The Irrelevance Of Davos

Did Davos Meeting Peak In 1973?

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In 1971, a non-government organisation, called the European Management Forum brought together 450 participants from 31 countries to the first ever meeting in Davos. Most of us know this NGO by its current name, the World Economic Forum, the name change happening in 1987.

It wasn’t that long ago that the WEF’s stated mission was improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas”.  The WEF’s mission statement has subtly changed and now says, “engages the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas”.

While the “improving the state of the world” can be found throughout the WEFs presentations and reports it seems like it is no longer a formal part of its mission. Could this be because “peak” Davos was attained in 1973? This was the year that Aurelio Peccei, the Italian industrialist, philanthropist and co-founder of the Club of Rome, delivered a speech on the 1972 report “The Limits to Growth”, which had been commissioned by the Club of Rome.

The Club of Rome was founded just a few years earlier in 1968, by Aurelio Peccei and Alexander King, a British chemist, who was at the time the Director-General for Scientific Affairs at the OECD. It was one of the first institutions to voice concerns about the impact on the environment of unprecedented economic growth in the 20th century.

As early as 1972, The Limits to Growth report called into question the sustainability of global economic growth. It wasn’t what global corporations or governments wanted to hear.  The WEF and Davos may not have happened at all but for the fact that from the 1970s the Club of Rome attracted substantial criticism, unsurprisingly from those who wanted continuous growth. Put simply, did the World Economic Forum simply conform to the constant economic growth model, assuring its acceptance. Corporations and governments were certainly worried about what the Club of Rome could undermine.

Was the 1973 Davos meeting, when Peccei discussed the choices that society had to make to reconcile economic development and environmental constraints, the fork in the road? Since then, growth has gone on unchecked and unconstrained, which is why you could say the Davos agenda peaked in 1973. With all the engagement of the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas, the state of the world has gone back over.

As with climate denial the all too familiar arguments against The Limits to Growth report were that the models and arguments were simplistic, weak and inaccurate. But not everyone disagreed and while there is acknowledgement some of the specific predictions lacked accuracy, given the data available in the 1960s, the report’s basic thesis – that unlimited economic growth on a finite planet is impossible – is indisputably correct.

There are parallels to The Limits to Growth report, such as the 1979, memo sent to Robert Hirsch, then Manager of Petroleum Exploratory Research at Exxon, outlined a study on the potential impact of fossil fuel combustion on CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The study said, “present trends of fossil fuel combustion with a coal emphasis will lead to dramatic world climate changes within the next 75 years”. Figure 7 in the report predicted the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere, saying “noticeable temperature changes would occur around 2010 as the concentration reaches 400ppm. Significant climatic changes occur around 2035 when concentrations approach 500ppm.” This 1979 analysis is pretty much on track, as of today atmospheric CO2 levels are 424.5ppm.

In 2020, econometrician Gaya Herrington reviewed The Limits to Growth analysis and concluded that all economic data since the 1970s was consistent with the World3 BAU scenario in The Limits to Growth. In the abstract of her published research she says, “My research revealed an overall close alignment of empirical data with each of the four scenarios, which is a testament to the accuracy of World3.”; which could mean that rapid degrowth would occur after 2040.

So how have we maintained the delusion that we can balance the impact on the environment of unprecedented economic growth? Key is how this has been represented, with the economy, society and the environment all been seen as equals. They are not.

Until recent years achieving sustainable development has been represented in this way by most organisations, institutions and governments. And most still do use this model.  

But some have chosen to clarify the model, and the truth of the situation – there are Limits To Growth on a finite plant.

The 2019 IPBES report and the numerous IPCC reports make it clear that we are heading into a much less liveable world, not just for humans, but for most living species. With the release of both reports (and the many others that have the same conclusions) we need to be honest that the result is nothing has been actioned. The question is why?

As governments, industries and businesses blame each other and wait for the other to do something, this ongoing blame game undermines the collective action needed.

Those who should be shouldering the responsibility to change have perfected the art of distraction. Like the magician they misdirect the eye and give themselves another term in office or another profit cycle before they must invest in misdirecting again. Whilst each of us, in rich countries, must shoulder some blame, due to our addiction to consumption, it is important to be aware of the massive budgets that go in to keeping us addicted and pretending that we can continue to consume for now (and forever).

The nature of capitalism demands economic growth, while all effective actions to address climate change, and biodiversity loss, demand the opposite – degrowth. 

Instead, the strategy has been to distract us from the lack of effective action by focussing on ‘pretend actions’. Governments distract us with announcements, announcables, pledges, international agreements and new policies on paper. And there is the thing, most of these never leave the page, they are only on-paper, rarely in-action. G7 or G20 pledges are hardly ever enacted; they don’t have to be because nobody follows up anyway.

Most announcements disappear in the endless media cycle, providing a short ‘feel good’ factor and are then conveniently forgotten by all. Even international agreements such as the Paris Agreement, for Climate Action, or the Aichi Agreement, for Biodiversity Protection, see little actual follow-through.

Similarly, business and industry distract us with corporate social responsibility, multi-stakeholder initiatives, pledges, pacts, forums, certification schemes and glossy sustainability reports. All of this again makes for great announcements and keeps plenty of PR firms in business, but it has not resulted in any effective action. Most certification schemes are ‘self-certification’, ‘voluntary compliance’ or compliance is not independently monitored. CSR and sustainability reports have proven worthless over the last 3 decades. Multi-stakeholder initiatives have been found to be ineffective after a comprehensive analysis published in 2020.

And so we return to the WEF in Davos, what has it achieved since Aurelio Peccei’s presentation on 1973?  Year after year it has “[engaged] the foremost political, business, cultural and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas”. It is simply no more than another elite network, offering PR opportunities rather than any attempt at serious action.

Businesses let themselves off the hook by publicly calling on governments to adopt policies, whilst lobbying in secret against any policies detrimental to profit or growth. Governments have for 40 years taken a hands-off approach with business, saying that the ‘free market’ will fix everything and there is no need for them to be prescriptive. Together, business and government, have created an illusion of an ‘effective’ system, whilst basically doing nothing that would impede growth or profits. This has left us feeling powerless, with seemingly no one to turn to, to get effective, timely action to at least avoid the worst possible scenario (the complete collapse of industrial civilisation).

In the last few years, the WEF’s Global Risk Reports has finally reflected a world predicted by the 1972 The Limits to Growth. Each year, to prepare for the Davos meeting, the WEF surveys business leaders, politicians and academics about their world outlook – what they are optimistic about and what they are worried about. Many of those interviewed are also attendees of the Davos meeting.

This year, those surveyed identified the most severe risks, on a global scale, over the next 10 years to be, 1. Extreme weather events; 2. Climate change to earths systems; 3. Biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse; 4. Natural resource shortages.

Environmental issues have been the top concerns for several years now, but this hasn’t resulted in the transformation needed.

Is it time to call it a day on the WEF and its Davos annual meeting? No longer holding any sway with the 99% who are not benefitting from late-stage neoliberal capitalism, it certainly appears to be irrelevant. Because if rich people wanted to save the planet, they would have done it by now.

Lynn Johnson

Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years.  In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.