On Oct. 12, the world's population will reach 6 billion.
Computer glitches that may occur at the turn of the century have received plenty of attention in recent months, but groups like Zero Population Growth, which came up with the 'Why 6 Billion?' campaign, and the Population Coalition, a group for which Mills volunteers as a discussion organizer, say overpopulation is a far greater challenge.
Suburban sprawl, species extinction, overcrowded schools and traffic congestion are directly related to runaway population growth, these groups say. By calling attention to the Oct. 12 global population watershed, they hope to broaden public awareness about the need for increased family planning, contraceptive research, the importance of population education in the schools and the need for a national population policy.
The United States, with a population of 273 million, is the third most populous country in the world, after China and India. Immigration and a low mortality rate contribute to an annual growth rate of 2.9 percent, putting it sixth in population growth behind India, China, Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria. By 2050, its population will be 349 million, the United Nations estimates.
Surging population also threatens to increase unemployment, according to the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, which estimates that by 2050 the global work force will increase by 235 percent in the world's 50 poorest countries, if population growth continues at its current rate.
While many people relegate population problems to the developing world, the issues are palpable in the United States, too, analysts point out. But it's hard to get people to make the connection between population growth and clogged highways, overflowing classrooms and disappearing green space, said Marilyn Hempel, executive director of the Population Coalition in Redlands, Calif.
'An awful lot of people are talking about those problems without talking about population,' she said.
The coalition, working primarily through local League of Women Voters chapters, hopes to change that with two projects. The first, Building Sustainable Communities, gathers citizens together to talk about the social, economic and environmental prerequisites of a healthy community. Mills is planning one in Falls Church in October to stimulate discussion about the effects on neighborhoods of lots of people consuming lots of natural resources.
The second coalition project is meant to encourage the formulation of a national population policy. Hempel is putting together a workbook for citizens interested in formulating a cohesive national plan.
'We have an immigration policy but most people don't know the numbers,' she said. 'We also have a teen pregnancy prevention program under the Department of Health and Human Services, but it's not identified as a population program. We have tax credits -- $500 per child. That's population policy.
'We are trying to get Americans to understand that we need a national population policy that isn't haphazard.'
The Izaak Walton League of America's 'Day of Six Billion' action project also encourages neighborhood groups to explore the links between population pressure and personal issues like traffic snarls, sprawl and pollution. The project's 'Shallow Footprint' web site, http://www.ilwa.org, lets users measure the environmental impact of their own daily buying patterns and activities.
Involving young people is tops on the agendas of many population groups, including Population Action International. While the policy research and advocacy group generally reaches out to legislators, PAI recently initiated an awareness program -- at the behest of young staff members -- aimed at drawing youth into the population conversation.
'Roughly half of the six billion are under age 25,' said Sally Ethelston, PAI vice president of communications. 'One billion 15- to 24-year-olds are going into their reproductive years. They are the key and the challenge.'
Under the banner, 'One neighborhood, six billion neighbors,' the Washington-D.C. group plans to blanket the classrooms of 6,000 middle and high school social science teachers with posters and fact sheets and postcards for friends starting this week. A web site (www.dayofsixbillion.org) is full of practical information about learning the issues and getting involved with local population and environmental groups.
Population International is cited in a PBS documentary, 'Six Billion and Beyond' scheduled to air on Oct. 8.
Annette Mills, League of Women Voters of Falls Church, Va., 703-532-0884; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sally Ethelston, vice president of communications, Population Action International, Washington, D.C., 202-659-1833; e-mail: email@example.com; web site: www.pai.org; www.dayofsixbillion.org.
Background: Mark Daley, spokesman, Zero Population Growth, Washington, 202-745-3179; web site: www.zpg.org. Izaak Walton League of America, Sustainability Education Project, publishers of 'Day of Six Billion Grassroots Action Guide,' Gaithersburg,, Md., 301-548-0150, web site: www.iwla.org Mary Caron, press director, World Watch Institute, 202-452-1992, web site: www.worldwatch.org. For series of online reports on population issues leading up to Day of Six Billion: www.worldwatch.org/alerts/pop2.html. United Nations Population Information Network web site: www.undp.org/popin. Public Broadcasting service (PBS) web site: www.pbs.org.
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