To save the planet, first get an interpreter

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.

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.

"Industrial countries used to say, 'We need environment programs,' and developing nations would say, 'Who cares, get us some food,'" says Sir Richard Jolly, chairman of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council. "Then, with sustainable development we all began talking about how we can't solve environmental problems without narrowing the gaps between the rich and poor."

"There has been a gradual evolution over the past few decades of the linkage between the disciples of environment and socioeconomic development," says Nick Nuttle, spokesman for the United Nation's Environment Program (UNEP). "Today, no one questions the relationship. At Rio, the disciples were still flirting, or going out ... and now, at Johannesburg, they are married. It is up to us to come up with the right lingo to explain the relationship."

"It's like any new language – some words will eventually enter the general lexicon and some will die out," says Mr. Nuttle. "It's the survival of the fittest, and in eco-babble, the fittest will be those words that work, that fundamentally end up meaning something to us."

Nuttle admits that when he was told to go to a meeting about the "Vienna Process," (a consensus reached in Vienna in 1998 by the European conservation community on verifiable professional standards for conservator-restorers) the first thing that came to his mind was "something to do with a slice of cake."

Hossam Fahr has the unenviable job of not only coming to grips with all these new terms – but overseeing their translation into the UN's official six languages. As chief interpreter of the conference, Mr. Fahr is in charge of 78 interpreters who come to him with questions ranging from how does one say eco-efficiency in Arabic to what is a BNGO (a business nongovernmental organization, as distinct from an environmental NGO) in Chinese.

"We research how newly coined words come into being, and try to bring out that essence in the interpretation," he says. "Sometimes we need a whole lot of other words to get at the meaning of just one of these new code words."

Fahr encourages brainstorming among his staff – they sit around making up mini lists of suggested interpretations, and sometimes, when it gets too confusing, go home and sleep on it. "Language is by definition a living, evolving creature," he says, "And it develops by necessity. All these new words are being criticized today – but slowly, some, at least, will become part of regular life. We all use code words at the end of the day."

'Tall wet cap'?

Coffee break at the WSSD and a group of environmentalists from the US head to a trendy cafe nearby. "Give me a triple grande skinny latte," (a big, strong coffee with skimmed milk and froth) says one delegate, and begins shuffling through his WSSD papers on the ODA (Official Development Assistance, or government-funded aid by rich countries for poor ones.)

"I will have the tall wet cap," (a small cappuccino with extra steamed milk) says the next delegate.

"Coming up, with wings" – (to go) – says the Zulu woman behind the counter with a wink. "So, how's WEHAB?" she asks.

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