Now We Are Six

In October, World Population Will Reach Six Billion. Can the Earth Carry the Load?

On or around October 12, 1999, a Very Important Baby will be born somewhere in the world. The arrival of a new child is not in itself big international news, since three are born every second, but this one will mark world population reaching a record six billion.

The five billionth baby isn’t even a teenager yet, having been born in 1987. It took all of human history until 1800 for the population to reach its first billion; the second took only until 1930. A mere 69 years later, six billion will be crowding the planet.

Since the word “billion” has lost its power to shock (after all, a billion dollars only makes a down payment on an aircraft carrier), analogies are necessary. How many people make a billion? In his book How Many People Can the Earth Support? Joel Cohen notes that if they were spaced 15 inches apart, they’d form a straight line from the Earth to the moon. Six billion would make a triple loop.

Illustration: Mark Wickart

If a billion people were spaced 15 inches apart,
they’d form a straight line from the Earth to the moon.

In 1999, the population of the world is twice what it was in 1960. One-tenth of all the people who have ever lived on the planet are alive today. We are adding new humans at a rate of 78 million a year, and projections are that we will continue to do so for most of the next decade. Statistics like these are frightening, but they aren’t the whole population picture at the end of the century. The good news is that 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.

Because of declining fertility, the United Nations Population Division was forced to make some dramatic revisions to its projections in late 1998. Instead of increasing 80 million a year, world population is “only” increasing by 78 million. And the date we’re going to hit six billion was moved ahead from June 16 to October 12. Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), called this “very encouraging news,” though she tempered her optimism by noting that 97 percent of population growth is occurring in developing countries, where health services and family planning remain scarce.

Two Different Worlds

Clearly, the world is becoming a more polarized place, with the haves and have-nots standing in stark relief. Today, 20 percent of the world’s population owns 80 percent of its wealth, a split that will become even more dramatic in the next century. By 2050, the U.N. 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 Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters projects a grim fortress 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 world’s poorest countries are also the hardest-hit by global disasters like 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 four is infected, people could expect to live until 61 as late as 1995. By 2005, the effects of AIDS alone 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 momentum occurs because the population is becoming not just economically polarized, but demographically polarized as well. In 1998, only 66 million people around the world were over 80, but that figure is estimated to increase six-fold by 2050, reaching 370 million. More significantly, the population has also gotten much younger. The group of young 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 considered these and other factors in predicting 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. In the developing world, overall fertility has declined from six to three, but it would have to decline even further—to two—for the projections to change. A third factor is that death rates are falling. Both nutrition and sanitation are improving, so people are living longer.”

Momentum is an inescapable force, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of population growth, but Bongaarts says its impact can be blunted by actions we take today. He points out that girls are staying in school longer in most of the world, and that educated women invariably want fewer children (who will, themselves, be much more likely to receive an education). Another positive trend, frequently seen in young women who’ve completed secondary school, is a delay in childbearing, which can have enormous demographic implications for the future. If couples uniformly delayed marriage and their first birth by five years, demographers say, the population in 2050 would be two billion less than if they had not waited.

There will be one million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 on the planet.

There will be one billion young people between the ages of 15 and 24 on the planet next year, and three billion altogether under 25. Their hopes, dreams and aspirations in an increasingly crowded world are the subject of a new documentary by independent filmmaker Linda Harrar that will air next fall on PBS, possibly on the Day of Six Billion. Harrar talked about the future with young people in Mexico, Kenya, China, India and the U.S. “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. Among young people in Kenya, for instance, education levels are rising but there is 70 percent unemployment. Arable land is getting scarce, and there’s a health care crisis.”

Africa as a whole 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 two 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.

The Problem is Access

One in six women, 230 million worldwide, is denied the birth control methods she would

use if it 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.

Obviously, family planning assistance to the developing world would make a huge difference in population size. But at this crucial time, 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. Overall economic assistance to the Third World dropped by 25 percent between 1992 and 1997. Fortunately, the shortfall has been accompanied by an increase in private assistance, including a $1 billion gift to the United Nations from media mogul Ted Turner, and a $2.2 billion foundation donation by Microsoft’s Bill Gates, which will fund health and population projects.

Brian Dixon, director of government relations at Zero Population Growth, decries the “political backlash in Congress” that led to the U.S. reneging on many of the commitments it made at the ICPD conference, and to its elimination of all support (a cut of some $25 million) 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.

As Dixon notes, abortion foes have turned their organizational wrath against family planning, siding with the influential Congressman Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who calls birth control pills “baby pesticides” (see “Baby Boom,” November/December 1998). 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 Congresswomen Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) 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, an allocation amounting to a tiny fraction of the U.S. military budget, $5 billion, would solve the world’s contraceptive shortfall, drastically cutting the international abortion rate and shrinking population projections. But the current Republican congress is not likely to strike a blow for reproductive choice. “It’s become extremely politicized,” says Lise Rousseau, a spokeswoman for the National Audubon Society’s Population and Habitat Campaign. “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. “It’s largely because of a dramatic increase in contraceptive availability. 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, for instance, 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 has dropped to 3.4. The abortion rate in Russia, once very high, is down dramatically because of wider birth control access. In many countries, the birth control message is reinforced through what are called “peer promoters,” youth corps volunteers who spread the news about the advantages of family planning at the local level. It helps if the message is wrapped in the imagery of popular culture, as in the Philippines, where a video about the problems of a pregnant teenager features a song by pop singer Alanis Morisette.

