Interview: The role of education in the future of humanity

In the 21st century the major global divide runs between knowledge societies and those where access to education is hampered or denied, say population experts Reiner Klingholz and Wolfgang Lutz in a new book. In an interview with they explain what this means. 

Education empowers us to look beyond our own horizon and to consciously choose our lifestyle. Better qualified people are more involved in political decision making processes and foster democratization – this is what your book says. Does this mean in reverse that societies with limited education opportunities are, as a rule, less democratic?
Rainer Klingholz: From antiquity to medieval times, the uneducated masses were dominated by despotic elites. Wherever the first seeds of democracy were observed, for example in ancient Greece or Florence during the Renaissance, at least a certain part of the male population could write and read. They were in a better position to see what was going on and they strived for more influence in decision making. The more educated the population became, the more chance there was for democracy. In the modern world, we see a clear statistical association between the education of broad segments of society and a well-functioning democracy, although education is a precondition and not always a guarantee.

There are direct and indirect reasons why education is good for democracy. Education directly fosters the ability to obtain information, express one’s own opinions, engage oneself in discussions and look for compromise, all prerequisites for a lively democracy. Education works indirectly through economic development as it fosters prosperity, and such societies are in a better position to afford the ‘luxury’ of democracy. Even autocratically governed countries, such as Singapore and China, which have invested massively in education and achieved rapid economic growth, can also be seen as moving in the direction of democracy in a long term.

© Goinyk Volodymyr |

Singapore (home of the aquarium pictured here) and other Asian countries have invested heavily in education, with impressive results. © Goinyk Volodymyr |

You say that in a context of global competition countries with low educational standards have lower chances to succeed. Could these countries get out of misery by their own strength or does this problem require a global solution?
Wolfgang Lutz: Looking back in history, we see that many countries have made it without outside assistance. In our book we describe the example of Finland, which was one of the poorest regions of Europe before 1900 and later due to massive educational efforts became not only a winner of PISA test but also one of the most innovative industrial countries. Or, let’s look at Mauritius, which as recently as the 1960s presented a textbook example of a country trapped in the vicious cycle of poverty, population growth, and destruction of the environment. Today, thanks to an early boost in education that was followed by fertility decline and economic growth, it is the most successful country in Africa. Similarly, the rise of the “Asian Tigers” has been induced by massive investment of their own modest means into basic education of the broad layers of population.

In many other countries, mostly in Africa and in South and West Asia, this did not happen.  As a consequence, there is still widespread poverty and birth rates have remained high, causing continued rapid population growth and difficulties in finding solutions for existing problems. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that dissatisfaction results in conflicts which in turn trigger streams of refugees. There are of cause many other reasons for this but lack of education is a root cause.

The most important factor behind decreasing fertility rates is female education. If women complete at least secondary school, they have substantially fewer children, they and their offspring are much healthier, and they become more independent from their husbands, as they are better informed and can obtain their own income. Education is the best and most effective development aid. In order to make this happen, the least developed countries need urgent help from outside. The world cannot wait decades for these countries to later possibly make it on their own. By that time, their population may have multiplied by a factor of 3-5, resulting in higher poverty and possible conflicts. There is good reason why there has been compulsory education and a right to education for all children until the age of 16 for a long time in all developed countries. This must apply equally to all children of the world.

Just a small portion of total development aid expenditures goes into education. Have we still not recognized the problem?
Reiner Klingholz: We have, on paper. The new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations postulate exactly this. The problem is that these ambitious education goals are not being implemented. Only 2 to 4 percent of global development aid goes into basic education; this makes it impossible for all children to complete primary school and even less secondary school. Most of the development money goes into big infrastructure projects that satisfy local potentates and promote corruption and exports from the donor countries. Building of a rural school, or education of teachers, in Mali or Pakistan are not attractive in that sense. Since educational efforts only become noticeable in 10-20 years, it is much more attractive for a current president to build a new highway. Despite or perhaps because of this, we point out that investment in basic education is the most important investment for enhancing the ability of people and countries to help themselves and it therefore should become an absolute priority in international development.

In some Arab or African countries there is a youth bulge without adequate occupation or place in the society. What are the long-term consequences of this?
Wolfgang Lutz: The main problem of these countries is that the population grows faster than opportunities are being created, especially job opportunities. Many young people do not see prospects for their lives and at the same time they see through TV or internet that elsewhere people are much better off. Under such conditions, young men in particular have a tendency to become radicalized, or fall victim to religious zealots, who tell that people of different religions are the enemies. This mixture leads to a clash between education cultures that we describe in the book.

