as India’s resources were diverted to the British War effort and millions of its people starved to death, Winston Churchill said that any relief effort would be wasted because ‘Indians breed like rabbits.’

Malthusian ideas are enjoying a revival, perhaps unsurprising in an age of ecological crisis. Across the world, food and water supplies are critically threatened by climate breakdown. Thanks to the combined effects of pollution and extractive agribusiness, the soil in Britain has fewer than a hundred harvests left. You don’t have to look hard to find someone arguing that we are breeding ourselves into oblivion. To the fear that there will not be enough food for earth’s people, Malthus prescribes a beguilingly simple solution: reduce the number of people on earth. Deep ecologists on the left and eco-fascists on the right have long been united in their opposition to the destructive force of humanity. Paul Ehrlich wrote in The Population Bomb (1968) that ‘the cancer of population growth … must be cut out, by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.’ To save the planet’s biodiversity, David Attenborough has said, ‘population growth has to come to an end.’

Soon after Malthus’s Essay appeared, the Industrial Revolution saw global food production skyrocket. Populations boomed – but they didn’t double every 25 years. Increased access to food didn’t doom populations to fatal over-breeding, but instead mapped onto decreased birth rates. Several countries in the global north are now facing the problem of an ageing population as birth rates drop below replacement levels. People still starve, not because of there are too many of them or not enough food, but because the production and distribution flows of global agribusiness are indifferent to starvation and malnourishment.

Malthus wasn’t a monster. He genuinely regretted the need (as he saw it) for ‘positive checks’. He looked out onto a suffering world and his heart bled. But he was still prepared to leave vulnerable populations exposed to the deadly effects of economic choices that funnelled vast amounts of wealth into the pockets of a few and call it mercy. It may have helped that he believed in a world hereafter where the starving would be fed; it may also have helped that the lives to be sacrificed for the common good were not those of his congregation, his colleagues at Cambridge, or his students at the East India school.

His modern followers follow him in this respect, too. Countries of the global north are responsible for the bulk of historic carbon emissions, but birthrates are higher in the global south. Population Matters, a charity, acknowledges that the rich are more responsible for climate change and suffer fewer of its effects, but still insists that ‘every additional person increases carbon emissions.’ If population is a problem per se, then the effects of climate change, already exposing the global south to more floods, famines and hurricanes, are a blessing in disguise. For the sake of life in general, we must sacrifice some lives in particular: poor ones, racialised ones, ones already deemed disposable. Scarcity must be managed in favour of the – white, wealthy – global north.

A prominent member of Extinction Rebellion has written of the need to ‘rein in immigration’, and the movement’s ‘declaration of rebellion’ cites ‘mass migration’ as a negative consequence of the climate emergency. But this is to redefine those worst affected by climate change as an effect of climate change.

In a time of climate breakdown, it would be easy to call Malthus a prophet – apparently disproved by the startling onset of industrial growth; later vindicated by its disastrous ecological effects. But Malthus isn’t wrong because his sums don’t add up, or because his his hypothesis has been disproved by fresh evidence. He’s wrong because he recast a political problem of production and distribution as a biological problem of reproduction and consumption – distracting from its causes, exculpating its architects and obscuring possible solutions.

Navigating the climate crisis, we have to avoid diagnoses that mistake politics for biology and cruelty for kindness. Climate change is not the original sin of a species doomed to destroy any ecosystem unlucky enough to host it. It’s the result of a carbon-intensive economic system geared towards the accumulation and concentration of wealth. Blaming ‘overpopulation’ for the climate crisis loads the responsibility for environmental disaster not on the companies and carbon industries that have caused it, but on the billions of people trying, on the brink of devastation, to survive.