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To save the planet, first get an interpreter

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2002


THE bulletin boards set up around the conference center at the Word Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) are supposed to guide the 50,000 delegates to various events.

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But many here admit sheepishly even they don't "grok" the new polyglot.

"New findings on the AIJ – 10 a.m. at the Global People's Forum" reads one sign (AIJ is the 'Activities Implemented Jointly' – a system that lets big emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) offset their own emissions by, say, planting a forest in another country). "Annex I meeting now in Conference Room 4," screams out a second sign. ('Annex I' is a group of 36 countries that agreed to stabilize their CO2 emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.)

"It all sounds very interesting," says Salamina Molokoane, a youth delegate from South Africa. "Especially if you could understand it."

Welcome to the UN tower of eco-babble.

Every disciple has its code, or odd acronyms. Computer technicians talking shop can rarely be understood by their lawyer friends. Even so, the world of "sustainable development" showcased here in Johannesburg this week, is setting new standards for language impenetrability. Partly, argue experts, because many of the concepts being discussed at the summit are both relatively new and span multiple disciplines.

'Today's code word'

"And today's code word is: MSP," says the disc jockey on the local Johannesburg YFM radio station. "Give us a ring if you know what it means." (MSP, or Multi Stakeholder Process, is the dialogue which goes on between individuals or entities with an interest in sustainable development). The day before, the code word was WEHAB (Water, energy, health, agricultural biodiversity and sustainable ecosystem management – the main areas under discussion at the WSSD). Not one of the hundreds of callers got it right. "It's a European thing?" suggested one lady.

"No one talked of the environment before the 1960s," says Megan Howell, an expert on sustainable development at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. "And then, when they began talking – they discussed nature – rivers, trees and later, perhaps pollution and garbage dumps. Easy to understand stuff." The field, and its language, were transformed in the late 1980s, she says.

"That's when people began realizing these environmental things were not local issues, but rather global ones, and it became clear that if we wanted change, there would need to be an integrated, global approach. And that's also when the more broad language about partnerships and cross-discipline planning began seeping in."

The term "sustainable development" (defined officially as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs") made its debut in a 1987 UN report called "Our Common Future," written by the former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.