Day of 6 Billion



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The Day of 6 Billion
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» Journalist's Notebook

Journalist's Notebook:
What's in a Word?

What's in a word? Plenty when it comes to population terminology. Demographic language is often freighted by controversial associations with geopolitics, sex, power, gender, race, religion and personal rights.

"Population control" is a prime case in point. The term is now out of favor with experts in the field, because it implies force - a negative thing to most. Control can mean governments controlling what should be the decisions ­ and are the rights - of individuals, men trying to control women, industrialized nations trying to weaken the power of developing nations' increasing numbers, or whites trying to reduce the future numbers of people of color.

To stress the voluntary nature of the actions sought, experts use terms like "stemming," "stabilizing" or "slowing" population growth. Similarly, "family planning" is preferred to "birth control" a term that dates back to the time of Margaret Sanger's crusade for women's rights to use contraceptives.

"Overpopulation" is also a misnomer. If we have too many people, who are the unneeded? Developing nations and the poor suspect that the wealthy may be referring to them. Besides, a newborn can represent not only a new mouth to feed but two new hands with which to build and a new mind to create the future.

The subject of debate is better described as "global population issues" or "population policy," in order to stress the need to assess human numbers in the context of desired living conditions and development.

"Immigration" is taking on negative connotations in the United States and in Western Europe as a globalizing economy and population crowding bring rising numbers of newcomers who could threaten jobs, social services and the predominant culture. As the new wave is largely nonwhite, some whites fear that immigration will dilute their power.

In the developing world, however, "migration" tends to connote an admirable ambition and courage to seek work or a better life away from home. Many immigrants migrate again, or return home when conditions change or they achieve their purposes. More than 90% of all births now take place in developing nations, a fact that helps explain relative attitudes toward trans-national human traffic.

Doomsday scenarios are passé. Thomas Malthus' dire warnings of rampant disease and famine sparked talk of "triage" and "lifeboats" to describe the coming necessity of deciding who should be allowed to live in a world eaten out of house and home by too many people.

The "population bomb" is somewhat discredited. Growth rates peaked in the early 1970s, and we are now living in that explosion's fallout: global numbers doubled from 3 billion in the 1960s to 6 billion in mid-1999, and continue to rise but at a slower rate. Improved health services have managed to keep the increased billions alive, though often in a deprived state. Population specialists now concentrate on "quality of life" of the millions of newborns who will be hard-pressed to find education, health care and work needed for a meaningful life.

Today, "population momentum" from the 1960s baby boom continues to drive human numbers upward. Growth will continue for at least another generation as the new millennium's record 1 billion teenagers enter their reproductive years. The question now is: when will we achieve "population stabilization," where growth stops?

The answer depends upon whether commitments that the world's nations made at the ICPD in 1994 are fully honored: to programs furthering "birth spacing," "reproductive health" and "women's rights"; boosting "sustainable development"; and improving the earth's "carrying capacity" and the human "quality of life." These terms stress not sheer population numbers but the broader vision of global well-being.

"Acceptable risk" describes the health risks associated with many modern contraceptives, while "relative risk" compares that small danger to, say, riding a motorbike in city traffic. The definitions of each are under challenge from women's groups, who note that all but two modern methods (condoms and male vasectomies) make women take the risk.

Not Just Words

It's not just political correctness to watch your population language. Many of yesterday's terms were rooted in detached calculations that dehumanized people and the process of family-building. People universally resist bean-counter reckoning in deciding the size of their families. Population specialists have moved beyond mere number-crunching to understand what population increase means to individuals - and this change in perspective has changed policy and language.

Most governments in developing countries have adopted family planning policies in an effort to balance their national populations with available resources. They have shouldered two-thirds of the costs involved, asking industrialized nations to help with the rest. The term "commitment" involves not only political will but the provision of human and material resources as well. It is this commitment that is at stake today.

September 1999