Promoting quality education for all.

Literacy and the Population Problem

July 29, 2011

Source: The New York Times

The world’s population is expected to pass seven billion in late October. A few weeks ago, I joined my colleague Celia Dugger in writing about worrisome new population projections from the United Nations. Instead of peaking in this century, as previously expected, the new projections suggested that the human population would continue growing all the way into the next century, probably topping out above 10 billion.

Whether the planet can support that many people, and in what living conditions, is a subject of continuing uncertainty.

In a special report in Friday’s issue of the journal Science, experts consider the implications of this continued population growth and other demographic shifts expected in coming decades. Some, but not all, elements of the package are available free at this link, including videos and a podcast discussing several of the new papers.

The article that most caught my eye was a review paper by demographers in Vienna. They confirmed previous research suggesting that the single biggest factor influencing population growth rates is the educational status of women. If one wants to slow the rapid population growth in developing countries, the thinking goes, the highest priority should be putting more girls in school.

Compared with illiterate young women, educated ones desire smaller families and generally manage to achieve that goal. The researchers are not saying that better access to family planning and contraception are unimportant — merely that these need to go hand-in-hand with improved education.

The paper offered the most convincing calculation I have seen of just how much the population curve could be bent by a more intensive global attack on the problem. If schools could be built and children educated at a rapid clip in all fast-growing countries, the global population in 2050 would hit 8.8 billion, the demographers projected.

Under a far more pessimistic scenario in which education lags, the population in that year would likely approach 10 billion, they found. “This implies that alternative education trajectories alone will already, over the next 40 years, make a difference in global population size that is bigger than the entire African population today, or three times the current U.S. population,” the article says.

Efforts are afoot to move both education and family planning higher on the global development agenda. The success or failure of those efforts may well influence the future living conditions of the planet.

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