Students outside a school in Rwanda © Alangignoux |

Who or what impedes education in countries like Pakistan, Egypt, or in Western Africa?
Rainer Klingholz: Until the middle of 20th century, most of those countries were pawns in the hands of colonial powers that did not invest in broad education. They were afraid of a population empowered through mass education. In the majority of these countries with independence, authoritarian governments came to power who pursued the same goal: they wanted to stay in power surrounded by small educated elites and had no intention of empowering their citizens through education. Fortunately, in many of the countries the situation has improved in recent years and younger generations are now better educated than the older ones. But there is a real threat from fundamentalist religious or terroristic groups, such as IS or Boko Haram, that actively fight against modern education. They want to stop the teaching of natural sciences and instead have boys memorize the holy scriptures and exclude the girls from education altogether

What does Martin Luther have to do with your book?
Wolfgang Lutz: Martin Luther was the first person in history who actively and successfully fought for the basic education of all, including girls and the poorest farmers. He wanted every individual to find his/her own way to salvation through being able to read the Bible. To achieve this, Luther had to translate the Bible into a language that people understood. But most of all, he had to do something to enable all people to read themselves. This focus on universal literacy was new in world history and went further than e.g. the rather elitist humanists had gone.

Interestingly, we see today that the protestant countries that first implemented those educational reforms in the course of the next decades and centuries became more economically successful as a consequence. The rise of the Netherlands and Great Britain, the industrial revolution, and the later success of the United States, the improvement of living conditions and declining death rates—all this had as a necessary precondition  the education of broad segments of the  population that ultimately goes back to the Reformation. Luther himself did not have long-term social and economic consequences in mind. Coming from a medieval culture he personally would have been probably unsettled by the following developments towards modernity.

In your book “Who survives?” you describe different scenarios of the future of humanity to the end of the 21st century depending on investments in education in the near future. Can we only survive current and future crises if we indeed prioritize education?
Rainer Klingholz: At the beginning of the 21st century, humanity faces the biggest challenges in its history. It has to abolish poverty, stop population growth, combat climate change, and sustain peace in a world which at the moment may seem to be falling apart. These problems require the best possible brain power and the empowerment through education of everybody. The alternatives to education are high population growth in the poor countries where uneducated women have much higher birth rates together with many other development problems, which likely result in chaos and possibly conflict.

Wolfgang Lutz: The problem is that education needs time to show its positive effects. We have to wait until children come out of school and become active adults. Education is hence not a quick solution to any of the urgent problems that fill today’s newspapers. But in a long run, there are no alternatives to universal education.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Why education should top the development agenda

By Wolfgang Lutz, IIASA World Population Program Director and Founding Director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (Originally published on the World Economic Forum Agenda Blog.)


Wolfgang Lutz

Few people would dispute the importance of education in our lives and those of our children. For good reasons, in virtually all industrialized countries, education is compulsory for everybody for at least 10 years.

In developing countries, however, 780 million women and men remain illiterate. Moreover, about 60 million children of school age are not at school.

Yet instead of making a concerted global effort to bring all children to school, less than 4% of official development assistance funds basic education. Over the past seven years, UNESCO and UNICEF report a decline in basic education.

Many think education is an aspect of social development that comes as a by-product of economic growth. This is wrong. Education is an absolutely necessary precondition of economic development.

Bill Clinton’s famous mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, may be a useful slogan for an election campaign, but it is misleading in setting the priorities for sustainable development. It’s not primarily the economy, nor money, that makes the world go round and determines progress in human well-being. Much more important than the content of people’s wallets is the content in their heads. And what is in our heads is formed and enhanced by education which, in turn, helps fill the wallets, improves health, improves society and the quality of institutions, strengthens resilience at all levels and even makes people happier.

I could discuss the ample scientific statistical analysis to prove the transformative role of education in development. But more convincing may be historical success stories.

Finland was one of the poorest corners of Europe in the late 19th century. In 1868-1869 it suffered the last great famine in Europe not induced by political events. Almost half of the children died in this hopelessly underdeveloped and poorly educated economy based on subsistence agriculture.

After that tragedy, the Lutheran Church, supported by the government, launched a radical education campaign: young people could marry only after they passed a literacy test. The number of elementary school teachers increased by a factor of 10 over just three decades and by the beginning of the 20th century all young men and women in Finland had basic education. In 1906 Finland was the first country in Europe to grant women the right to vote and the subsequent economic development, based primarily on human capital, made Finland one of the world’s leaders in technology, innovation and, as a result, competitiveness.

