Six Billion Served

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You've seen them before, those clocks counting down the minutes and seconds to Y2K. But what about the lesser-known clock counting down to WP6B? Like many a stepchild, this one, monitored by the U.S. Census Bureau, isn't getting the attention it deserves, even though it will strike 12 long before Dick Clark and his ball take cover in Times Square.

So just what is WP6B? It's the acronym for World Population 6 Billion, a global milestone that's coming faster than you might think. On July 17, at approximately 8:45 p.m., the world population is expected to cross the 6 billion mark. But it isn't likely that there will be a worldwide party to celebrate.

In the past year, the world population has grown by more than 76 million people. That's just shy of the population of Vietnam, the 14th-most-populated country on the planet. The good news is that the net increase is on the decrease, and has been since 1989, when annual growth topped out at more than 86 million. The bad news is that, at the current rate of growth, even accounting for a continual decrease in the growth rate, the world population is headed for double digits within 50 years.

"It's well within the world's reach to stabilize the population in the foreseeable future. The issue is to not postpone it," says Joseph Chamie, director of the United Nations population division. "If you wait 20 more years, the problem will be extremely more difficult to deal with."

The United Nations predicts that the population of the world will stabilize at about 11.6 billion some time around the year 2200. But getting to zero population growth will be complicated. "Population is not just about size," Chamie says.

Age, AIDS, international migration, and health are all aspects that have a profound effect on the raw numbers. Take age, for example. Even with a replacement fertility rate of 1, which most of the industrialized world currently has, the population can still continue to rise as life spans increase. The opposite is true with AIDS. As many as 24 million Africans will be HIV-positive by 2000, according to UNAIDS, a consortium of international health organizations.

While an Armageddon-like asteroid probably won't cause the earth's population to stabilize, neither will an ultra-widespread virus like Ebola or AIDS, Chamie contends. Instead, stabilization will occur because people make a conscious decision to have fewer children. The same forces that caused lower fertility rates in industrialized nations-urbanization, increased education, lower mortality, the changing status of women in society, and smaller living quarters-are now present worldwide, regardless of religion or background. For those who doubt Chamie, he points to the world's Catholics, who currently have the lowest fertility rates.

Demographers call the process by which a population experiences a decline in mortality and a subsequent decline in fertility the "demographic transition." As a country goes through such a demographic transition (after mortality rates decrease, but before fertility rates drop), it experiences enormous population growth. Most countries at least double or triple their numbers before finally stabilizing. Although it's a silent revolution, Chamie says, demographic transition has been responsible for the greatest increase in population in the shortest period of time the earth has ever seen or probably will ever see again. Five developing countries today are responsible for more than 50 percent of the world's increase in population: India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

While Chamie is optimistic about stabilization, he acknowledges that major changes will take place as a result of the dramatic rise in the world population. "America's stability in the world will become of increasing concern as populations grow abroad," he says. "National borders are not sufficient to isolate the problem [of growing populations]." By 2050, demographers predict Africa's population will be more than three times greater than that of Europe's, and India will surpass China as the most populated country on earth. "For demographers this is the most exciting period to be living-1950 to 2000 is the most dynamic 50-year period we've ever seen," Chamie adds. "Population is an extremely important issue that should be on the top of the list of discussions, irrespective of the country and its level of development."

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