In 2014, an analysis of United Nations data by the journal Science concluded that a halt to population growth in this century was unlikely and projected that between 9.6bn and 12.3bn people would be  living on the planet by 2100.

This worries many. When the Pew Research Center asked American scientists whether the expanding world population presented a problem, 82% agreed it would strain the planet’s natural resources. Other concerns range from food insecurity and the social implications of rising unemployment to the acceleration of climate change.

Population growth is uneven. Many developed countries, for example, have seen their fertility rate fall below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. Some, like Bulgaria, have seen their population fall from 9m in 1990 to about 7.3m today, says Wolfgang Lutz, founding director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital.

At the other end of the scale is Nigeria, where, he says, average birth rates are 5.5 to 6 children per woman. According to the United Nations, the country’s population could surpass that of the US by 2050 and, if unchecked, the country could rival China in population size by the end of the century.

When it comes to slowing population growth, some governments have attempted to use legislation to limit the number of children born. Tempting as it is, enforcing a “one child” policy does not work — as the experience of China shows, it turns a problem of population growth into one of an ageing society.

More sustainable options include encouraging women to have fewer children and to have them later in life by increasing access to reproductive healthcare services, raising the legal age of marriage and enabling women’s active participation in the workforce by, for example, increasing access to credit.

Bangladesh, for instance, used communications and awareness-raising to change people’s attitudes to family size and to increase the use of contraceptives among married women. As a result, fertility decreased from an average of more than 6 children per woman in 1975 to slightly more than 3 today.

One of the most powerful tools in stemming population growth will be education, says Mark Montgomery, an economics professor at Stony Brook University and a researcher at the Population Council. “We’ve seen some astonishing transitions, especially in the 1970s in what were then poor countries where fertility rates fell when levels of education went up.”

Studies conducted by Mr Lutz and his team support this. The researchers found that, on average, uneducated Malian women gave birth to almost 7 children. For the better-educated, the number was about four.

“Education leads to lower birth rates and slows population growth,” he says. “This makes it easier for countries to develop. A more-educated workforce also makes poverty eradication and economic growth easier to achieve.”

Of course, economic growth brings with it another problem: increased consumption. Combined with population growth, it adds pressure to the system. A global population living the lifestyle of the average American, for example, would require five times the resources we have available on Earth, according to the Global Footprint Network.

In addition to improvements in clean energy and energy efficiency, education will also play a role. “Many surveys show that environmental consciousness is linked to education,” says Mr Lutz . To that end, his organisation developed an online tool that provides policymakers with data and analyses to help them develop programmes that balance social, economic and environmental goals with demographic shifts.

With  3bn people—42% of today’s population—expected to join the middle class by 2030, this is a question that countries cannot avoid any longer, and education will help. For ultimately, as Mr Lutz concludes, “It’s not the headcount that matters, but what’s inside the head.”

 

This article is published in collaboration with GE LookAhead. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Sarah Murray is a specialist writer on business, society and the environment.

 Image: People walk across a street in Tokyo July 12, 2009. REUTERS/Stringer (JAPAN BUSINESS SOCIETY)