In the early 1960s, Mauritius was a textbook case of a country stuck in the vicious circle of high-population growth, poverty and environmental destruction. Following the advice of scientists such as James Meade, the government launched a (strictly voluntary) family planning programme together with a huge push on female education. This led to rapid fertility decline plus economic growth, first through the textile industry based on semi-skilled female workers, then in upmarket tourism and more recently in banking and high-tech information technology. Mauritius is the only such success story in sub-Saharan Africa. The country managed to escape the vicious circle of poverty and underdevelopment through investment in human capital.

© Nafise Motlaq / World Bank

University students in Malaysia. © Nafise Motlaq / World Bank

Japan, Singapore, South Korea and finally China have similar stories but the timing is different. The Chinese experience shows that such success is not confined to remote and tiny island or city states. The highly elitist appreciation of education in Confucian tradition became transformative for the country once it was combined with the (originally) protestant approach of a broad-based education. Again, these countries built their stunning success stories primarily on improvements in human capital and without significant raw materials or international assistance. Economic growth followed the education expansion.

There is little doubt about the cause and effect between education and human well-being. Neurological research shows that every learning experience builds new synapses making our brains physiologically different for the rest of our lives. Education expands the personal planning horizon and leads to more rational decisions and less fatalism. It clearly empowers people to access more information, contextualize it and make conclusions that are more conducive to personal and societal well-being.

Well educated people are better at adopting good habits such as physical exercise, safe sex or quitting smoking. Education has many other effects on health from lowering child mortality to postponing disability and cognitive decline in old age, besides the commonly cited effects on income and employment. There is even the surprising finding that education makes people happier despite the fact of making them more aware of potential problems. Unsurprisingly, universal education reduces vulnerability to natural disasters and helps people adapt to climate change.

About a decade ago, I discussed some of this evidence with the Nobel laureate Gary Becker. He said: “Well, when I think about it, I cannot think of anything for which I rather would be less educated than more educated.”

Now we need to educate the economists and policy-makers to make it a much higher priority in the development agenda.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Interview: Population characteristics and the climate

IIASA demographer Erich Striessnig talks about new research linking population change with climate change scenarios.

What does your research say about population and climate?
In our recent review article published in the journal Population Studies, we give a summary of much of the work that has been carried out over the past few years both at IIASA and at the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital (IIASA, VID/ÖAW; WU) on the contribution of changes in population size and structures to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as societies’ capacity to adapt to climate change. Similar to Mia Landauer in last week’s blog entry, we emphasize the importance of addressing challenges to mitigation and adaptation jointly.

What’s new or unexpected in this study?
The main novelty behind our approach is the explicit inclusion of the full population detail by age, sex, and educational attainment in assessments of societies’ future adaptive and mitigation potential. This is exemplified in the context of IPCC-related climate change modelling which until recently has included only very limited information on the future of population. The new Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), which were developed with a huge contribution by IIASA, are an important step to overcoming this situation and to make models of both future greenhouse gas emissions, as well as vulnerability and adaptive capacity with respect to climate change far more realistic.

Population characteristics - not just size - make a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions as well as people's ability to adapt to a changing climate. ©Chris Ford via Flickr

Population characteristics – not just numbers – make a major impact on greenhouse gas emissions as well as people’s ability to adapt to a changing climate. ©Chris Ford via Flickr

Why is it important to consider the composition of population in regards to future climate change issues?
When thinking about the challenges of the future, it is important also to think about the capabilities that future societies will have to face them. I don’t mean that we should simply lean back and wait for science-fictional future technologies to solve all the problems of humanity, but a look at the changing future composition of populations around the world gives reason for optimism that future societies will be better at preparing, coping, and dealing with the consequences of yet unavoidable climate change than we are today.

What are the links between education and climate change?
Particularly in the developing world, education leads to reduced poverty. But economic growth and the resulting greater affluence, and consumption, also increases global CO2 emissions. So on a first look, education appears to worsen climate change. This has made some environmental activists skeptical about the value of education in the context of mitigation. But to avoid playing poverty eradication and well-being against climate change mitigation, it is necessary to look at behavioral differences at given levels of income. In fact, better education has been shown to be related to more eco-friendly consumption behavior, especially when it comes to home energy use and transportation, two of the main drivers of climate change. In addition to that, education has also been a major driver of technological advancements in the transition to cleaner energy sources.

