The World at Six Billion

By Priyanka Nandy, 23 November 2022

‘The Day of the Six Billion’ – observed by the United Nation on 12 October 1998 – came twelve short years after the five-billion mark, making it the fastest recorded billion-growth at the time. Eventually, both the seventh and eighth billion would take twelve years each as well, tying with the sixth for the ‘fastest billionth’ spot. 

Cracks in the fear of ‘overpopulation’

With longitudinal datasets and more robust demographic modelling, the six-billion milestone marked the first cracks in global anxiety about rapid and unchecked population growth. “Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all around the world,” the Washington Post stated, quoting the otherwise-conservative demographer Ben Wattenberg.

Writing simultaneously, the New York Times remarked that “six billion actually represents significant progress in reducing birth rate [in a single generation]” – from 2.8 to 1.6 in industrialised nations, and 6.2 to below 3 in the developing world. “This scenario,” it asserts, “is a far cry from the dire predictions about the population explosion commonly made in the 1960s.”

Indeed, in September of that year the NYT published a rather acerbic piece titled, “Why Malthus was Wrong”, declaring that Malthusian fears of population-doubling and resource-scarcity were “an enduring source of error and self-bamboozlement”. The persistent “spectre of overpopulation”, it said, could no longer be supported by demographic data.

“Never before have birthrates fallen so far, so fast, so low, for so long, all around the world”

Ben Wattenberg, cited in the Washington Post, 7 February 1999

What led to falling fertility? Women, Population, and Development

“One of the great lessons learned in the past three decades,” notes a NYT opinion-piece on the sixth billion, “is that controlling population growth is inextricably tied to development strategies that improve gender equity… and give women more economic power.”

This realisation had a rather slow history. Despite an ongoing parallel discourse on women’s rights (including the establishment of International Women’s Year, World Conferences on Women, and the UN Decade for Women), for several postwar decades women from the global south were chiefly seen as recipients of food-aid, contraceptives, and quota-driven sterilisation. Even development-focused family-planning movements, as represented by the International Conferences on Population and Development, limited themselves to “simply doling out contraceptives” or meeting sterilisation-quotas (Washington Post 1999). Southern women’s agency within the ‘population control’ process was either not acknowledged or defined, much less operationalised.

Movements that did focus on women’s economic emancipation, on the other hand, failed to take into account the added burden of their reproductive labour. The pivotal WID-WAD-GAD movement of women-centric development, for example – kickstarted within the UN infrastructure by Ester Boserup’s seminal Women’s Role in Economic Development and spanning the fourth, fifth, and sixth-billion milestones – was severely criticised during its first two phases (WID, WAD) for failing to acknowledge the effect that traditional gendered labour had on women’s reproductive autonomy.

The mid-1990s saw “no less than a revolution” in these attitudes. The 1994 Cairo Conference explicitly connected the threads of poverty, unpaid gendered labour, gender-unequal access to education and employment and gendered violence, to women’s lack of agency in reproduction. As a solution, it removed such prescriptive measures as national sterilisation quotas, and refocused fertility-interventions on girls’ education, women’s employment, combatting violence against women, improving outcomes in maternal and child health, and promoting family-planning education in addition to distributing contraceptives. The year after the sixth-billion mark, many of these goals were incorporated into the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Inequality at 6 billion: Lingering concerns

While sustained global activism in the area of gender equality did bring about the “revolutionary” and “ambitious” changes of the Cairo Conference (Washington Post 1999), the sixth-billion milestone also raised concerns about a deeply-unequal world’s ability to meet them. The Washington Post noted grimly that in the five years since Cairo, “the world has made no dent in maternal deaths” and that there is “considerable resistance in many countries to… boosting the status of women”. The New York Times shares this view, emphasising that nearly 600,000 women still die annually during pregnancy because of inadequate awareness and access to health services, and 350 million have no access to effective contraception at all.

The overriding concern, however, was the “massive shortfall in funding” – owing in part to the Asian economic crisis, in part to “anti-abortion forces in the [United States] congress… holding up funding for international family planning” (NYT 1999), but chiefly – the WaPo suggests – to the “the world’s richest countries” seeing the ‘population problem’ as an issue for the global south to solve, and paying less than one-third of their pledge in Cairo. Unless these pledges are paid in full, both pieces warned, “the next billion people may be consigned to lives of privation in countries where resources are already stretched to the limit (NYT 1999)”, becoming “a major threat to health, the environment… and the world economy” (WaPo 1999).

Democracy or authoritarianism?

An interesting footnote to this multifaceted discussion is a debate on modes of governance. In her piece on India and China at the sixth billion, NYT’s UN Bureau Chief Barbara Crossette wondered if democracy is as good for the global south as it is for “the Free World”. “Democratic India has not delivered on its promise of a better life for most Indians,” she noted, whereas “authoritarian China has done much better on that score”. Similarly, she suggested, military rule in Bangladesh and Indonesia had enforced development and family-planning programmes, whereas in a democracy “such measures have to have some popular support”. Referring to Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom, Crossette seems to suggest that authoritarian regimes that impose development as a form of freedom on its citizens might be preferable to a government that has to convince its politically-free citizens to vote for their own improvement.

Coming as it did at the conclusion of an unprecedented period of fighting for gendered liberty, empowerment and equal rights, this was certainly an interesting hypothesis, and one that would gain considerable political mileage in the decades to come.

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

Cover image: Karl Maria Stadler (1888-1943), Deutsch: Plakat der Frauenbewegung zum Frauentag 8. März 1914. Es wird das Frauenwahlrecht gefordert. English: Poster for Women’s Day, March 8, 1914, demanding voting rights for women. (Public Domain). Available: