Next June, the world's population will reach 6 billion. It was half that in 1960.
Still, if not for the success of family planning in many nations, many more people would be trampling the earth today.
In fact, the world's population growth rate is dropping - a sign of "some success," says Joseph Chamie, director of the United Nations Population Division in New York.
That drop led the UN to announce Oct. 28 that it now projects there will be 458 million fewer people in 2050 than UN projections of two years ago. The world's population is growing at a rate of 1.33 percent a year, down from a peak growth rate of 2.04 percent in the 1965-70 period.
Nonetheless, the world population will reach 8.9 billion by 2050, according to a UN report that analyzes data from 228 countries and areas, ranging from Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific with 46 persons to China with 1.3 billion.
Or, to put it another way, almost as many people will be added in the next half-century as were alive in 1960.
"The world is going to be a much more crowded place," says John Bongaarts, research director of The Population Council in New York.
Risk of food shortages
Experts still see the risks of famine rising in such nations as India, which is projected to see its population rise from 982 million today to 1.53 billion by 2050.
"We are headed for trouble, unless we have another Green Revolution," says UN population consultant Don Hinricksen, referring to the introduction of new hybrid varieties of rice and wheat that boosted food production in recent decades.
More tropical forest lands and wetlands will be converted to food crops, damaging the world environment, he warns. Cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers have this year burned an area of jungle in Brazil equivalent to the size of Delaware.
The drop in the UN population projections reflects some good news - a faster-than-expected fall in the average number of children women bear, especially in the developing nations.
It also is the result of a devastating toll from AIDS in sub-Sahara Africa, Cambodia, India, Thailand, Brazil, and Haiti.
In the country hit hardest by AIDS, Botswana, the UN expects the population in 2025 to be 25 percent smaller than it would be without the epidemic. Because women in Botswana have on average a large number of children, however, the population of that country will still nearly double by 2050.
More seniors in world
A more positive trend noted by the UN head-counters is the rapid rise in people aged 80 and older.
In 1998, they estimated, there were 66 million persons 80 and older, or about 1 of every 100 persons. Among them, 5.4 million were 90 or older, and about 135,000 were 100 and older. A larger percentage of the total population in the well-to-do industrial countries than in the poorer developing nations were 80-plus seniors - 3 percent versus 0.6 percent.
By 2050, the UN Population Division projects, almost 370 million people in the world will be 80 or older. The number of centenarians is expected to increase 16-fold to reach 2.2 million.
At the other end, roughly 2 billion of the world's population are under 15. These youngsters will be soon reaching an age where they are raising families.
Providing young couples with help in family planning and maternity care will be crucial to further dampening the population explosion in developing nations, says Sally Ethelston, a spokeswoman for Population Action International in Washington. But the world is not spending enough on such programs.
A UN conference in Cairo in 1994 set a goal of $17 billion a year for worldwide spending on family planning, maternity care, and reproductive health by 2000. Outlays this year will reach about $9 billion to $10 billion, far short of the goal.
Further, Congress decided not to include in the just passed $520 billion spending package for fiscal 1999 any funding for the UN Population Fund. It got $20 million this year.
The money got tangled in a fight over abortion. The UN agency maintains it provides no funds for such purposes.
American bilateral aid to other countries' family planning amounts to $325 million, down $200 million from 1995.
"There is no prospect that we will meet the goal agreed to at the Cairo conference," says Steven Sinding, a population expert at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York. "It is short-sighted."
Some 97 percent of the growth in the world's population is taking place in developing nations.
Europe had three times the population of Africa in 1900. By 2050, Africa will have three times the population of Europe, including Russia. "Unbelievable," comments the UN's Mr. Chamie.
China and India account for 1 out of every 3 additions to the world's population, now running at 78 million per year.
Other major contributors to world population growth, in order of importance, are Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, the United States, Brazil, Bangladesh, Mexico, and the Philippines.
In most industrial nations, the population has stabilized or is declining. Largely because of immigration, the population in the United States is rising about 2.3 million a year. It is projected to reach 349 million in 2050.
An alternative low projection of the UN puts the world's population at 7.3 billion in 2050; a high projection says 10.7 billion. To reach the low number, the family goals of many parents would have to decline much further, notes Carl Haub, a demographer at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington.
In a number of nations, the number of children that women have has stabilized at about three. In the Hindi states of north India, most families still have three to five children. By contrast, in many European nations the number of children per woman has fallen well below the 2.1 level necessary for a long-term stable population.