The joyous arrival of Baby 6 Billion

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist, 10/14/99

And baby makes 6 billion. According to the United Nations, the Earth's human population reached 6,000,000,000 this week, a round number by anyone's measure. Where this milestone baby made her appearance no one can say, but it's a reasonable guess that she was welcomed by her parents and siblings the way most new family members are welcomed: joyfully.

Baby 6 Billion's arrival should make all of us joyful. A century ago, the world couldn't even sustain 2 billion human beings. Ten centuries ago, fewer than 500 million could keep themselves alive. For a baby born at the turn of the last millennium, surviving childhood was at best a 50-50 proposition; surviving past 40 was extraordinary. Baby 6 Billion, by contrast, can look forward to 65 birthdays. And that's if she lives in the Third World; if she is a child of the West, her life expectancy is closer to 75.

The human race has never had it so good. Per capita wealth has soared in this century. Frightful diseases have been eradicated. Infant mortality has plummeted. The marvels of modern medicine, energy, and agriculture reach more people in more parts of the world than ever before. The planet's food supply is growing faster than its human population. Poverty and hunger have not been wiped out, but, by and large, human beings enjoy better, healthier, cleaner, more prosperous lives than at any time in the past.

''One would expect lovers of humanity to jump with joy at the triumph of human mind and organization over the raw killing forces of nature,'' the late, great optimist Julian Simon wrote in ''The Ultimate Resource,'' his masterpiece. ''Instead, many lament that there are so many people alive to enjoy the gift of life.''

There is, for example, Vice President Al Gore, who proclaims that ''no goal is more crucial to healing the global environment than stabilizing human population.'' By which he means: People should stop having so many children. Not all people, of course. Not people like Gore, a father of four. But people in places like Bangladesh and China, the sort of places routinely described as ''overpopulated.''

In a brilliant essay a few years back, P.J. O'Rourke reflected on population controllers who preach that fewer babies is what the world's impoverished nations need most.

''Going around the poor parts of the world shoving birth-control pills down people's throats, hustling them into abortion clinics, and giving them cheap prizes for getting sterilized is to assume that those people don't want babies as much as we do, that they won't like those babies as well as we like ours, and that little brown and yellow babies are not as good as the adorable pink, rich kind. American children grow up to be valuable citizens. Bangladeshi children grow up to be part of the world population problem.''

In 1798, Thomas Malthus published his famous ''Essay on the Principle of Population.'' It argued that human beings increase faster than the food supply, since population grows geometrically (2, 4, 8, 16, 32), while food stocks rise only arithmetically (2, 4, 6, 8, 10). More people means more consumption, Malthus warned, which in turn means shortages, hunger, and misery.

''Malthus was right,'' declares Gore in his book, ''Earth in the Balance.'' But Malthus was wrong. People don't breed like rabbits, multiplying without regard to their ability to support their offspring. In every society, men and women think about the costs and benefits of rearing children and choose the fertility level that suits their circumstances. In 1803, Malthus revised his essay, admitting that he had been wrong - that unlike animals, human beings do take preventive measures to keep their numbers under control. ''The preventive check is peculiar to man,'' he wrote, ''and arises from that distinctive superiority in his reasoning faculties, which enables him to calculate distant consequences.''

Honesty compelled Malthus to repudiate his error. But neo-Malthusians persist in theirs, repeatedly warning that disaster lurks around the corner. Time after time their warnings have proven false. When will they follow Malthus's lead, and acknowledge that they have erred?

The most striking demographic datum today is not that we are 6 billion, but that fertility rates - the average number of children per woman - are dropping everywhere. It takes a fertility rate of 2.1 just to keep a population level. In no European country is the fertility rate that high; the continental average is 1.5. In China, the rate is now 1.8; in Japan, 1.4; in Russia, 1.3. Even in the ''overcrowded'' Third World, fertility rates have plunged, from 6 a generation ago to 3 today - and falling.

Women the world over are having fewer children. We are in the middle of a global ''baby bust,'' and before long - within 40 or 50 years - the human race will begin shrinking. And then we will really have something to worry about.

For babies are a blessing. And the more babies each generation produces, the more blessed is the generation that follows. ''Humans have for tens of thousands of years created more than they have destroyed,'' Julian Simon wrote. ''That is the ... most fundamental of all facts about the progress of civilization.'' More people mean more problems, but they also mean more minds, more imagination, and more knowledge to solve those problems. Baby 6 Billion has been born into the best era our species has ever known. Give her and her generation half a chance, and the era to come will be better still.

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 10/14/99.
Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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