Concerns escalate as world population reaches 6 billion

by Sascha Matuszak

The last child born Wednesday will become the 6 billionth inhabitant of Earth, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Of about 370,000 children expected to be born Wednesday, the majority will be poor and half will be Asian. The human race has grown by 1 billion people in 12 years, the quickest jump ever.
“It reminds us of how fast the human population has been increasing and that we have so many people to feed,” said Deborah Levison, an assistant professor at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.
The dramatic increase in the number of men and women walking the planet has led many demographers, environmentalists and economists to become worried about the future.
Predicted consequences of overpopulation include conflict over depleting natural resources and the spread of disease.
But humans have also made great medical and technological strides that might alleviate overpopulation pressures.
“One must have a balanced view on this thing,” said Joseph Chamie, director of the Population Division of the United Nations.
Overpopulation might also have some benefits.
“We’ll have more creative minds to find out how to alleviate the pressure,” Levison said.
Today’s human enjoys a longer, more danger-free life than ever before, Chamie said. Death rates have decreased, and many diseases have been rendered harmless by human innovation.
“Clearly, bringing the death rate down is a good thing,” Chamie said. “It’s one of humanity’s greatest achievements.”
Freedom from predators, elements, starvation and many diseases are nothing to complain about, he added.
World growth rates decreased in 1998, according to the United Nation’s 1998 World Population Overview and Outlook for 1999. Although the human race is still growing, the rate of growth is slowing.
The growth rate peaked at 2 percent in the 1960s. The annual increase climaxed in 1987, with a net of 86 million new people that year. In 1998, the net increase was 78 million.
“We’re going down,” Chamie said.
But estimates for zero population growth, when death rates and birth rates are about equal, hover around the year 2050.
“We project it will stabilize around 10 billion,” Chamie said.
When advances in medicine, hunting techniques or lifestyle lower the death rate, a growth spurt invariably follows before the birth rate eventually lowers to achieve balance.
“Eventually, with every culture that we have studied so far, fertility has fallen,” Levison said.
Falling birth rates relates to people’s conscious decisions to have smaller families. The trend seems to be holding up today.
“People are changing; people are having smaller families everywhere,” Chamie said.
At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 179 countries agreed to curb their population explosions and provide the best possible living standards for the billions already inhabiting the planet.
The Cairo resolutions included drives to provide universal health care and family planning services, universal access to primary education, gender equity and women’s empowerment.
Funding the resolutions depends on all participating countries with a price of $17 billion over six years. Developing countries are supposed to fund two-thirds of the programs with developed nations picking up the rest of the tab.
So far, developing nations are more than two-thirds to their funding goal, while wealthier developed nations have yet to provide as much as half of their bargain.
Countries that have not been as successful in lowering birth rates will continue to have problems without developed nations providing necessary funding.
Many countries have made great progress in lowering birth rates and providing sex education and contraceptives. Mexico and Brazil, for example, have gone from an average of six children per woman to three and 2.3 per woman, respectively.
The strain of 6 billion people on the environment is substantial, Chamie said, but solutions to the problems are out there.
“There are many, many challenges before us,” he said. “Now we have to find out what to do.”

Sascha Matuszak covers international affairs and welcomes comments at [email protected].