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22 September 1999

Six billion people? Three cheers

by Frank Furedi, author of Population and Development: A Critical Introduction

On Wednesday 22 September the United Nations Population Fund launched its report The State of World Population 1999. And in case you do not know, 12 October is the 'Day of Six Billion', which is supposed to mark the moment when the Earth's total population breaks through the 6 000 000 000 barrier. The Day of Six Billion is the invention of a well-funded coalition of Malthusian organisations, as part of a public relations campaign designed to raise anxiety about population growth.

Some of the campaign material is explicitly alarmist in tone. Zero Population Growth, one of the organisations supporting this crusade, has sought to popularise the term 'Y6B', to build on apprehensions about 'Y2K', the millennium bug. Zero Population Growth claims that demographic growth constitutes a 'much bigger and more threatening problem than this computer glitch'. A more sober version of demographic alarmism is promoted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The UNFPA report The State of World Population 1999 provides the kind of balanced account that we have come to expect from the population control lobby. It contains one line hinting that reaching six billion may have some positive aspects, before spending 76 pages dwelling on its negative ones.

Judging by the tone of the UNFPA report, when UN secretary general Kofi Annan officially announces that world population has reached six billion, it will sound like a health warning. Yet one might have thought that, instead of providing an occasion for grieving, this would be a day of joyous celebration.

Whatever the problems facing humanity, demographic trends are testimony to human creativity and achievement. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the population of the world was around 1.5 billion. By 1960 it had doubled to three billion, and during the past 40 years it has doubled again to six billion. This population growth was made possible by important advances in technology, wealth creation and public health. The wider availability of basic sanitation, clean drinking water and modern healthcare has stimulated a revolution in life expectancy. As the UNFPA report notes, since 1950 the global death rate has been cut in half, from about 20 to fewer than 10 deaths per year per thousand people. At the same time, average global life expectancy has risen from 46 to 66 years. Even the poorest regions of the world have benefited from this revolution.

The population lobby, however, regards all of these people as a burden rather than as a source of creativity. Ever since Thomas Malthus 200 years ago, leading advocates of population control have claimed that the Earth could not sustain the numbers that inhabit it. Time and again, their apocalyptic predictions have proved to be without foundation. Even the UNFPA report is forced to concede this point. 'Human ingenuity and continued improvements in agricultural technology', it notes, 'have thus far ensured that global food supplies have grown at least as fast as population'. This grudging acceptance of the weakness of the Malthusian case underestimates the phenomenal advances that have been made in food production. Modern agricultural technology and fish farming mean that, today, it should be far easier to feed the world's expanded population than it was to feed far fewer people 100 or 200 years ago.

So why is the UNFPA making so much fuss about the Day of Six Billion? There is no obvious link between population growth and poverty, as even the expert advocates of population control are now forced to admit. To be sure, the popular media still associates population growth with the problems of economic development, famine and food shortage. However, specialist studies are far more circumspect.

The UNFPA report acknowledges that 'rapid populations growth' is 'only one among many concerns'. Yet it then proceeds to link the six billion figure to every conceivable socioeconomic problem. Poverty, malnutrition, ill-health, gender discrimination, lack of health and educational facilities, AIDS, resource depletion and environmental pollution are all presented as problems that can only be solved through population control. The UNFPA report concedes that the annual rate of population growth has actually slowed over recent decades, from 2.4 to 1.8 percent, and that it is likely to fall further. But this sober assessment of demographic trends is quickly forgotten, in favour of the dogma that everything is certain to get worse unless governments implement stricter policies of population control.

This is an extract from an article in the forthcoming October issue of LM. To make sure you get your copy, phone the subscriptions hotline on +44 020 7269 9222, email lm@informinc.co.uk or go to the subscription page.

Frank Furedi's Population and Development: A Critical Introduction (Polity Press) is available to buy from LM. Visit the LM bookstore () or phone +44 020 7269 9224.

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