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:

8 Billion From The Middle East and North Africa: Between Life and Death in the Human Boiler

Stephen Pascoe, 15 November 2022

N’entendez-vous pas sur la Côte d’Azur les cris qui nous parviennent de l’autre bout de la Méditerranée, d’Egypte ou de Tunisie ? Pensez-vous qu’il ne s’agit que de révolution de palais ou grondement de quelques ambitieux, en quête de place ? Non, non, la pression augmente constamment dans la chaudière humaine.

Sauvy, Alfred. “Trois mondes, une planète.” L’Observateur, 14 August 1952.

News of the birth of the planet’s eighth billion human will provoke a mixture of intellectual and emotional responses, among them awe, fascination, hope and bewilderment. For many, the dominant feeling will be one of alarm: that the coming milestone is a portent of a human mass spun out of control. Interlocked with the climate crisis, and an ever more alarming set of predictions about the prospects for human life on this overheated planet, the imposing figure appears as the landmark of a humanity that has well surpassed its limits to growth.

Not so long ago, another milestone — of the global urban population outstripping its rural equivalent for the first time in human history — was greeted in some quarters as cause for qualified optimism. The argument went that city-dwellers, per capita, use fewer resources than their counterparts in the countryside, occupy less land, and achieve economies of scale impossible in areas of lower population density. This prognosis, while containing a kernel of truth, overlooked the devil in the detail. It glossed the way that each and every human community, whether rural or urban (or somewhere in between), is always constrained by its access to food and resources within global supply chains, as well as by the inequalities of uneven development and by localised environmental conditions. In a word, such urban optimism was blind to geography.

The uncomfortable truth, then as now, is that the inhabitants of different regions will not share the same fates in our ecologically precarious futures. Among the planet’s sociocultural blocs, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) occupies an especially paradoxical position. The region is often made to stand as a cautionary tale for the rest of the world in the stakes of climate change; advance warning of what awaits other regions as temperatures rise, rainfall declines and aridity increases. Some pundits suggest that parts of the region are already uninhabitable, especially during the summer months which year upon recent year have seen heat records smashed. The gulf between the air-conditioned population and their opposite has been exacerbated by electricity crises in Lebanon and in Iraq, in both countries spurring popular uprisings in 2019 that are far from settled. Anticipated water shortages across the region will likely provoke further unrest in coming years.[1]

And yet, the still inexhausted supplies of hydrocarbons in the region — at once at the origin of much of our planetary woes and still powering the majority of global economies — have made the oil-producing countries politically un-abandonable. The perilous entanglement of American global power with petrochemical autocracies has fuelled a culture of permanent war and circumvented meaningful democratic reform or energy transition.[2] The MENA region thus remains central to our collective global futures, and in the ways of life sustained by possible energy regimes, for better or for worse. 

The region has long been central to the articulation and framing of urgent global questions. When the French demographer Alfred Sauvy invented the “third world” in 1952 as an alternative to the rival capitalist and communist spheres that had emerged in the cauldron of the Cold War, he had his eyes (and ears) firmly on the Middle East. Writing in the weeks following the Egyptian revolution that brought Gamal Abd-El Nasser to power, Sauvy asked his French audience: “Do you not hear, from the Côte d’Azur, the cries that reach us from the other side of the Mediterranean, from Egypt or Tunisia?” Against those who might see the revolutionary struggle of this decolonizing age as simply “palace revolutions” or the rumblings of a few ambitious upstarts, Sauvy saw them instead as expressions of a pressure that was “rising constantly in the human boiler”.[3] Sauvy meant chaudière in the sense of a pressure cooker, demanding a release valve both political and demographic. Reading his text seventy years later, la chaudière humaine now assumes a grislier apparition: the “human boiler” has become the earth itself.

The eighth billion human is expected to be born today, on the 15th of November 2022.[4] The child will thus come into the world at precisely the moment that Egypt will be hosting the COP 27, the “last chance to achieve a healthy future for humanity”, according to the World Health Organization.[5] The conference will be held in the glittering Red Sea resort town of Sharm El-Shaykh, at a comfortable distance from the unruly conurbation of Cairo, that “massive collision between the rural and the urban”[6] that straddles the Nile Delta with an effective population approaching twenty-two million. The conference will be held under the auspices of a government that has stifled dissent, jailed environmental activists and quashed the remnants of the popular revolutionary currents that sought to deliver Egypt from authoritarian repression a decade ago.[7] The most prominent of the political prisoners, Alaa Abd El-Fattah, on hunger strike for several months, has vowed to stop drinking water on the day that the conference begins in order to escalate his demands for individual freedom and collective political reform.[8] By the end of the conference, El-Fattah anticipates that he will be either dead or free.

