20 June 2017

Education and health are priorities in sustainable development

A clear priority focus on human capital—health and education—together with maintaining functioning environmental services offer a vision for an achievable and sustainable future, argues Wolfgang Lutz in his PNAS Inaugural Article.

Monument of Martin Luther on the Town Square of Eisleben, Germany © dugdax / shutterstock

Monument of Martin Luther on the Town Square of Eisleben, Germany © dugdax / shutterstock

Since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) together with 169 more specific targets were agreed upon by the international community in 2015, there have been concerns about priority setting for how to reach the best overall outcomes.

In a new article published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, IIASA World Population Program Director Wolfgang Lutz argues that a successful global transition to sustainability will require an urgent emphasis on two core priorities that underlie and facilitate the achievement of all other goals: sola schola et sanitate – only education and health. With sola schola et sanitate, Lutz draws on Martin Luther’s sola principles – only scripture, only faith, and only grace – which describe the essence of the Reformation which started exactly five hundred years ago.

Research has shown that basic education and basic health are essential prerequisites for ending poverty and hunger, for improving institutions and social participation, for voluntary fertility declines and ending world population growth, for changing behavior and adoption of new and clean technologies, and for enhancing adaptive capacity to ineluctable climate change. 

For many years, Lutz has analyzed populations by age, sex, and educational attainment at IIASA, and has come to the conclusion that the cognitive empowerment, abstract thinking and longer time horizons associated education is the essential ingredient to enable human development and a sustainable future. In a recent paper, Lutz and colleagues from IIASA and the Asian Demographic Research Institute in Shanghai also show that there are effects from the SDGs on future population growth. Advances in female education and reproductive health can contribute greatly to reducing population growth in Africa, thus making it more possible to achieve all of the SDGs.

Lutz argues that wellbeing will increasingly be based on health, continued mental stimulation, and consumption of cultural products, rather than fossil fuels and materials. Technological innovation will continue to make a difference, and continued education will not only enhance innovative capacity but also the awareness and willingness of populations to turn towards more environmental friendly behavior. All SDGs require changes in human behavior one way or another which need to happen in the human brains. Hence, hence a priority focus needs to be put on brain power, the zero-emissions energy for sustainable development.

Since January 2017 Lutz is appointed member of the UN “Group of 15 Independent Scientists,” charged with monitoring the implementation of the SDGs and drafting the quadrennial Global Sustainable Development Report 2019. 


Lutz W (2017). Global Sustainable Development priorities 500 y after Luther: Sola schola et sanitate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences xx (xx): xx-xx. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1702609114

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Last edited: 20 June 2017


Wolfgang Lutz

Program Director

World Population

T +43(0) 2236 807 294

PNAS Interview with Wolfgang Lutz

IIASA Human Capital Projections


Reiter C, Özdemir C, Yildiz D, Goujon A , Guimaraes R , & Lutz W (2020). The Demography of Skills-Adjusted Human Capital. IIASA Working Paper. Laxenburg, Austria: WP-20-006

Reiter C & Lutz W (2020). Survival and Years of Good Life in Finland in the very long run. Finnish Yearbook of Population Research 54: 1-27. DOI:10.23979/fypr.87148.

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