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The world population growth is estimated to reach its peak in about 80 years.

Learning & teaching

Education has a big role in achieving a sustainable world population

Authors: Tuomas MacGilleon Published:

The world population growth is estimated to reach its peak in about 80 years.

Thanks to mainly education, the global fertility rate has decreased at a remarkable pace for decades. However, there is another challenge that adult education can rise to. It’s not only about how many we are, but how we live.

There is more than 7.7 billion of us – over 7,700 000 000 people – who live on this planet.

It is a staggering number, and the size of it hard to grasp. Even more overwhelming is how quickly we have become so many.

In 1800, the world population was under one billion people.

In 1900, it was only 1.65 billion people.

But already in 1960, my parents were among the three billion people going about their daily lives in the world.

And when I was born in 1983, there were roughly 4.5 billion of us.

According to the United Nations World Population Prospects report, the world population in 2050 is expected to be 9.7 billion people – which is a whopping two billion more than today.

This means that the human race will need just about 10 generations to tenfold since the industrial revolution.

Straining the already strained planet

Overpopulation is a significant global problem for obvious reasons.

People need food, water and land to live on. Clothes and homes. Energy to heat their homes with.

They also want lots of other things which are necessary, useful or just nice to have.

More people means more consumption of the natural resources which are already becoming scarce, as well as an increased amount of pollution and waste.

It is clear that this is not good. Not for us people, nor for any other species living on the same planet.

After the rather gloomy introduction to the subject, it is time to announce some good news: it looks like the rapid expansion of the human race is going to reach its peak.


To give you a simple answer: because the world has become a better place, at least from a human perspective.

The change is already on its way

According to the UN report, the population growth is going to slow down and then stop. At the end of the century we should have reached the peak, which is about 11 billion people.

This is because the global fertility rate has decreased at a remarkable pace for decades.

Famous for shooting down common misconceptions with statistical facts, the Swedish Professor of International Healthcare Hans Rosling pointed out in his posthumously published book Factfulness (2018) that the fall of the global fertility rate is a mind-boggling and unprecedented turn in the history of the human race.

In 1965, the average number of children for each woman was five, and it had been roughly as much since 1800.

However, in 2019, the average number of children for each woman is 2.5. That is globally, mind you.

Rosling names a few key reasons behind this remarkable change.

First of all, fewer people live in extreme poverty now than before (about 9 per cent in 2017 as opposed to 50 per cent in 1966).

The other big change has happened in education.

92 per cent of boys of primary school age attend school. And thanks to the efforts made to improve women’s education, the same can be said for 90 per cent of girls.

Education, income and health are interlinked.

Most parents in most countries no longer need to be prepared for children dying at an early age or doing physical work to bring food to the table. As a result, they want smaller families.

And with the development and availability of contraception, this has become possible in practice.

Rosling concludes that contrary to what many of us may believe, the number of children is dependent on the income level of the family instead of any other factors, such as culture or religion.

Education is essential to keep up the trend

As Hans Rosling noted, we are already pretty well educated and much wealthier than before. This is good, of course, but there is more progress to be made.

Almost 10 per cent of people still live in extreme poverty. And almost 10 per cent of children do not attend school. The population growth is the fastest in the countries which are the poorest.

According to the UN report, the rapid population growth is going to continue for quite a while, especially in parts of Africa and Asia. For example, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is expected to double by 2050.

These are the places where most of the educational efforts are needed. Success would mean reaching the world population peak much before 11 billion people.

But also in Europe, policy makers and people working within the education sector can prepare for the changes we know are going to happen here.

Adult education, migration and climate change

Birth rates in many European countries are among the lowest in the world, and the population is actually reducing in several countries. At the same time these populations are ageing.

As the UN states: the falling proportion of working-age population is putting pressure on social protection systems.

In other words: these countries need to either get more taxpayers or find an alternative way to finance pensions and other benefits.

Because of the imbalance of global population, the migration of working-age people into Europe is likely to continue.

Adult education providers are integrating migrants in many countries already today. The need for language courses, cultural knowledge and filling in various learning gaps is going to increase in the future.

However, there is another challenge that adult education can rise to.

It’s not only about how many we are, but how we live.

Young people are very conscious about climate change, and many of them have accepted the fact that we have to make significant reductions to our carbon footprint.

This knowledge should also reach the older generations, and this is a golden opportunity for adult education providers throughout Europe.

Individual choices are not going to stop climate change. But when a large number of individuals wake up and take action towards a more sustainable lifestyle, there is enough political pressure to make big changes happen.

This is necessary. Because with our current way of life, we are already too many.

How can adult education in Europe have an impact on global overpopulation? Continue reading what an adult education expert says about the matter.

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Tuomas MacGilleon is a freelance journalist based in Tampere, Finland. Interested in science and how it affects our everyday lives. Contact: Show all articles by Tuomas MacGilleon
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