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Not so many of us after all?

The news is not simply that the world is showing more ability to control its enormous population growth than some forecasts had said. It is that there are identifiable ways to improve on even the relatively hopeful projections in the United Nations report issued this week.

Hopeful? A global population eventually leveling off at 10.5 billion? Isn't today's 4.4 billion enough?

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A reasonable question. But consider the alternative. Previous estimates had put the level of equilibrium at 14 billion to 16 billion. The UN sees its 10.5 billion level arriving by the year 2110, with lower of higher levels deending on how far the effort to limit population growth succeeds.

What can be done to foster success? One way would be to double the availability and usage of family planning services in the developing world -- where most of the population growth occurs -- by the end of the decade. Demographers estimate that this could result in a global population stabilized at 8 billion, which is at the low end of the UN's projections.

How to expand such services? The answer involves both determination by governments and individuals to seek such help and respnse from those who can provide it. Recently, for the first time, the requests by developing countries for population assistance have substantially exceeded contributions from donor countries, according to a US government report. It estimated family planning services already to be available to about a third of the couples -- and used by a quarter of them -- in developing countries.Multilateral international cooperation should be able to raise that level.

As for encouraging paricipation in family planning, this can come about in the larger context of development. The World Bank, for example, has found that lowered infant mortality can reduce fertility rates by raising families' expectations about the survival of children. so can education in terms of delaying marriage, changing attitudes about family size, and promoting enlightened and responsible parenthood. Also, where more children are thought to mean more economic security, education can give women access to jobs benefiting a family more than having further children.

In other words, trends that are now underway need to go forward. After all the concern in past decades over rising population growth rates, the UN sees a "probably irreversible" downward tendency starting back in the middle 1960s. The challene of overpopulation remains great, but the world is showi ng a capacity for progress in meeting it.

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