WASHINGTON -- Some time in the next several days, two young lovers will snuggle up and, voila, the world's 6 billionth person will have been conceived.
The ever-expanding population is not just reaching a milestone, it's at a crossroads.
In the next few years, record numbers of young people will determine whether the world's population will begin to top out at 9 billion, settle around 11 billion or hit 15 billion and keep going.
Their decisions on how many babies to have will determine whether the world will become a far more crowded place with more water shortages, famines, pollution and terrorism, said Nafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.
A United Nations study released last week shows there are now more than 1.05 billion people in prime childbearing age, between 15 and 24.
"We have the largest generation of teenagers in history just entering their reproductive ages," said Steven Sinding, director of population sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation. "It should scare the hell out of most people."
Early signs show that this key generation might help keep the population under control, but it's still too soon to tell.
If world fertility rates drop to two births per woman, as the United Nations hopes, the population will reach 9.4 billion in 2050. If fertility drops only slightly from the current rate of 2.8 births per woman, the population will hit 11.2 billion in 52 years. If the fertility rate doesn't drop at all, the population will approach 15 billion by then and keep going.
"We're climbing uphill, and it's going to take a while to unwind this process," said John Bongaarts, vice president for research of The Population Council. "We are not going to stop any time soon." The council is a nongovernmental organization in New York that does population research.
Social scientists and demographers have been worrying about population growth for hundreds of years. Just three decades ago, they described the booming population as a ticking time bomb. It never went off, thanks to a slowing birth rate and technological and economic gains.
A population explosion is not the right metaphor anymore, demographers agree. Now it's more like a giant freight train, slowing a bit, but still traveling dangerously fast with heavy momentum, Bongaarts said.
A breathtaking 81 million people will be added to the crowded Earth this year, even though the population growth rate has dropped to 1.5 percent yearly, down from 2 percent in the early 1960s. That's because the population has grown so much in the last 30 years.
What makes this more complicated is that birth rates vary wildly around the globe.
Fertility rates in parts of Asia and Latin America have dropped and stabilized, spurring economic booms.
In Europe and Japan, the birth rate has been so slow there is a problem of an aging population that might not have enough workers to support the one-quarter of their population that soon will be over 65.
In Africa, fertility rates are critically high in the places that can least afford more people.
Recent history shows that a lot more people doesn't necessarily mean catastrophe. Most people, except in parts of Africa, are better off than they were 30 years ago.
"It's clearly the case that population growth is not such an important factor on human well-being,' said demographer Samuel Preston, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. Technological progress made up for there being too many people.
Sixties doomsayers miscalculated because they looked only at the cost of added children, not at the economic benefits that come as the children age and reach the work force, said Allen Kelley, a Duke University economics professor.
Also, their dire predictions triggered an international movement that slowed the runaway growth of population in recent years.
But this slowdown might be too late. Demographers now worry about the momentum from the bulge of the world population boom two decades ago. The children of that boom are ready to have their own kids, and this will be a big problem, said Tom Merrick, senior population adviser at the World Bank.
Even though fertility rates dropped, the number of women in reproductive age has more than doubled, Merrick said. So the population will continue to grow. A U.N. report says two-thirds of the projected growth in world population will come from this momentum.
"The mothers of tomorrow have already been born, "said Jason Finkle, professor emeritus at the University of Michigan's Center for Population Planning. "You can't stop them from reproducing."
Preliminary birth rates for 15- to 19-year-olds show a slight drop from previous generations worldwide, but not enough, said Susheela Singh, director of research at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York think tank. Teen-age birth rates are dropping substantially in Asia and the Middle East, but are rising in Latin America.
So, many demographers, population control advocates and environmental activists see disaster ahead. They worry most about how population will change the environment, especially the water supply.
Within the next 25 years, 2.8 billion people will be living in countries with chronic water shortages, said Don Hinrichsen, a U.N. population and environment consultant.
There will be more famines as the world population grows, Hinrichsen said. And more people also mean more use of fossil fuel energy and more global warming, Preston said.
And the "wealth gap" between nations will grow, Sadik said: Rich countries will have stable or shrinking populations, while poor countries get many more people.
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