And baby makes ... 6 billion 

On or around October 12, 1999, a Very Important Baby will be born. This one will mark world population reaching 6 billion.

The 5 billionth baby isn’t even a teenager yet, having been born in 1987. It took until 1800 for the population to reach its first billion; the second took only until 1930. Just 69 years later, 6 billion will be crowding the planet.

In his book How Many People Can the Earth Support? Joel Cohen notes that if they were spaced 15 inches apart, a billion people would form a straight line from the Earth to the moon. Six billion would make a triple loop.

In 1999, the population of the world is twice what it was in 1960. We are adding 78 million people a year, and we will probably do so for most of the next decade. This isn’t even the whole population picture. Fertility rates are declining rapidly all over the world (with the notable exception of Africa), and have already reached below replacement levels in most industrialized countries. On average, women around the world today have 2.7 children, a dramatic drop from the five they had in the 1950s.

This forced the United Nations Population Division to make dramatic revisions to its recent projections. Instead of increasing 80 million a year, world population is increasing "only" by 78 million. Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), called this "very encouraging news, tempering her optimism by noting that 97 percent of population growth is occurring in developing countries, where health services and family planning remain scarce.

Different worlds

Twenty percent of the world’s population owns 80 percent of its wealth. By 2050, the United Nations projects that the developed world will have 1.16 billion people, slightly less than it has today. But the developing world will have doubled, from 4.52 billion in 1995 to 8.2 billion in 2050. Pentagon-based Lt. Col. Ralph Peters projects a scenario in which a few "have" nations "are islands of stability and wealth in a world with burgeoning populations, collapsing infrastructure, deadly cities and a genius for violence."

The poorest countries are also the hardest-hit by global disasters such as AIDS. In the 29 African countries most affected by the HIV virus, average life expectancy has declined by seven years. In Botswana, where one in every four is infected, people could expect to live until 61 as late as 1995. By 2005, AIDS will likely have dropped life expectancy to 41. But despite that, a phenomenon called "population momentum" will still double Botswana’s population by 2050.

This occurs because the population is becoming both economically and demographically polarized. In 1998, 66 million people around the world were over 80, but that is estimated to increase to 370 million by 2050. The population has also gotten much younger. The group of women about to enter their childbearing years is the largest ever, and even if they have only one or two children each, a population explosion is still in the offing.

Dr. John Bongaarts, a vice president in the policy research division of the Population Council, has predicted that the world is only halfway through a broad population expansion that won’t likely end until 2100, when global numbers could stabilize around 10 billion. "In Africa, half the population is under 18," he says, "so the birth rate will remain very high. Fertility is falling everywhere, but the numbers are still 50 percent higher than what they would need to be for population stabilization to occur any earlier. … Death rates are falling. Both nutrition and sanitation are improving, so people are living longer."

Momentum is an inescapable force, accounting for 60 percent to 70 percent of population growth, but Bongaarts says its impact can be blunted by actions we take today. He notes that girls are staying in school longer in most of the world and delaying childbearing, which can have enormous demographic implications for the future. If couples uniformly postponed marriage and their first birth by five years, demographers say, the population in 2050 would be 2 billion less than if they had not waited.

There will be 1 billion people between 15 and 24 next year, and 3 billion altogether under 25. Their hopes are the subject of a new documentary by filmmaker Linda Harrar that will air this fall on PBS, possibly on the Day of 6 Billion. Harrar talked about the future with young people around the world. "It’s penetrating to a large number of them that economic difficulties will make it difficult to find jobs, or to raise and educate their children," she says. "They see a future that is sometimes bleak, and with good reason."

Africa has one doctor for every 10,000 people, and the chance of a woman dying in pregnancy there is one in 48. HIV has infected a quarter of the population in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. If, as predicted by the United Nations Population Fund, Africa has 2 billion people by 2050 (up from its current 700 million), life expectancy and every measure of human misery could become unimaginably worse. "Young people all over the world are realizing that large families make life harder," Harrar says.

Access problem

One in six women, 230 million worldwide, is denied the birth control methods she would use if they were available to her, usually for reasons of poverty, reports UNFPA. This access problem is behind the gap that exists between ideal and actual family size in many countries. In the African country of Burundi, for instance, women want 5.4 children and have 6.4; in Bolivia, they want 2.7, but have 4.6.

