Sometime early this month, the world's population will reach six billion. "Y6B," as it has been dubbed by Zero Population Growth, is being marked on October 12 by events in the United States and around the world intended to heighten public awareness about the interrelationships among rapid population growth, economic development and the human condition.

This topic and all of its complexities are detailed in The State of World Population 1999, released in September by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Subtitled 6 Billion, A Time for Choices, the report notes the progress made in enabling individuals to exercise more choices over their own fertility and future over the last 30 years. Women and men have come to want—and have—smaller families since the 1960s. Their newborns are much more likely to survive the risky first year of life and to thrive. Their children, especially girls, are more likely to attain at least a basic level of education. Overall life expectancy has increased dramatically during this period. And, more recently, real progress has been made in advancing the rights and status of women in society.

At the same time, UNFPA's report observes that although population growth rates have declined as desired family size and birthrates have declined, the world's total population still grew from five billion to six billion in just the last 12 years. Because of the record numbers of women of reproductive age, 78 million people are added to the planet each year. Ninety-five percent of population growth is occurring in the world's poorest countries, those least able to provide basic health care, education and jobs—especially for the generation between the ages of 15 and 24, now one billion strong.

"Whether we seize the opportunity by acting decisively and providing the necessary funding [to fully implement the Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, or ICPD] will have a major impact on life in the 21st century," UNFPA's report cautions. "The decisions taken in the next decade will determine how fast the world adds the next billion people and the billion after that [see chart], whether the new billions will be born to lives of poverty and deprivation, whether equality will be established between men and women, and what effect population growth will have on natural resources and the environment." The 1994 ICPD ratified a historic agreement among 180 governments, reaffirmed earlier this year during the "Cairo-Plus-Five" review process, that at its core called for a substantial commitment by the nations of the world to improving the reproductive health of individuals.