losing the “different worlds” talk

this post is an elaboration of my tweet on the nytimes’ op-ed, “the end of the developing world“, by Dayo Olopade. the essay is good and important. imbibe it. here’s a sip:

it’s tough to pick a satisfying replacement. talk of first, second and third worlds is passé, and it’s hard to bear the Dickensian awkwardness of “industrialized nations.” forget, too, the more recent jargon about the “global south” and “global north.” it makes little sense to counterpose poor countries with “the West” when many of the biggest economic success stories in the past few decades have come from the East.

all of these antiquated terms imply that any given country is “developing” toward something, and that there is only one way to get there.

it’s time that we start describing the world as “fat” or “lean.”

countries. “fat” or “lean” countries. or nation-states. or regions. but not worlds.

olopade rightly points out the passé-ness of “talk of first, second and third worlds”. but it isn’t just passé, it’s dangerous. we use these phrases – first and third world, developing world, industrialized world, arab world, muslim world – all the time. how can such common terms be dangerous?

because we’re all distinctly on the same planet. we’re in this thing together. i’ve ridden through it’s a small world, so i know.

one ride,

one endlessly repeating song,

one world.

as a reminder of the origins of the phrase (with an embedded implicit plea to stop using it), i quote at length from matthew connelly‘s fantastic fatal misconception. parentheses are page numbers in the book. emphases are mine.

In 1946, John Boyd Orr (a British authority on nutrition and first director-general of FAO [Food & Agriculture Organization]) had argued that population growth posed the choice of ‘one world or none.’  After the 1952 WHA [World Health Assembly], [Alfred] Sauvy [demographer, anthropologist, historian] proposed a new way of envisaging the globe… He argued that rather than one world, or even two, there were really three: the communist bloc, the capitalist West and what he called ‘the Third World.’ (Like the Third Estate of revolutionary France, the Third World was desperately poor and increasingly overcrowded.)

For Sauvy, ideological rivals East and West actually depended on each other because the conflict defined their identity. But as they continued along their paths two modernity, the distinctions between them would eventually disappear… The differences with the South were far more profound – for Sauvy, they inhabited a different universe. It was not the case, as American demographers optimistically assumed, that this Third World merely had to advance along some imagined continuum from tradition to modernity. According to Sauvy, ‘these countries have our mortality of 1914 and our natality of the 18th century.’ Saving lives was cheap but giving people something to live for was expensive (153).

“Do you not hear, on the Cote d’Azur, the cries of misery coming to us from the other side of the Mediterranean?” Sauvy asked. “The pressure is growing in the human furnace.” (154).

Equally significant was the metaphor Sauvy chose in describing how this Third World was emerging. He likened it to a “slow and irresistible push, humble and ferocious, towards life.” “Because,” Sauvy concluded, “in the end, this Third World, ignored, exploited and misunderstood like the Third Estate – it also wants to be something” (154).

Sauvy’s idea of three worlds – seemingly progressive in its critique of the Cold War and advocacy of development aid – was, in fact, deeply conservative. The whole point was to banish forever the though that there might be only one world, in which all humanity shared mutual obligations (154).


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