Say Hello to Your Six Billionth Neighbor

By Catherine Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 19, 1999 (ENS) - The world’s population may have passed six billion people within the past 24 hours, according the International Programs Center of the U.S. Census Bureau. Other agencies calculate that the six billion mark has not yet been reached, but will be before the turn of the millenium.

As of 4:19 this afternoon Greenwich Mean Time, the U.S. Census Bureau calculates the world’s population to be about 6,000,139,356. The International Programs Center uses available data on population, fertility, deaths and migrations for 227 geographical areas to arrive at its population estimates. Figures are projected from recent censuses, which are all at least two years old.

While other groups calculate that the mark has not yet been reached, most population experts agree that the six billion mark will be shattered sometime this year.

A different statistical analysis of the Census Bureau’s data by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came up with a figure today of over 5,995,000,000.

Today’s figure from Economically Viable Alternative Green, a private Australian group that promotes the consideration of people and employment in deciding environmental issues, is over 5,982,000,000.

The Musee De L'Homme, a natural history museum in Paris, France, estimated a 5,979,000,000 population this afternoon. Zero Population Growth, a U.S. nonprofit organization working to slow population growth, lists today’s figure as 5,979,092,329. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that world population will not break the six billion mark until October 12.

According to UNFPA, world population is growing at 1.33 percent each year, or an annual net addition of 78 million people. The rate of population increase has been rising steadily. It took 123 years, from 1804 to 1927, for the world population to double from one billion to two billion. Sixty years later, in 1987, the population had hit five billion. It has taken only 12 years to reach six billion in 1999. UNFPA calculates that world population will reach 8.9 billion in 2050.

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United Nations Population Fund executive director, Dr. Nafis Sadik (Photo courtesy United Nations Population Fund)
Much of the rapid population increase can be attributed to better health care, which has reduced infant mortality dramatically and extended life spans. Advanced agricultural techniques allow the same land area to support much larger numbers of people. "Reaching six billion marks a success," said UNFPA’s executive director, Dr. Nafis Sadik. "People today live longer and healthier lives than any generation in history."

Not everyone sees it that way. Zero Population Growth points out that the impacts of an exploding human population can devastate natural areas and lead to multiple extinctions. Every 20 minutes, the world adds another 3,500 human lives but loses one or more entire species of animal or plant life - at least 27,000 species per year. This is a rate and scale of extinction that has not occurred in 65 million years. Increasing energy use has contributed to global warming, and poor agricultural practices have led to deforestation and desertification.

Food and water shortages may occur as world population continues to expand, and experts expect growing battles over dwindling resources. As the U.S. struggles to cope with its aging population, searching for ways to bail out its Social Security and elderly health care programs, developing countries without social safety nets will fair even worse in coming years.

And some warn that actual population may be much higher than all these estimates. The Overpopulation Group, an Arkansas based organization working to publicize the need for population control, says most estimates vastly undercount the world’s homeless and indigenous peoples, and rely on guesswork more than actual counts. The Group says actual population figures may be as much as 500 million higher than common estimates.

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Burmese Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, 1992 (Photo by Hiram A. Ruiz, courtesy the U.S. Committee for Refugees )
The rate of growth is now slowing, due to better access to more reliable contraception and changing attitudes toward large families. In 61 countries, women's fertility rates have dropped below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman. But UNFPA does not predict that the population rate will level off until about 2200, by which time there will be around 11 billion people on Earth.

Ninety-seven percent of the world’s population increase is happening in less developed countries. Yet the U.S. is ranked as the sixth fastest growing country, with the highest fertility rate among wealthy industrialized countries. Though 71 percent of U.S. women use some form of family planning, it will take decades for U.S. growth to slow to the replacement level. The U.S. is expected to double its population of 270 million in 60 years.

"Six billion is also a challenge," said Dr. Sadik. "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. Their decisions will also help determine how they live in poverty or prosperity; on a green and healthy planet or in a world devastated by human activities."

"Good outcomes depend on good choices," Dr. Sadik continued. "And good choices depend on freedom to choose, for women and men alike, in all areas of life. Reaching six billion is not about numbers. It is about people."