COP27 is taking place in Sharm El-Shaykh. Image: Unsplash.

Travelling from the COP27 convention centre in Sharm El-Shaykh in two distinct directions, one finds two vastly different sites, which hint at the disparate futures of the region. Crossing the Sinai Peninsula to the Gaza strip, can be found one of the highest population densities in the world.[9] The population in question is comprised chiefly of the descendants of Palestinians cleared from their land and their homes to make way for the establishment of Israel in 1948 and systematically barred from returning ever since. Faced with acute land and housing shortages, it has recently been reported that some Gaza residents with nowhere else to go have taken to living in cemeteries, making shelter among the graves.[10] Scarcely a more apt metaphor for the stranglehold of the past on the present could be imagined. Here, the unresolved traumas of the twentieth century suffocate the lives of the twenty-first century.

Taking an alternate itinerary from Sharm El–Shaykh, across the Red Sea, one lands on an entirely different vision of the future. In the northwest of Saudi Arabia, excavators are currently “digging a wide linear trench in the desert,” clearing sand to make way for “The Line”, or Neom.[11] This piece of utopian futurism envisages a linear city of 170 kilometres, buttressed on each side by a mirrored glass “earthscaper” reflecting light back on the desert, while housing nine million residents inside amidst a cacophony of forests, high-speed rail, vertical gardens growing fruit and vegetables harvested by robots and various amenities for residents.[12] While the project has been greeted with scepticism and incredulity by urban planners and architects, as an attempt to greenwash the appalling human rights record of the country under Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Sultan, the bulldozers push on through the sands of the desert.

As we eight billion humans hurtle into ever more unstable set of ecological horizons, it is perhaps in this respect that the MENA best suggests the outlines of the future. It is of a planet divided, not so clearly along regional lines or in clearly demarcated hemispheres, but between those zones of privilege building their way out of crisis in insulated and fortressed worlds for the privileged, sitting uncomfortably alongside what the recently departed urban scholar Mike Davis famously called “a planet of slums”, where the many billions are left to fend for themselves. 

Stephen Pascoe is a Research Fellow at the Laureate Centre for History and Population, UNSW Sydney. Cover image: Unsplash.

[1] Anchal Vohra, “The Middle East is Becoming Literally Uninhabitable”, Foreign Policy, 24 August 2021. Jamie Fico, “What happens to oasis farming when the water runs out?”, Jadaliyya, 15 December 2021.

[2] Jacob Mundy, “Oil for Insecurity, Permanent War, and the Political Economy of Late Imperial America,” in Daniel Bertrand Monk and Michael Sorkin (eds.), Between Catastrophe and Revolution: Essays in Honor of Mike Davis (New York and London: OR Books, 2021), 161–191. Cf. Omar Robert Hamilton, “Before the COP: Sustainable power,” Madamasr, June 16, 2022.

[3] Alfred Sauvy, “Trois mondes, une planète,” L’Observateur, 14 August 1952.

[4] “World set to reach 8 billion people on 15 November 2022,” United Nations Population Fund, 11 July 2022.

[5] “What is at stake at COP27? Our last chance to achieve a healthy future for humanity,” Statement by the WHO Council on the Economics of Health for All, 13 October 2022.

[6] Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London and New York: Verso, 2017), 9.

[7] Naomi Klein, “Greenwashing a police state: the truth behind Egypt’s Cop27 masquerade,” The Guardian, 18 October 2022. 

[8] “COP27, Alaa Abd El-Fattah and the Dreams of the Revolution – A Conversation with Omar Robert Hamilton and Ashish Ghadiali,” Middle East Report and Information Project, November 4, 2022.

[9] Adam Taylor, “Gaza City is being hit by missile strikes. This is how densely populated it is,” The Washington Post, July 14, 2014.

