How many is too many?

Rapidly rising populations will soon cripple impoverished nations and destroy the environment

Even as you read this, the world population clock is ticking.

China has approximately 1.356 billion people. India has 1.235 billion. And the next eight most populous countries have 1.583 billion combined. Since 1970 the world population has doubled. It's currently over seven billion people, and this is expected to reach a momentous eight billion before 2025.

But can the planet cope? When we decide that enough is enough, whose responsibility is it to act?

Of our seven billion people, 48% live on less than $US2 a day. Sixteen per cent are either undernourished or starving and 17% are illiterate. But are the rest of us becoming too complacent in our comfortable world to be worried about the have-nots?

World Population Day was established in 1987 and is observed every year on 11 July. Its object is to draw attention to the issues of family planning, access to contraception (especially in the developing world) and the social and environmental impacts of over-population.

But does it really affect those of us living with full bellies, in comfortable housing with clean water and a choice of educational options? You bet it does. Especially if you're under 25. Your generation will really have to deal with the problem.

Development agencies and demographers warn that rapidly rising populations will soon cripple impoverished nations and destroy the environment. If we don't stabilize the population, we risk catastrophe for all. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) we're already living well beyond the sustainability of the world's environment. At the rate we're going, we'll soon need two earths to sustain ourselves.

Managing our ecological footprint and taking our environmental responsibilities seriously has been embedded in the culture of TAFE NSW for many years. This is demonstrated with more than just the growing number of environment and sustainability courses on offer. We also walk the walk… for example, North Coast Institute has almost halved its energy usage per square metre in just over a decade and almost tripled the percentage of students enrolled in at least one green skills unit over a four-year period (2008 - 2012).

But at the same time in many other parts of the world, natural resources are still being pushed to the limit. Global carbon dioxide levels have increased to over 400 parts per million and more people are experiencing water scarcity or wild unpredictable weather.

The news isn't all bad, however. Optimists say that as developing countries like India improve their living standards, women's fertility rates are falling. Often this is achieved through education. Research has consistently shown that educated women tend to choose smaller families.

This is something TAFE NSW has been fully aware of for a long time. Across the organisation we offer student services designed specifically to help women, especially mothers, meet their education needs. The first on-campus childcare centre opened almost 30 years ago (at South Western Sydney Institute's Granville College). Parent-friendly, accessible education makes it easier for mothers to up-skill and change careers, expanding their educational options.

Even in Africa, United Nations experts predict average fertility to drop to around 2.1 children per woman. In some countries like Japan, Italy, Russia and China, birth rates have already fallen well below replacement levels.

Growth rates are actually falling, even though gross population figures are rising. The latest United Nations projections indicate that world population will virtually stabilize at just above 10 billion people after 2062.

But will this satisfy the world's economists? Traditionally addicted to the notion of economic growth, can they be content with a levelling out (or reduction) in economic growth in favour of a better standard of living for more of the world's people?

Perhaps we should ditch today's economists, bankers and politicians as our leaders and replace them with tomorrow's biologists, philosophers and social scientists. After all, it's about quality, not quantity.