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Celebrating 6,000,000,000

On October 12, the six billionth person officially arrived on earth to a chorus of commentary that has characterized the population question since 19th century British economist Thomas Malthus issued his famous predictions.

The “more the merrier” faction reiterated its unswerving faith in the ability of technology and man’s ingenuity to stay one step ahead of what was once popularly referred to as the “population bomb.” Others pointed to the sobering fact that the world has added one billion people in just the past 12 years. According to a recent report from Cornell University, more than half the world’s people are presently malnourished and living in poverty. Average per capita world cropland is now only half of what is needed to produce a good diet, and per capita availability of freshwater declined by 60 percent between 1960 and 1997.

While the two sides argue on, the numbers are changing. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), global population growth is slowing because people are choosing to have fewer children. Fertility rates in developing countries have dropped from more than six children per woman in 1950 to less than three today. For the most part, the change is the product of many millions of individual decisions, particularly by women. For them, having fewer children is both a cause and effect of going to school, getting a job, and using maternal health services. The choices they make are not based on ideology, but on what seems best for them.

Mexico has seen a particularly dramatic drop in fertility. A generation ago, the government replaced its policy of promoting large families with voluntary family planning programs and a constitutional amendment giving individuals the right to determine family size. This, combined with increasing industrialization, migration to urban areas, more education and greater economic opportunities, resulted in halving the country’s birth rate in 15 years.

But even so, Mexico’s population will increase by nearly 50 percent by 2030. In other countries, where Mexico-style policies have not yet made their appearance, population continues to surge. According to the UNFPA, 78 million people a year are still being added to the world total, and 97 percent of that increase is in developing countries—the places least able to accommodate them.

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