Research shows that people's education levels also play a role in how adaptable they are to potential climate-related impacts such as storms and floods. ©Aldrich Lim via Flickr

Research shows that people’s education levels also play a role in how adaptable they are to potential climate-related impacts such as storms and floods. ©Aldrich Lim via Flickr

How do the new SSPs bring demography into the study of climate change?
Population growth is undoubtedly one of the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and thus climate change. What’s far less acknowledged is the importance of differential climate impact depending on demographic characteristics. Groundbreaking work by researchers from IIASA and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) featured in the article has shown that people have different footprints when they are young than when they are old and that household consumption differs between rural and urban dwellers. Providing different scenarios for the future composition of populations by age, sex, and educational attainment, the new SSPs for the first time allow researchers from different fields to study the dynamics between population and climate change within a common reference frame.

Lutz W, Striessnig E (2015) Demographic aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Population Studies: A Journal of Demography, 69(S1):S69-S76 (April 2015). doi: 10.1080/00324728.2014.969929

O’Neill, Brian C., Michael Dalton, Regina Fuchs, Leiwen Jiang, Shonali Pachauri, and Katarina Zigova. “Global Demographic Trends and Future Carbon Emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107 (October 2010): 17521–26. doi:10.1073/pnas.1004581107.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

9 billion or 11 billion? The research behind new population projections

By: Wolfgang Lutz, Bill Butz, Samir KC, Warren Sanderson, and Sergei Scherbov: IIASA World Population Program

Demographers from the United Nations Population Division and several universities published a paper in Science last week that argues the world population is unlikely to stop growing this century. They calculate that there is an 80% probability that world population, now 7.2 billion, will increase to between 9.6 and 12.3 billion in 2100, with the median at 10.9 billion.

Different projections for future fertility rates in countries such as China and Nigeria are one major reason for the difference in projections between IIASA and the UN. Photo Credit: Evgeni Zotov via Flickr

Different projections for future fertility rates in countries such as China and Nigeria are one major reason for the difference in projections between IIASA and the UN. Photo Credit: Evgeni Zotov via Flickr

Next month, we will announce the results of our newest assessment at the launch of a new book entitled: “World Population and Global Human Capital in the 21st Century” (Lutz, Butz and KC, Oxford University Press 2014). Contrary to the UN projections, the IIASA medium (most likely) scenario indicates that world population will increase to 9.2 billion by 2050, peak at 9.4 billion around 2070 and start a slow decline to 9.0 billion by the end of the century.

The new UN paper uses a probabilistic approach to global population projections providing quantitative uncertainty ranges.  Such an approach was first developed at IIASA. In a 1997 Nature article, IIASA used probabilistic methods to indicate that the doubling of world population was unlikely. And in a 2001 Nature article, IIASA demographers projected that there was an 85% chance that the world’s population would stop growing this century.

The UN and IIASA population projections use very different approaches for defining the assumptions underlying future fertility and mortality trajectories. The new IIASA projections are based on the substantive input of more than 550 experts worldwide who were invited to evaluate in a peer review manner a set of alternative scientific arguments bearing directly on the future demographic trajectories. This was done through an online survey as well as a series of meetings on five continents. The resulting state of our knowledge and substantive reasoning is documented in over 500 pages in the OUP book.

Alternatively, the UN population projections have recently moved away from their earlier expert-based assumptions to the other extreme: Their new probabilistic population projections reflect expert judgment only in the design of a specific statistical model which then is applied to national time series of 60 years (1950-2010) to extrapolate 90 years (2010-2100) into the future. There is no room for country-specific expert knowledge or for substantive considerations.

IIASA population projections explicitly include education, which is one factor that leads to lower fertility rates and lower projections by IIASA compared to the UN. Source: Wittgenstein Centre Data Explorer

There are two other factors explaining the difference: One is that IIASA now systematically adds a differentiation by level of education in addition to the conventional age and sex to its population projections, as education significantly influences fertility rates (Policy Brief: Rethinking population policies). Once this important source of population heterogeneity is explicitly taken into account the future looks different. In the example of Nigeria, the UN projects an increase from 160 million in 2010 to 914 million in 2100 while IIASA projects only 576 million. The IIASA projections do consider the fact that recently Nigeria has made significant progress in girls education, such that today half of the women aged 20-24 already have secondary education, while among women aged 40-44 the percentage is only 25 percent. And since more educated women consistently have lower fertility, future fertility is likely to decline as the more educated girls enter reproductive age. Disregarding this important structural change leads to higher projections of future fertility.

Another difference lies in the reading of the current fertility levels in Africa as well as in China. The UN assumes that fertility in Nigeria has been stagnant at 6 children per woman for the past decade and for this reason their purely statistical model results in very slow future decline. However, the most recent Demographic and Health Survey (DHS 2013) for Nigeria shows that fertility has already declined to 5.5—a level the UN assumes would only be reached by 2020-25.