[10] “Gaza struggles to accommodate the living and the dead,” Al Jazeera, 6 October 2022.

[11] Tom Ravenscroft, “Drone footage reveals The Line megacity under construction in Saudi Arabia,” Dezeen, 19 October 2022.

[12] Jenny Southan, “The Line: Saudi Arabia to build 170km long ‘Earthscaper’ City,” Globetrender, July 27, 2022.

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.

Calls for a ‘One-Child Policy’ in India are Misguided at best, and Dangerous at Worst

Aprajita Sarcar, UNSW Sydney and Joel Wing-Lun, UNSW Sydney. First published in the Conversation, 15 November 2022.

India will surpass China as the country with the world’s largest population in 2023, according to the United Nations World Population Prospects 2022 report.

The UN also projects the global population has reached eight billion as of Tuesday.

As early as March 2022, reports circulated on Chinese social media that India’s population had already surpassed China’s, though this was later dispelled by experts.

Women in India today are having fewer children than their mothers had. But despite a lower fertility rate, the country’s population is still growing.

The idea the country should adopt something like China’s former “one-child policy” has been moving from the fringe to the political mainstream.

But the notion that India should emulate China’s past population policies is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst.

Both countries are struggling with the legacy of harsh population policies, and stricter population controls in India could have disastrous consequences for women and minority communities.

Given Australia’s growing ties to India, it should be concerned about what population policy could mean for the erosion of democratic norms in India.

Unintended consequences

India implemented the world’s first national family planning program in 1952. The birthrate began to drop, but only gradually, and family sizes remained stubbornly high. The government then implemented widespread forced sterilisation particularly of Muslims and the urban poor, especially during “The Emergency” years of 1975-77.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, infant mortality dropped significantly. Between 1950 and 1980, China’s population almost doubled. The “one-child policy” – limiting births per couple through coercive measures – was implemented in the early 1980s, and fertility dropped dramatically.

In both India and China, these population policies had unintended consequences.

In China, the government found that once fertility rates dropped, they were faced with an ageing population. Even after relaxing birth control policies to allow all couples to have two children in 2015, and three children in 2021, birth rates remain low, particularly among the urban middle class favoured by the government.

In both countries, skewed sex ratios caused by sex selective abortions have led to a range of social problems, including forced marriages and human trafficking.

China has found that despite reversing course, it cannot undo this rapid demographic transition. Urban, middle-class couples face mounting financial pressure, including the cost of raising children and of caring for the elderly. While the government has encouraged “high quality” urban women to give birth, rural and minority women are still discouraged from having more children.

As in China, in some states in India, women’s education and their aspirations for their children have contributed to lower birth rates. Like China, these states now face an ageing population. Birth rates in other states with high Muslim populations have also declined, but at a slower rate.

Unfair impact

Despite declining birth rates, some politicians have advocated for the adoption of something like China’s former one-child policy in northern states with large Muslim populations. These calls have less to do with demographic reality, and more to do with majoritarian Hindu nationalist concerns around Muslim and “lower-caste” fertility.

The worry here is that the coming population milestone will push India to adopt knee-jerk population policies. These could in turn unfairly affect women and minorities.

Four Indian states with large Muslim populations have already passed versions of a “two-child policy”. What’s more, built into many of these policies are incentives for families to have just one child. And in 2021, a senior government minister proposed a national “one-child” policy.

Like past population control policies, they’re targeted at Muslim and lower-caste families, and illustrate a broader Hindu nationalist agenda with anti-democratic tendencies.

As happened at the height of China’s one-child policy, Indians could lose government jobs and more if such laws were passed at the national level. Some Indian states and municipalities have already legislated that people with more than two children are ineligible for government jobs and to stand for political office.

The irony is that India’s birth rate and the size of families are decreasing because of women’s own reproductive choices. Many women are getting surgical contraception after having two children (or after having a son).

However, financial inducements for doctors and the women means poorer women are pressured to undergo these procedures.

In other words, the trend in India is towards smaller families already. As the 2022 UN report itself notes, no drastic intervention from the state is required.The Conversation

Aprajita Sarcar, Laureate Postdoctoral Fellow, UNSW Sydney and Joel Wing-Lun, Lecturer in History and Asian Studies, UNSW Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Cover image by author.