Davos is dead, and the coronavirus killed it
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Felix Marquardt, a former global schmoozer and current author of The New Nomads, explains why attempting to solve the world’s problems up a Magic Mountain in Switzerland over the course of a few short days, is a quick fix that does more harm than good.
A few weeks ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) pulled the plug on its gathering in Singapore in August. The reasons invoked by the organisers for this third cancellation (plans for an alternative, exceptional meeting in Lucerne in May were also scrapped earlier this year) centred around health concerns and logistics.
The truth is more complex and the malaise runs deeper. The pandemic has exposed the contradictions of the WEF as a project and its terminal lack of legitimacy and credibility in the post-Covid era.
My inkling as an addict in recovery, is that the organisers are unable to come to terms with this because, just like others in the throes of active addiction, they are in denial.
I used to be a senior adviser to a number of global leaders and a Davos cheerleader. I also used to do a lot of drugs. I had my last drink and drug seven years ago.
At the height of my substance abuse, I thought I couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic or an addict. Addicts were people shooting up on park benches or sucking on glass pipes in crack houses. I was flying around the world in business class, living in five star palaces, working for heads of state (including dictators), people running for office (including aspiring dictators) and CEOs of some of the world’s largest multinationals.
A few years into recovery, I came to a different realisation: I had flourished in Davos and in other global circles of power not in spite of my being an addict, but in no small part because I was one. The high which proximity with power, fame and wealth fuelled in me wasn’t that different from the high I felt when I did drugs.
So what do my experiences say about others in the WEF circus?
The pandemic has sparked a global existential crisis in many of us, including pillars of the Davos establishment. It has been about recognising, belatedly, that what we’ve been calling “normal” is a form of civilisational suicide.
Many of us are coming to terms with the fact that we don’t know how to decorrelate greenhouse gas emissions from economic growth and that the phrase green growth is, for now and the foreseeable future, an oxymoron. In a world where about 50 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the 10 per cent wealthiest humans — those of us who earned not millions but $38,000 or more in 2015 — the climate crisis is fundamentally an inequality crisis.
Yet from its inception, the WEF has hence been engaged in an exercise of contortion to not have a meaningful conversation on growth. It has since then been paid hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars (governed by Swiss law, the finances of the WEF are frighteningly opaque) by entities whose shareholders are eager to avoid it.
If we have indeed become addicted to carbon, growth and extraction, the techno-utopian verbiage which has become the lingua franca of Davos has become a liability.
The author Lewis Hyde once wrote that the spread of alcoholism happens when a culture is dying. A healthy, functioning culture turns its children into grown-ups. Addicts in contrast are defined by Jung’s characterisation of the puer aeternus.
That prism of addiction helps explain our culture’s childish “solutionism”. Like addicts in recovery who get a daily reprieve but are never “cured”, what we are dealing with are predicaments not problems. Problems, like the equations schoolchildren are asked to solve, have solutions. In contrast, you can respond to predicaments in a more or less constructive and healthy way but they cannot be solved. You have to live with them.
The current, dominant, “feelgood” approach mirrors that of an addict, in recovery but secretly hoping that they will one day be able to “manage” their substance use. The Davos crowd seek quick fixes, takeaways, action points and deliverables, rather than dwelling on the thoroughly uncomfortable reality of our condition, for fear of going into depression or becoming paralysed by inertia. The sooner that is ditched, the better. “The highest form of hope,” the French author George Bernanos once wrote, “is despair overcome.” But to overcome it, you first need to go through the despair. You need to hit rock bottom.
I am convinced the WEF was founded with the best of intentions. The time has come to move on.
An encouraging number of business and political leaders worldwide are busy trying to figure out how to convince their respective audiences that their corporation, their institution, their political party or their government have understood that ‘going back to normal’ is not an option. It’s far from clear for many of them how they will prove that they have gotten the proverbial memo. But there is a very simple way to show that they haven’t. And that would be to go back to Davos.
In a world in which the most accurate predictor of the carbon footprint of an individual, household, company or country is how much money they spend, we have become a civilisation led by affluent smooth talkers. What we deserve is to be led by wise elders (and who possibly have made a vow of poverty), a kind of Jedi council of people chosen for their willingness to self-sacrifice, for their commitment to be of service to others and above all, for walking their talk.
Some will argue that such a council is bound to appear illegitimate, that you need to have “skin in the game” to be credible and audible. Yet we would be much better led and served by rotating committees of old-timers and trusted servants than by the present mix of plutocracy and kakistocracy of people-pleasers willing to say anything and to go to any length to stay in power.
There’s also the sense that Davos and other gatherings represent a quick fix. They last only a few days, producing an Inch Deep, Mile Wide approach with outcomes the equivalent of an Ayahuasca initiation consumed by non-indigenous folks without adequate preparation and follow-up: incredibly powerful, but with no lasting effect. Anyone who has felt the high and the renewed hope from taking part in a great conference and then wondered a week later where that feeling has gone knows what I’m talking about.
What we require today is a Mile Deep, Inch Wide approach. Instead of meeting once a year in huge numbers at the top of the Magic Mountain, let us take part in ongoing, regular virtual processes in relatively small numbers over years, punctuated here and there with in-person gatherings down in the plains. Let us bring together people from all around the world and society with widely different Weltanschauungs but with a genuine commitment to the slow, painstaking process of getting well.