Zero Population Growth is using a cutting-edge technology, Web radio, to reach younger audiences—people who would be turned off by a preachy message. 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. Forums like Zero 24-7 can create greater awareness, but they can’t have much real impact in the absence of access to contraception, which depends in many countries on a combination of political will and adequate funding.

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, a rigidly orthodox Moslem theocracy, on that list may be surprising to some. Abortion remains illegal there, and many restrictions on women’s freedom of movement are still in place.

But birth control is not condemned in the Koran, and most Islamic societies allow it. Iran goes further, however, and is conducting a program that has reached the smallest villages. The reasons why are clear: Despite losing a million young people to the war with Iraq, Iran still stands to 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, exacerbating economic woes.
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. They really do amazing things in terms of advocacy and information dissemination. Family planning messages are on television and in the cinemas—they’re even on toothpaste tubes and teabags. There are mobile clinics, and 35,000 highly motivated health volunteers, in a system modeled on that of the former Soviet Union. Contraceptives are free and available.” A catch is that, becaus

e premarital sex is not officially acknowledged, condoms are available only to married couples. Iranians can’t marry unless they have a day of counseling, including a family planning component, but such counseling isn’t available to single people.

“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 scholars, most notably conservative commentator Ben Wattenberg, to predict a looming population deficit. The Wall Street Journal lamented in 1997 that 15 developed nations, including Russia, Germany and Italy, “each year fill more coffins than cradles.” The Journal editorial used the fact of worldwide declining fertility to come 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 seven billion by 2030 “and then begin a long descent.” But the United Nations projections, considered the most reliable, see population peaking at seven billion only in the most optimistic of three possibilities, dependent on a more widespread use of contraceptives than is currently likely. The U.N. consensus is that population won’t level off until it reaches nine billion in 2050.

Illustration: Mark Wickart

The U.N. consensus is that population won’t
level off until it reaches nine billion in 2050.

Illustration: Mark Wickart

Even if population does continue to increase dramatically, the optimists at conservative think-tanks like the Cato and Hudson Institutes think the modern miracle of genetic engineering and ever-increasing farm yields will meet the global food challenge. The book World Food Outlook, cited by some of these activists, predicts confidently that “global food production will continue to increase faster than consumption.”

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. And food scarcity is just part of the problem, says Worldwatch. It also documents declining fish harvests in most major fishing grounds, and an accelerating erosion of the natural resource base, from forests to fossil fuels. In addition, the Johns Hopkins University School of Health recently reported that 2.8 billion people could be facing severe water shortages by 2025.

Does the Earth have a “carrying capacity” beyond which the human population will suffer drastic consequences? Population experts like Garrett Hardin and Paul Ehrlich say that we’ve already exceeded it, while the late Professor Julian Simon refused to acknowledge any limits. Joel Cohen points out that demographers’ estimates of carrying capacity have varied widely over the years. In 1891, British scientist E.G. Ravenstein published a paper in which he confidently extrapolated that the “total possible” population of the Earth was just under six 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 naéve.

Giving the Environment Its Due

While environmental groups were well represented at the 1994 Cairo conference, they were relatively scarce five years later 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, which notes that economic crises have deflected governments from paying attention to environmental problems. “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 non-governmental 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.” Patricia Sears of the hands-on Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), declares, “They didn’t make the connection to the environment, but that connection is a day-to-day reality for all the community-based organizations CEDPA partners with.” 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 Rodham 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. But Clinton did note the multiple burdens unchecked population growth puts on young people. “They will have to determine where we will find the water, the food, the environmental resources, and how we will manage the burgeoning explosion of population in urban areas that spread further and further out from a core,” she said.

Unfortunately, there’s a big gap between Hillary Clinton’s goals and what the United States actually does on population and family planning issues. She was able to point to the $3 billion spent by USAID on reproductive programs around the world, and $2.5 billion in spending on women’s empowerment, but had to acknowledge that the President’s proposals are sometimes shot down by a fractious Congress.

Sally Ethelston of Population Action International identifies three Scandinavian countries—Norway, Denmark and Sweden—as fully living up to their Cairo commitments. The U.S., she says, while it remains near the top in terms of actual assistance dollars, is at the very bottom when the size of its economy is factored in. As a whole, U.S. development assistance amounts to only two-tenths of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This reality stands in sharp contrast to the strong support generally found for humanitarian aid of all kinds in opinion polls.
“At this late date, family planning should no longer be controversial,” says the Population Council’s Bongaarts, who nonetheless thinks it will continue to be. He thinks political realities will cause population to peak at 10 billion by t

he middle of the next century, then level out. It’s not a happy scenario. Civilization may not collapse, as some pundits, including the authors of the influential book Beyond the Limits, predict. The Earth’s carrying 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.