You and we and the rest of the world are close to one of those watersheds in human thought and action that can change all that comes afterward. It demands a fresh outlook on a subject that ordinarily prompts an eye-glazed good will and a quick return to seemingly more immediate matters. This subject is the development of those nations, including a majority of the planet's population, which have fallen behind in the advance toward providing human needs -- and which are projected in recent studies to fall farther behind unless present obstacles to their progress are reduced. The required new outlook includes two prominent strands:
* Economics. To take one detail, this is not a time for "limits to growth" but for limits to waste. In broader terms, there must be a recognition that the current haphazard international economy has to move away from the lingering historical inequities suffered by the poor nations. It must for the first time embrace a negotiated effort toward fairness of opportunity -- to export, to import, to obtain credit. A major step toward this goal could come with the special session on the international economy beginning at the United Nations next week.
* Insight. "To develop is to be or to become. Not only to have." This valuable underlying concept is offered on the eve of the UN meeting by K. K. S. Dadzie, UN director general for development and international economic cooperation. He points to the basically mental challenge of a problem whose solution involves the conquest of hunger, poverty, economic instability, unjust distribution of development's fruits:
"Development is the unfolding of people's individual and social imagination in defining goals and inventing ways to approach them. Development is the continuing process of the liberation of peoples and societies. There is development when they are able to assert their autonomy and, in self-reliance, to carry out activities of interet to them."
The distance to go before establishing the economic conditions for such development has been brought to international attention by a whole series of analyses and warnings -- from the Brandt commission, the present and former US secretaries of state, the West German foreign minister, the new US Global 2000 report, and the even newer World Bank development report out this week. The bank warns not only of political instability but of grave individual harship if present trends continue.
Almost at the same time comes Scientific American's September issue devoted to articles on development, from which Mr. Dadzie's words are drawn here. After describing the economic ins and outs of the situation he concludes with that heart of the matter beyond figures and charts: "The issues call for an international politics of human survival, based on broad public understanding and statesmanship suffused with vision and courage."
The vision and courage were there after World War II, and they can be found again. The world saw that the war-ravaged economies of Europe and Japan could be brought back when the means for strenuous self-help were provided. There was a brave feeling that the same could be true of other countries in need. The industrial countries provided 1 percent of their gross national product in foreign aid, and the beginnings of development catch-up occurred.
But the days of comparatively easy growth with cheap energy came to an end. So did the generosity of the better-off nations. Now they give an average of . 35 percent of GNP, with the once-leading United States falling even below that.
Suppose the developed regions were determined to reduce the now widening income gap between them and the resource-poor less-developed ones by 50 percent by the year 2000. It would take, among other things, foreign aid amounting to 3 .1 percent of GNP, according to economist Wassily Leontief, on the basis of detailed computer models of the world under various development scenarios. He sees the unlikelihood of such an increase. But he also sees ways of facilitating both increased aid to the developing countries and high consumption and investment in the developed countries whose trade interests are linked more and more with the developing world.
The most promising way in his eyes remains a reduction in the growth of the world's enormous military expenditures, something over $450 billion this year. Professor Leontief's models show that an international arms-limitation agreement could reallocate the globe's economic resources in a manner to serve the good of all.
Is the world ready to consider such options? This is where the watershed in thinking comes in. there has to be a new realization of the need for and achievement of security that cannot be bought in the old ways.