I visited Boston last weekend and attended (amongst other events) a small reunion of the Experimental Study Group, my old haunt at school. I had the same conversation with nearly everyone: "What's your PhD program going to be in?" followed by, "So, what's Sustainable Development?"
I usually said that sustainable development was like international development, but done sustainably. In other words, it was about identify the problems of poor, developing countries, and helping them improve both themselves and their environment. The vision goes much deeper than that, but our words for talking about it are broken.
A few weeks ago, the Economist had an article about Antoine van Agtmael, the guy who coined the term "emerging markets" (Schumpeter, "An emerging challenge"). The first paragraph suggested that it wanted to question Mr. van Agtmael's understanding of the developing world. The last sentence revisited that criticism, and everything in between was a somewhat fawning discussion of the coining of terms for the developing world. "The third world" connoted people wallowing in soviet mud; "the developing world" suggests the heavy role of government and policy-making by developed countries, which is always distasteful to economists. And so, "the emerging market" was born.
The article missed the most important problem with these phrases. Terms like "emerging" and "developing" suggest that other countries are like unformed clay, which a benevolent hand of state or capital can help form into a new people. We need to recognize that the clay has been cast, as people with bent backs, disrespected traditions, and savaged land. These are the worlds that Colonialism has wrought, through war and manipulation. Our words for describing poor countries entirely shy away from the actual problems of these countries: their people are poor, their societies are unjust, and their environment is in ruin.
I am not going into sustainable development. I am learning International Revitalization. Revitalization is more than a set of tactics. It's a worldview that includes major changes in both rich and poor countries. It calls for a world where international cooperation is pervasive, diversity is cherished, and our decisions are based on long-term and eco-centric goals. International Revitalization is about taking the modest steps needed to eliminate world hunger, protect habitats, and secure family planning. We have the answers; now we can all be revitalists to make this a world we can be proud of.