The same is true for other African countries such as Mali where the DHS shows fertility has already fallen to 6.1 a value that according to the UN projections would only be reached in 2025-30. For China, currently still the world’s biggest country, the UN assumes that fertility stands at 1.66 and will not decline further but rather increase in the future. Based on expert reasoning the IIASA projections assume that fertility in 2010 was around 1.5 and will decline to 1.4 in the coming decades, following the patterns of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong which are currently in the 1.0 – 1.4 range.

Population pyramids for Nigeria show IIASA’s projected population and education levels for 2010 and 2050. Source: Wittgenstein Centre Data Explorer


Lutz W, Butz W, and KC S, eds. 2014 World Population and Global Human Capital in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press 2014.

Patrick Gerland, Adrian E. Raftery, Hana Ševčíková, Nan Li, Danan Gu, Thomas Spoorenberg, Leontine Alkema, Bailey K. Fosdick, Jennifer Chunn, Nevena Lalic, Guiomar Bay, Thomas Buettner, Gerhard K. Heilig, and John Wilmoth. 2014. World population stabilization unlikely this century. Science 1257469 [DOI:10.1126/science.1257469]

Lutz W, Sanderson WC, Scherbov S. 1997. Doubling of world population unlikely. Nature, 387(6635):803-805 (19 June 1997)

Lutz W, Sanderson WC, Scherbov S. 2001. The end of world population growth. Nature, 412(6846):543-545 (2 August 2001)

Wolfgang Lutz. 2014. A Population Policy Rationale for the Twenty-First Century. Population and Development Review. doi:10.1111/j.1728-4457.2014.00696.x

The future of social change

By Anne Goujon, IIASA World Population Program and Vienna Institute of Demography

How will societies develop in the future? And what environmental, economic, and social factors will influence these changes? Can these problems be analyzed in a scientific way? And if so, what tools should we use? On 13 June, I took part in a workshop for a project aimed at answering these questions.

This was the second workshop organized by the Forward Looking Analysis of Grand Societal Challenges and Innovative Policies (FLAGSHIP) project, supported by the European Commission under FP7 and aiming at developing new policies to help solve major social problems.

The workshop took place in Nanterre, France.

The workshop took place in Nanterre, France. Photo Credit: Bladsurb via Flickr

I participated in a round table where we discussed how to find tools for forward-looking analysis and how to develop and integrate them to analyze societal change. This implies the integration of different models (economic, territorial, environmental), which can be very challenging. It can be difficult to avoid overlaps between models, and also to account for possible feedback effects between different factors. We discussed how to choose between two overlapping outputs such as two different GDP projections produced by environmental and economic models. Shall we try to validate the models historically by checking which model is best able to reconstruct the past? A nice idea, but most researchers agreed it would be too time and data-intensive to be practical. Another alternative, much less rigorous but easier to implement, would be to compare the results of the two models and decide which one is the best among the FLAGSHIP team. But according to which criteria? The last alternative would be to decide upfront which model should provide which outcome. It is almost a philosophical decision to be made as none is right or wrong.

Innovation seems to be at the core of all models for the future of Europe, encapsulating more than Information and Communication Technologies and Research and Development, but also incorporating other components such organizational capital – the share of a firm at management level. At the moment, FLAGSHIP is envisaging two storylines for the future—namely socio-ecological transition and global growth—which are actually not very far from some of the Shared Socioeconomic Pathway (SSP) scenarios developed by IIASA and others for the 5th assessment of the IPCC . Another IIASA researcher, Samir K.C. presented these scenarios at the meeting as an invited expert.

In a 2011 Science article, IIASA researchers Wolfgang Lutz and Samir KC showed the importance of population heterogeneity, specifically related to age, sex, and level of education, whenever population is an important driver of change. At the workshop, KC talked about the steps involved in the process of developing global demographic and human capital scenarios for the SSPs, with an emphasis on the importance of dialogue, discussion, and interactive iteration between the demographers and the user community in shaping the quality of the product. He recommended more consultation between the demographers and other experts in the FLAGSHIP project to produce consistent and meaningful demographic narratives. He also argued that existing scenarios such as SSPs should be explored and might be useful with some alterations.

Since the project looks at the next 50 years, rather short-term from a demographic point of view, population will possibly enter the whole model with just one scenario.

More information
FLAGSHIP Project 2nd Workshop
EU FLAGSHIP Project Web site