Family planning assistance to the developing world would make a huge difference in population size. But international aid to this part of the world is declining, the result of what Population Action International’s Sally Ethelston calls "the lack of a post-Cold War rationale for global engagement." A commitment to international family planning funding was one of the primary achievements of the groundbreaking 1994 United Nations’ International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, but many countries have failed to meet their goals. Instead of the promised $5.7 billion in aid, only $1.4 billion has been delivered, including a declining U.S. commitment of $385 million in 1999. Fortunately, the shortfall has been accompanied by an increase in private assistance, including a $1 billion gift to the United Nations from Ted Turner, and a $2.2 billion foundation donation by Bill Gates, which will fund health and population projects.

Brian Dixon, director of government relations at Zero Population Growth, decries politics that led to the United States reneging on many of the commitments it made at the ICPD conference, and to its elimination of all support for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Ironically, congressional opposition was mobilized by UNFPA’s launch of a $20 million program in China, which has used coercion to limit fertility. The anti-abortion Population Research Institute sneeringly refers to "UNFPA’s love affair with China’s ruthless one-child policy." But UNFPA has actually had some success in stopping the coercive policies.

Dixon notes that abortion foes have turned their organizational wrath against family planning, siding with U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., who calls birth control pills "baby pesticides." "Although federal law has, since 1973, prevented any family planning funds from being used to pay for abortion, the nonexistent connection is still frequently and effectively made. A bill to restore UNFPA funding, proposed by U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., faces an uncertain future.

"I don’t know why they don’t understand that women won’t have abortions if they’re not pregnant," Dixon says, noting the Senate’s defeat (after passage in the House of Representatives) of a recent amendment that would have denied family planning assistance to any group that takes a public position on abortion. Dixon adds that 50 million of the 190 million pregnancies around the world each year end in abortion, many of them under clandestine, unsanitary conditions. If birth control were more widely available, that figure could be drastically reduced, he says.

According to the UNFPA, $5 billion would solve the world’s contraceptive shortfall. But the current Republican Congress is not likely to strike a blow for reproductive choice. Lise Rousseau, a spokeswoman for the National Audubon Society’s Population and Habitat Campaign, says, "The U.S. was the leader in international family planning assistance, and the Clinton administration is committed to it, but a small group of opponents are able to stop the aid from getting through."

"All the evidence shows that fertility is falling and we’re moving in the right direction," says Dixon. "What we’ve been doing – getting information out to people – works very well. To move away from that now, or to conclude from the fertility numbers that there’s no longer a population problem, is to take exactly the wrong approach."

Family planning is an international success story, when conducted on the grassroots level. Morocco had a fertility rate of 5.9 in 1980, when only 17 percent of women used any kind of contraception. Today, half of Moroccan women use contraception, and the fertility rate is 3.4. Abortions in Russia are down dramatically because of wider birth control access. In many countries, the birth control message is reinforced through "peer promoters," youthful volunteers who spread the news about the advantages of family planning at the local level. It helps if the message is wrapped in popular culture, as in the Philippines, where a video about the problems of a pregnant teenager features a song by Alanis Morissette.

Zero Population Growth is using a cutting-edge technology, Web radio, to reach younger audiences. Zero 24-7 is a 24-hour alternative rock station, available to computer-savvy listeners all over the world, that runs well-produced and amusing family planning messages in place of commercials. "The ZPG message is there, but we try to make it seamless and noninvasive," says press officer Mark Daley.

Iran: A case history

Despite the declining commitment from the developed countries, actual global spending for family planning is increasing, from less than $1 billion before the Cairo conference to $1.4 billion today. Just five countries – China, India, Mexico, Indonesia and Iran – allocated 80 percent of that money. The presence of Iran on that list may be surprising to some. While abortion remains illegal there, birth control is not condemned in the Koran, and most Islamic societies allow it. Iran is conducting a program that has reached the smallest villages. Iran still stands to almost double its population, from 65 million to 115 million, by 2050. A majority of the current population is under 25, and even if fertility declines, population will climb steeply in a country with limited water and other natural resources.

Elena Pozdorovkina, UNFPA program officer for Iran, says the country’s family planning operation is "one of the most successful in the world, and reaches almost the entire population. … Family planning messages are on television and in the cinemas – they’re even on toothpaste tubes and tea bags. There are mobile clinics, and 35,000 highly motivated health volunteers. ... Contraceptives are free and available." A catch is that, because premarital sex is not officially acknowledged, condoms are available only to married couples

"Very few people in Iran today want more than two children," Pozdorovkina says. "And they’re willing to wait until they’re 22 or 23 to start a family." Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, contraceptive use by Iranian women increased from 26 percent to 75 percent. Iranian fertility rates are still high, but they are dropping rapidly.

