NUMBERS alone aren't all that significant in assessing potential
overcrowding, said the Duke of Edinburgh recently, speaking as
president of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
"What matters is the size of the population in proportion to the
space and resources available. Five or 6 million butterflies in the
state of New York would not cause much of a stir, but 640 million
elephants in Africa - the same number as the present human
population - would cause some very awkward problems."
The Duke added that even academic economists had to be aware that
"there must be an ultimate limit" to the number of human inhabitants
that the earth could reasonably support.
This is the foremost message of World Population Day, in which
some 90 countries plan to participate this week. They are marking
the occasion with a variety of activities aimed at creating greater
awareness of the impact of alarming population growth in much of the
The day itself (July 11) is sponsored by the United Nations
Population Fund, which, in both financial and educational terms,
supports and encourages international government efforts to reduce
the birth rate, particularly in the developing countries.
World Population Day comes at a time when the close relationship
between population and other urgent issues like the degradation of
the environment, dwindling resources, and the spread of hunger is
Recent statistics and prognostications underscore the seriousness
of the situation.
Nafis Sadik, executive director of the Population Fund, says:
"World Population Day reminds all of us that the future depends on a
balance between numbers on one hand and resources on the other.
Governments in developing countries increasingly believe that rapid
population growth and its uneven distribution hold back development
Current estimates put world population at the end of the decade
at around 6.2 billion, up by close to 1 billion over the current 5.3
billion. By the year 2025, warns the UN Population Division, the
figure could well rise to 8.5 billion. Africa will represent almost
19 percent of all the world's people (see chart).
The Population Fund's recent "State of World Population 1990"
report provides additional details. About a quarter of a million
babies are now born every day - three every second. Between 90 and
100 million people a year are being added annually during the 1990s,
roughly the equivalent of the population of Eastern Europe or
The impact of this continuing population explosion can be seen in
the sharp increases in the numbers of children out of school,
illiterates, people without adequate sanitation in cities that are
outgrowing their capacities, and families living below the poverty
line. Deforestation and desertification are other effects.
Population growth also imposes a serious burden on the world's
poorest countries with their massive debts and their inability to
institute meaningful changes.
In the population report, Dr. Sadik sounds a warning note. "Fast
population growth in poor countries has begun to make permanent
changes to the environment," she says. "During the 1990s, these
changes will reach critical levels. At the start of the 1990s, the
choice must be to act decisively to stop population growth, attack
poverty, and protect the environment. …