Children are unique and wonderful in the eyes of their parents and of God. And a very special child is
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.
Thus has population policy become highly politicized, involving as it does profound questions of social, cultural, and religious values. The recent debate over United States funding of international family-planning programs - hinging on China's "one child" policy and allegations that this has led to forced abortions and sterilization - is just the most obvious example.
The population story really is two stories.
In the developed world - Europe, North America, and Japan - the numbers of people are leveling out and are predicted by the United Nations to be slightly lower by 2050 than they are today (a bit over 1 billion). The developing world, however, is expected to double in population during the same period to about 8 billion. Over the next half century, Nigeria and Pakistan are expected to nearly double in population. Ethiopia will nearly triple.
"In 1960, Europe had twice as many people as Africa," the United Nations Population Fund reported last week. "By 2050, it is estimated that there will be three times as many Africans as Europeans."
Changing the earth's land mass
The effects of population growth on the earth are as controversial as the numbers of people. At a meeting of the International Botanical Congress in St. Louis this summer, scientists from Oregon State University and Stanford University reported that nearly half the earth's land mass already has been changed by human activity - wetlands filled in, forests cut down, prairies plowed under. Runoff from farms, industries, and urban areas has resulted in some 50 "dead zones" in coastal waters.
"All appear to be the result of excessive nitrogen and other nutrients being washed down rivers and streams, including down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico," says Oregon State U marine biologist Jane Lubchenco. "There's also been an increase in red tides and other harmful algal blooms around the world - most in response to a flush of nutrients. We're also seeing increased water temperature, possibly from global warming."
Related to this loss of habitat, Dr. Lubchenco told the St. Louis gathering that rates of plant and animal extinction are many times higher than would otherwise be the case. One-quarter of all bird species have been lost, and two-thirds of the major fisheries around the world have been fully exploited or depleted, according to Lubchenco, who is past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
"Simply put, more people, taking up more space, needing to use more natural resources, and engaging in ever-growing material consumption, create profound challenges for our ability to protect the resources on which all life depends," says Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.
'Carrying capacity' is a factor
It's too simple to say that countries with a high growth rate are more responsible for environmental problems of pollution and resource depletion, many analysts agree. The concept of "carrying capacity" - human impact based on lifestyle and consumption as well as population numbers - is important as well. By this gauge, Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and others of relative wealth have a much greater impact than those in poorer countries.
"At the end of this century, the wealthiest fifth of the world's population consume more than 66 times the materials and resources of the poorest fifth," states a recent UN report.
Critics respond to such assertions in two ways. First, they point to evidence that humanity's "dominion" over the earth has resulted in important benefits.
"Between 1974 and 1995, rice production in China increased by 88 percent. Indonesia's food production increased by 69 percent, Bangladesh raised its output by 100 percent, India by 117 percent, and the UK by 50 percent," notes Herbert London, president of the Hudson Institute, a futurist think tank in Indianapolis. "Brazil has increased its corn production by 63 percent, China by 213 percent, and the US by 118 percent.
"And these increases are occurring even though the US is still spending more than $24 billion per year on farm subsidies, deliberately taking land out of cultivation," he adds.
Second, "Every prediction of massive starvations, ecocatastrophes of biblical proportions, and $100-a-barrel oil has been discredited by the global economic and environmental progress of the past quarter century," says Stephen Moore, director of fiscal-policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. "These days almost no sane person gives any credence to the population bomb hysteria that was all the rage in the 1960s and 1970s."
"Intellectually," he adds, "the Malthusian limits-to-growth menace is stone dead." And if population growth has caused problems, such critics say, human ingenuity is capable of addressing them.
"In this era of remarkable pharmaceuticals, biogens, robotics, prosthetic devices, and carbon-14 products more powerful than steel with the properties of plastic, technological wonders once only dreamed of are within our grasp," says Dr. London. That average global life expectancy has risen from 46 to 66 years since 1960, that per capita income today is more than twice what it was in 1950, seems to bear out the assertion that humanity's lot is improving despite population growth. And besides, says London, "People are not lemmings. When we have a problem, we examine our options and change."
