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Welcome to Earth: Population 6 Billion

By Special Correspondent of The Christian Science / September 30, 1999


Children are unique and wonderful in the eyes of their parents and of God. And a very special child is

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expected to appear in about 12 days: one who

illustrates both the promise and the problems faced by humanity on the eve of the new millennium.

He or she will be the 6 billionth person on earth, an extremely important symbol in global demography. This infant - likely to be born in Asia or Africa - represents unprecedented world population growth that has doubled in less than a lifetime and is expected to top out at nearly 9 billion in less than another lifetime.

To some, this is cause for great concern. With the planet already overcrowded, they ask, how will even more billions be adequately fed and housed, how will they find productive work, and how will their numbers impact the natural resources that sustain us all?

"There is no more important issue than population explosion and expansion," says Sen. James M. Jeffords (R) of Vermont, one of Congress's strongest advocates for population stabilization and family planning. "The heart of all environmental problems is overpopulation."

On the other hand, there are those who argue that the "population bomb" - Paul Ehrlich's Malthusian prediction in 1968 that without radical change we would "breed ourselves into oblivion" - has been a dud. Thanks to the green revolution, food production has outpaced population growth. And many natural resources - which some had warned would run out - are still so plentiful that their market prices actually have dropped.

Policy analyst Ben Wattenberg at the American Enterprise Institute warns of a "birth dearth" in many developed countries, especially Europe. By this he means the "total fertility rate" (average number of children born per woman) is so low that those countries soon will begin losing people.

There is no argument that the rate of population growth has slowed considerably in recent decades. Whereas the typical woman used to give birth to five or six children, the average is now two or three kids. Still, the surging momentum in numbers of people will continue well into the future.

Half the world is under 25

Among our 6 billions, 1 billion are young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and some 3 billion - half of all of us - are under age 25. That is a great many people at the beginning of (or soon to enter) their child-bearing years. For that reason, the population clock continues to tick off 78 million newcomers each year or 1-1/2 million each week. And a full 96 percent of the annual population increase occurs in developing countries - including most of those places where overcrowding and resource depletion already are a problem. India, which grows by nearly 50,000 people a day, recently passed 1 billion and is expected to overtake China as the world's most populous country. In just a few years, India will have more people than all industrialized countries combined. Why? Because more than one-third of the population there is under age 15 - yet to begin reproducing.

Time was when "population control" (now a decidedly un-politically correct term) was mainly a matter of condoms and birth-control pills. Today "family planning" (the preferred term) encompasses a wide range of health services. And in recent years, population policy has come to encompass much broader issues of economic sustainability and even social justice - especially involving the treatment and status of women.