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The last year of the 20th Century is also the first year of yet another population milestone: six billion people on Planet Earth.

According to United Nations estimates, that population record will be reached with the birth of a baby somewhere in the world on Oct. 12, which the U.N. Population Fund has designated as a symbolic "Day of 6 Billion." The U.S. Census Bureau thinks that number was reached in July.

Whatever the measure, the milestone is staggering. It took until 1804 for the world to reach 1 billion inhabitants; today, there are that many people just between the ages of 15 and 24, the largest single generation group ever.

It took from 1804 to 1927 for humanity to swell from 1 billion to 2 billion members. By 1960 there were 3 billion of us. It took 14 more years to reach 4 billion, 13 years after that to reach 5 billion. This last billion took just a dozen years.

Despite those imposing statistics, Malthusian doomsday projections have been taking a beating. While there are twice as many people in the world now as there were in 1960 and population growth continues in undeveloped lands, the world's industrialized nations are either declining in population or growing by immigration. Annual worldwide population growth peaked at about 86 million in 1989, and has fallen to 78 million.

Even considering the fact that a billion young people are now in their reproductive years, world population isn't expected to reach 8.9 billion until 2050 and is expected to stabilize around 2080. Some experts put the leveling off even earlier, and some warn that growth-induced starvation and disease already are accelerating death rates in Africa.

Although news media tend to dramatize population stories with pictures of swarming city streets in Asia or India, crowding is not the real issue and the numbers game is deceiving. What matters most is how fast humans consume the world's resources; industrialized nations may have the lowest fertility rates, but they're the highest per-capita consumers.

Continued population growth may trigger more pollution, water and power shortages, overfishing, habitat destruction and urban sprawl, but policies and patterns of consumption also figure into those abuses. On the other hand, technology may ease some population impacts but worsen environmental ones. Industrialization, for example, raises standards of living and cuts birth rates but also has been linked to a global warming that many scientists predict will increase the violence and frequency of life-threatening storms.

The mix is confusing but the message is clear: Beyond how many of us there are on this planet, our well-being depends on our stewardship of it. That's worth pondering, now that Y2K is upon us -- and Y6B is here.

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