22 September 1999
Six billion people? Three cheers
by Frank Furedi, author of Population and Development: A Critical
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
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.
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Frank Furedi's Population and Development: A Critical Introduction (Polity
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020 7269 9224.
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