The World at 5 Billion

Priyanka Nandy, 16 November 2022

‘The Day of Five Billion’ – marked on 11 July 1987, and celebrated as World Population Day since 1989 – was the first precisely-dated population milestone that was predicted before it happened. The third and fourth billion milestones, in 1960 and 1974 respectively, had not been attached to a specific date (indeed, per the United Nations, not even to a specific month). 

Retrospectively, 1987 also marked the end of the postwar “global baby boom”: a period between 1950 and 1987 where global population doubled faster than ever recorded in human history – from two-and-a-half billion to five billion in just thirty-seven years. The previous doubling (one to two billion) had taken one hundred and twenty-three years. The next doubling (three to six billion) took only a year longer, but the doubling after that (four to eight billion) took forty-eight years – a significant lengthening.  

The fifth billion was also the first population milestone that marked a small—but very significant— departure from the authoritarian birth-control discourse surrounding population growth in the forties, fifties and sixties.

Before the 5 Billion: Contradictions, confusion, and bias-afflicted science

In the fifties and sixties, existing fears of a neoMalthusian ecological apocalypse – triggered in popular consciousness by Fairfield Osborn’s and William Vogt’s 1948 popular-science bestsellers, Our Plundered Planet and Road to Survival – were further propagated by the pamphleteering of Hugh Everett Moore (“The Population Bomb!”), evocative human-interest stories of population and poverty (see, for instance, the Times cover story from 11 January 1960, “Population: A Numbers Game”), and alarmist science-adjacent literature such as William and Paul Paddock (Famine 1976!), Heinz von Foerster’s doomsday equation (which predicted an uncountable, infinite population on Earth by 2026), and, of course, Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb – labelled by the Smithsonian Magazine as “the book that incited a worldwide fear of population”.

The general fear of “overpopulation” was compounded by the specific fear that “Afro-Asian nations in the U.N.” – many of which were impoverished postcolonies with large populations – would “turn more violently against the West” unless they were “pacified with rapid economic help” (Times 1960). There were further concerns that any attempts at encouraging birth control in these “poor nations” would be met with religious and cultural resistance. Indeed, fear of local aggression (or ill-informed recalcitrance, or both) featured prominently in most discourses of demography and development, such as land-engineering for the purposes of population redistribution. Populating “vast tracts of [fertile] empty land” – such as the jungles of Amazon, Sumatra, or Uganda – with ‘excess’ non-white population was a popular idea during this period, as was the idea of forcibly relocating people from their traditional communities to commercial farms as labourers (Times 1960). All of these were conceptualised as tools of greater global good, and local communities’ resistance to them often inspired harsh responses, such as the Paddocks’ and Ehrlichs’ idea of triage: letting the poorest populations, incapable of feeding themselves, starve to death.

In the seventies, however, both anglophone academia and media were influenced by the emerging concept of political ecology – a framework of analysis that focused on the political and socioeconomic roots of global ecological degradation. During the seventies and eighties, the framework revisited demographic alarmism through the lens of material consumption, and demonstrated that the carbon footprint of the global north was at least as draining to the environment as overpopulation in the global south.

A transition to new ideas of power, politics, and population

By 1987, many of the older ideas had been retired from mainstream media. Population in China remained a central concern for the American media, whether it was concern for a re-rise in its population, short histories of its one child policy, or its social ramification. But the core of the conversation had begun a slow pivot towards the environmental consequences of mass-consumption. Environmentalist Norman Myers, in his Guardian piece on the five-billion milestone, is firm about dispelling the prevalent idea that the impoverished billions are responsible for destabilising global ecology. Using the five-billionth baby as an illustration of unequal access and unequal capacity for environmental damage – and also for underlining the difference between resource use and resource wastage – Myers points out that if the baby is born American, then “it would waste more energy in its lifetime than 20 Kenyans would ever consume”. By implication, if born Kenyan, they would have no opportunity to participate in such wastefulness.

Beneath these new empirical attitudes, however, traces of older fears are still visible. Though asserting that the greenhouse effect has been caused entirely by western “fossil fuel binge” and industrial farming, Myers reverts to population control – and only population control – as its solution. And he frames this solution in words that are strongly reminiscent of the Times’ fears of “Afro-Asian countries”. Estimating that meeting global contraceptive needs amounts to only one-third of one day’s global military spending, he asks his western readers, “Which would buy us more all-round security?”

And thus the growing population of the global south is reframed, even within a discourse of ‘modern’ environmental thinking, as a biosecurity risk.

In our discussion of future population milestones, we shall explore how – if at all – this anxiety of being numerically, economically, and culturally overwhelmed has affected global population policy, and how it has interacted with other demographic determinants.

Priyanka Nandy is a PhD Candidate at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, UNSW Sydney.

Cover image: Unsplash.