Marking the Big 6-0 and 0 and . . .

SUN JOURNAL

Population: The United Nations is using today to recognize the birth of the 6 billionth person and the consequences of growth.

October 12, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Today is the official birthday of the planet Earth's 6 billionth human being.

Demographers are making an educated guess on the arrival date. But the United Nations has designated today to mark the event, and to call attention to the consequences of our continuing fertility.

What's the big deal about 6 billion?

It's the trend that worries many people. It took all of human history until 1804 to put 1 billion people on the planet. We needed just 123 years (until 1927) more to reach 2 billion, and 47 more (1974) to hit 4 billion. Since then we have added a billion more about every 12 years.

So, Malthus predicted 200 years ago that we'd all have starved by now. And Paul Ehrlich's 1968 prediction of a "Population Bomb" was a dud, too.

True. Our reproduction rates have slowed, even in many Third World countries. Demographers have repeatedly revised their forecasts down. The next billion will come no faster than the last, and the one after that will take longer. Demographers aren't sure whether we'll have 11 billion or 8 billion by 2050.

How did this happen?

Women worldwide are having half the number of babies that their parents or grandparents did in the 1950s.

In 61 nations, couples are having fewer than the 2.1 babies needed to reach the point where the couples replace themselves and the total population remains steady. Some countries, such as Japan, Russia and Italy, face shrinking numbers.

Even in parts of the developing world where couples average two to four times that replacement rate, those rates are falling, too. The United Nations credits better health care (more babies survive, so women feel they can have fewer), urbanization, and improving economic and educational opportunities for women, which encourage childbearing delays and smaller families.

The number of women using contraception in developing countries has also soared from 50 million in 1970 to half a billion today.

If we're making fewer babies, why is the population going up?

Demographers call it "population momentum." Of the 6 billion people in the world today, 1 billion are between the ages of 15 and 24. They're having babies and will keep having them for perhaps 25 years.

So, though birth rates are down, the numbers of children being born are enormous.

Take Bangladesh, where more than 42 percent of the population is under 15 years old.

Even if every couple there stopped at two children from now on, the population would grow by 80 million by 2050.

Seventy-eight million are added to the population worldwide each year. That's like adding a France, Greece and Sweden every year, or a new city the size of San Francisco every three days.

Demographers say if we could persuade young people to wait 2 1/2 years, on average, to have their first baby, it would reduce the population increase by more than 10 percent.

What is the United Nations so worried about?

Living conditions, disease, migration, environmental decline, you name it.

Even today, 2.6 billion people live without basic sanitation, 1.3 billion have no access to safe water, 1.1 billion have inadequate housing and almost 900 million have no modern health care.

The worry is that all those numbers will get worse as the population grows, and we will exhaust the planet's ability to support us all.

Forests are shrinking. Per capita farmland has shrunk 20 percent since 1983. Twelve percent of the planet's soils -- an area equal to China and India combined -- has been severely degraded. Two-thirds of the world's fish stocks are being fished to the limits or are depleted.

And many countries face severe water shortages.

The United Nations says the effect of our numbers has triggered the greatest mass extinction of species since an asteroid clobbered the world of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

But if fertility rates fall as countries develop, won't the problems correct themselves?

Some people make that argument. The United Nations and others question whether the planet can sustain more billions while raising everyone's living standard to that of the industrialized world.

Each American consumes an average 260 pounds of meat each year. That is 1 1/2 times the average of the industrialized world, and dwarfs the 6.5 pounds consumed by the average Bangladeshi. Production of a single hamburger requires 100 gallons of water; 1.2 pounds of feed grain and the energy equivalent of a cup of gasoline.

An American child born today will have an effect on the environment over his lifetime equal to that of 30 children born in a developing country such as India. Americans and Europeans together spend $17 billion a year on pet food -- more than enough to provide everyone on the planet with basic health care and nutrition.

A recent Cornell University study calculated that the Earth could support a prosperous human population at living standards close to the average European's today -- but only if there were just 2 billion of us. That's the number we had in 1927.

Can't science and technology bail us out, at least on food?

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