A "birth dearth"?

Declining fertility in Iran, Mexico and other countries has led some to predict a looming population deficit. The Wall Street Journal lamented in 1997 that 15 developed nations "each year fill more coffins than cradles." The Journal came to some unusual conclusions. "Humanity’s long-term problem," it said, "is not going to be too many children, but too few." Noting only in passing that Africa, Asia and Latin America will continue with sharp growth for several decades, the newspaper predicted that worldwide population will peak at 7 billion by 2030 "and then begin a long descent." But the United Nations projections, considered the most reliable, see population peaking at 7 billion only in the most optimistic of three possibilities, dependent on a more widespread use of contraceptives than is currently likely. The United Nations consensus is that population won’t level off until it reaches 9 billion in 2050.

Even if population does continue to increase dramatically, optimists think the modern miracle of genetic engineering and ever-increasing farm yields will meet the global food challenge.

Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute draws exactly the opposite conclusions. Although he acknowledges rising grain yields, he thinks those gains will soon reach a finite plateau. "The slower rise in world grainland productivity during the 1990s may mark the transition from a half-century dominated by food surpluses to a future that will be dominated by food scarcity," he says. Worldwatch also documents declining fish harvests in most major fishing grounds and an accelerating erosion of the natural resource base. Johns Hopkins University School of Health recently reported that 2.8 billion people could be facing severe water shortages by 2025.

Does Earth have a "carrying capacity" beyond which we will suffer drastic consequences? Some population experts say that we’ve already exceeded it, while the late Professor Julian Simon refused to acknowledge any limits. Demographers’ estimates of carrying capacity have varied widely over the years. In 1891, British scientist E.G. Ravenstein said that the "total possible" population of the Earth was just under 6 billion, the figure we will reach this year. But Australian economist Colin Clark, writing in 1967, thought the Earth could feed 157 billion people, though his calculations, based on the theoretical availability of arable land, seem rather naive.

Included out

Environmental groups were well represented at the 1994 Cairo conference, but were relatively scarce at the 1999 Hague Forum. "Why has concern for the environment gone underground?" asked the Summit Foundation’s Susan Gibbs during a session. The relevant section of the official Hague report is a single oblique paragraph: "Unbalanced production and consumption patterns persist and contribute to environmental degradation," it says. "Unregulated movement of toxic material compromises people’s health, particularly women’s reproductive health." By contrast, an overview prepared by nongovernmental organizations at the forum clearly links population growth with such environmental problems as overconsumption of fossil fuels and global warming.

Audubon’s Lise Rousseau wonders why the inclusive Cairo process wasn’t carried over to Holland. "In the Hague, the emphasis was on women’s reproductive health," she says. "There’s nothing wrong with that, but it can’t reach the point of excluding all other issues." Corrie Shanahan, a UNFPA spokeswoman, says that even though the environment wasn’t emphasized from the podium, it was a lively topic in the side discussions at the forum.

Hillary Clinton gave two strong speeches in Holland, calling for the restoration of UNFPA funding and more access to family planning services around the world, though she didn’t have much to say about the environment, either. Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between her goals and what the United States actually does on population and family planning issues. She pointed to $3 billion spent by USAID on reproductive programs around the world, and $2.5 billion in spending on women’s empowerment, but acknowledged that the president’s proposals are sometimes shot down by Congress.

Sally Ethelston of Population Action International says the United States remains near the top in terms of actual assistance dollars, but is at the very bottom when the size of its economy is factored in. U.S. development assistance amounts to only two-tenths of 1 percent of the gross domestic product. This stands in sharp contrast to the strong support generally found for humanitarian aid of all kinds in opinion polls.

"Family planning should no longer be controversial," says the Population Council’s Bongaarts. He thinks political realities will cause population to peak at 10 billion by the middle of the next century, then level out. Civilization may not collapse, as some pundits predict. The Earth’s capacity is not a fixed wall, but more a zone of accelerating peril for the human race. "There’s no question the environment and our quality of life will be much better off if we never reach 10 billion," Bongaarts says. "It will mean a lot of trouble and a lot of headaches." Add to that a dramatically diminished environment, and a world of lowered expectations for billions of young people.

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