But this view - that humans can engineer their way to unlimited prosperity - is far too sanguine, according to population watchers at the UN and such private research organizations as the Worldwatch Institute. They point to troubling statistics indicating that overpopulation already is causing massive human suffering:
*Approximately 1.3 billion of the world's people are impoverished, living on the equivalent of less than 1 dollar a day. And as population steadily (if more slowly) increases, the gap between rich and poor is widening.
*Some 60 percent of the 4.8 billion people in developing countries lack basic sanitation, and almost one-third have no access to clean water.
*Nearly 1 billion people in the world are illiterate, two-thirds of them women.
*People are becoming more concentrated in urban areas, which can exacerbate economic, environmental, and social problems. The number of cities with more than 1 million people in developing countries is expected to increase from 173 in 1990 to 368 in 2010. In 1960, just two cities (New York and Tokyo) had more than 10 million people; by 2015, there will be 26 such "megacities" - 22 of them in less-developed regions.
*And despite increases in grain production that began in the 1950s, thanks to "miracle wheat" and other advances in agricultural technology, such increases seem to have leveled off in recent years. Some 841 million people today are chronically malnourished, and there are 88 "food deficit" countries. This means "they can neither feed themselves nor afford the imports they need," according to the United Nations Population Fund, a subsidiary of the UN General Assembly and the largest internationally-funded source of population assistance to developing countries.
Will the water last?
One important reason why it's becoming harder for farmers to keep up with the growing population is that supplies of water for irrigation are declining around the world as underground water reserves - aquifers - become depleted faster than nature can fill them. "Groundwater overdrafting is now widespread in the crop-producing regions of central and northern China, northwest and southern India, parts of Pakistan, much of the Western United States, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Arabian Peninsula," reports Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project in Amherst, Mass.
At the Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, delegates grappled with issues of environment and development. Predominantly Muslim and Roman Catholic countries resisted efforts to include population as an important factor there.
Two years later, another UN-sponsored meeting - the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo - saw delegates from 179 countries hammer out a "program of action" that sets as one of its primary goals the universal availability of reproductive health services, including family planning.
Another major goal is increased educational opportunities for girls and women, which has been shown to lower birth rates and improve the family standard of living.
Since then, there has been some progress. Family-planning services are available to many more couples around the world (60 percent today compared with just 30 percent in 1974). The incidence of abortion has consequently dropped in many countries, and the rate of population increase has slowed.
Still, some 350 million women in developing countries (one third the total) do not have access to reproductive-health services, and unsafe abortions kill an estimated 70,000 women a year. And while more girls are in school, there remains a significant gender gap in education.
In Cairo, governments agreed that $17 billion a year would be needed to meet year-2000 targets. One-third was to come from industrial countries and two-thirds from developing countries.
To date, while developing countries are about two-thirds of the way to the agreed total, industrial countries have reached only one-third of their goal. Given recent actions in the US Congress, however, it seems more likely that the United States soon will begin increasing the amount it provides for international family-planning efforts.
Changing attitudes may be as important as dollars. Some countries historically opposed to birth control for religious or cultural reasons now are in the forefront of family-planning efforts. The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics (a group of scholars representing the world's major religions) met last month in Philadelphia to "challenge the teachings of the religious right," as they put it.
"We're here to say that women have a fundamental human right to make responsible reproductive choices and that the teachings of the 10 major world religions support that right," says Daniel Maguire, professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
Meanwhile, the world awaits baby 6 billion, an infant soon to join an unprecedented crowd of youngsters destined to become the parents and leaders of the 21st century.
Today, there are over a billion young people between 15 and 24 years of age. Their decisions about the size and spacing of their families will determine how many people will be on the planet by 2050 and beyond.
Cities with more than 1 million people in developing countries will increase from 173 in 1990 to 368 in 2010.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society