What do we do about population growth?

Tim Cockerill says we can raise the standard of living for the poorest through empowerment and education

According to recent research we become more optimistic as we get older which, I have to say, surprised me. It suggests the world is more optimistic today than at any time in history, with an average life expectancy globally now of 72.6 years – I wonder if this is a good thing?

Perhaps it makes us all a little too laisse faire about the future, but then if we all became more pessimistic as we aged the world would doubtless be much gloomier. Living longer has to be a good thing right, especially if we assume with age comes wisdom.  But living longer is also a problem, because by dying at an older age we are a part of the reason the world’s population has grown so much.

When I was born the global population was three billion, it’s now 7.8 billion, a huge increase in a short number of decades especially as I don’t consider myself that old!

How is the world to balance the needs of people whose numbers are going to continue to increase and the need to live sustainably?

See also: – The interconnected nature of all things

People need land, they need food and they want a standard of living beyond subsistence, they want a comfortable life. Population growth and economic development go through stages and populations do stabilise, but the world as a whole is a long way from this point. Development allows for life to improve and with this comes better health and lower mortality, especially in children, and in time the average family size falls.  

The rate of population growth has slowed in the last 60 years – globally the average family size has fallen from five children in the 1960s to 2.5 today.

Despite this the UN predicts a world population of between nine billlion and 12 billon in 2100 . One factor identified that could help slow population growth is education, especially of girls – the empowerment of women allows them to decide their futures; and providing them with the means to govern their own lives results in them having less children. This tends to go hand-in-hand with development and resources being made available and shared fairly. Microfinance can play a big role in making this happen; and it is often the women who take responsibility for finances in families.

See also: – Podcast: Regulation, green gilts and women’s economic empowerment

ESG investors and managers increasingly want to link their investments to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), highlighting how their capital is having a real impact in the world. The UN SDGs cover a wide range of issues both environmental and social and the empowerment of women is one – Goal No 5 Gender Equality – which is closely aligned with Goal No4 – Quality Education.

Investing capital with the aim of targeting these goals is not as easy as targeting environmental issues, where a product or service can be related directly to beneficial impacts for the environment. None the less these social issues are as important, and investors need to find ways to access them and incorporate them into their thinking and ultimately portfolios.

Studying social behaviour in the developing world to understand the aspirations of people and the how society is evolving is an exciting area that provides a radically different investment perspective. Thinking about affordable healthcare and seeking out businesses that work more holistically, rather than being driven purely by profit is starting to provide opportunities to invest more socially, whilst not compromising the potential for a financial return.

The many issues the world has to address are interlinked and challenging, but by raising the standard of living for the poorest, by sharing resources more fairly, by empowerment and education these issues can be tackled together.

As the UN prediction shows the world’s population is going to keep growing for a long while yet, but there are routes to keep growth to the lower bounds of the prediction and ensure sustainable living is made easier – thinking about investment through an SDG lens whilst challenging is important, and the need to tackle all the SDG goals urgent –  fortunately our ability to live sustainably is evolving quickly and we have the means to solve many of the challenges – consequently becoming more optimistic with age must be a good thing, every year should just get better and better, even if I am ultimately adding to the problem.       

Tim Cockerill is investment director, head of responsible and values based investing at Rowan Dartington, and an ESG Clarity editorial panellist.

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...