Progress may not be the first word that comes to mind for the world of 1981. Yet the economic ups and downs have been accompanied by the rise of attitudes that are profoundly encouraging for progress in the future.
Of central importance is a refreshed recognition that the progress of one nation or individual is bound up with the progress of all. The summit meetings at Ottawa and Cancun were only the most conspicuous signs. Beyond their disagreements on means and methods, they displayed the commitment to economic cooperation that is increasingly evident all around. Consider:
* Employers and employees cooperating in new ways to improve productivity and the quality of working life.
* Governments and industries cooperating for economic growth.
* Developing nations cooperating by taking the internal measures to make international aid more effective.
* Industrial nations cooperating both among themselves and with the developing nations.
* Even some measure of East-West economic cooperation serving the progress of humankind.
At the same time a new language of progress has been forming. Some developing nations have become ''newly industrializing countries'' (NICs). The wasteful throwaway society is giving way to the resource-careful ''sustainable society.'' The notion of ''transfer'' of wealth or technology from the industrial countries is at least starting to be varied by the concept of ''flow'' or exchange. One US company, for example, deals with technology from the third world. Wallowing in pessimism has been put down as ''doomsday chic,'' offset by brighter scholarly perspectives on resource availability and ways to sustain it.
In contrast with recession in industrial nations, the economies of the developing countries showed a ''remarkable'' resilience in 1980, according to World Bank calculations. From very preliminary indications, says the bank, the same seems true for 1981.
But the difficulties have to be confronted.
For every newly industrializing country with its exports, there is an industrial country feeling new competition. So far Japan is taking a lead in meeting the competition by joining them rather than licking them.
There remain severe problems of oil costs in third-world countries. Some exemplary programs of financing and alternative energy have been devised. But it was a clear and necessary step forward to accept energy as an item for discussion in the dialogue between North and South - between industrial and developing nations.
The challenge of poverty and hunger persists. Action must continue not only to produce enough food for an expanding population but to enable people to afford it.
The industrial economies have been having their own setbacks. They must be kept strong to play their role as markets and sources of aid for the developing world - even as they realize that their own markets and sources of supply depend on the progress of the developing world. As the world's leading economic power, the United States has a special responsibility on both these counts. For all the controversy over the Reagan administration's theories, it made 1981 a year in which the US was urgently committed to restoring its own economy and more committed to aiding others than at first appeared.
The price of lack of progress throughout the world, as many statesmen and diplomats have warned, could be grave political and military instability. This is where the goal of peace and the goal of progress connect. The challenge of 1982 is to build on the cooperative attitudes of 1981 and reject the divisive ones that could also be enumerated.