Davos: The shifting nature of power and the shifting power of nature

Davos meeting
As business and government leaders meet in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, various issues affecting the globe will be discussed, including the growing recognition that the economy, ecology and equity are all in crisis. Image: The Guardian

One of the most challenging weeks of my working life starts today: the week of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. 

Over 2,500 Presidents, Prime Minsters, CEOs, Celebrities and Academics with a smattering of civil society, will be holed up in a small and posh mountain resort in Switzerland to discuss, in the words of the WEF, “improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.”

At a moment when 20th century power structures, typified by the Davos devotees, try to squeeze the last buck out of a denuded environment and a failing industrial complex, new power structures are emerging, together with new threats, new solutions and new opportunities.

Many pay up to 250,000 US dollars for their membership and entrance fee to the WEF. As a civil society representative I have been invited to attend the WEF over the last decade or so, without paying a fee, obviously. Why do I get invited, why are big corporates actually seeking meetings with us?

I know that, like other civil society leaders, I am there to add a pinch of public participation — there are many meetings in penthouse suites that we have no access to. Climbing an oil rig in the cold Russian Arctic to protect a critical part of the world’s climate regulation system is uncomfortable, but rubbing shoulders with Davos’ thousand-dollar suits is equally uncomfortable. You’re probably wondering why I still do it?

Well if there is any chance to have a positive influence on the business community, then I should leave my feelings of discomfort at the Davos train station and give it my best. Winning over some of the key business leaders is critical if we are to succeed in tackling the multiple challenges facing the world.

Normally, these people exist behind a maze of staff, inside near impenetrable walls tens of floors high. Having the chance to speak truth to power, appeal to them as parents, grandparents and human beings, not just powerful politicians and business leaders is something worth pursuing.

WEF founder Professor Klaus Schwab warns of the ‘shifting nature of power’, but he got a couple of words in the wrong order, the real threat to all of us, including those in the cozy Davos conclave, is the shifting power of nature

If we manage to shift the consciousness of one CEO or senior political leader, who may do the same with a couple of his peers, then I think it is worth it. It is also worth being there, listening and observing, understanding some of the forces that shape our world and importantly feeding that information back to the rest of Greenpeace and other civil society allies.

As I have said before, the WEF is still unfortunately dedicated to system maintenance, protecting the fundamentals of the current system, broken and unjust as it is. What we need is system change. And it is changing, no amount of tinkering will hold it back forever.

This year’s theme is “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business.” A few words from the preamble make me raise my eye brows: “political, economic, social and, above all, technological forces… are shifting power from traditional hierarchies to networked heterarchies.” That means the false idea of reducing democracy to the singular act of voting every few years is over. People are begging to assert participatory democracy and exercise people power, using many new technologies and methods of interconnection, as levels of confidence in political leadership are dangerously declining around the world.

The WEF warns its members that we are witnessing a shift of power. But those attending the WEF are largely focused on the symptoms of various crises not the causes or the cures. Dealing with global challenges especially in the face of new, seismic trends requires a global mindset that is a comprehensive and an interconnected way of understanding how different crises intersect with one another.

WEF founder Professor Klaus Schwab warns of the ‘shifting nature of power’, but he got a couple of words in the wrong order, the real threat to all of us, including those in the cozy Davos conclave, is the shifting power of nature.

Scientists argue that most of the known fossil fuels reserves need to be left in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Last year carbon dioxide concentrations breached 400ppm (parts per million) — that’s the highest level in human history and means we are hitting the accelerator towards mass extinctions, mass migration and mass starvation. In 2012 we saw the lowest levels of Arctic sea ice. And a frightening slew of extreme weather events: heat waves, hurricanes, droughts and record low temperatures.

Business elites and politicians continue to suffer from an acute case of cognitive dissonance. All the facts are there, we need to re-think and re-design our economies, yet they are largely in denial about the scale and pace of the necessary change.

The WEF’s 2014 Global Report helps set the agenda and prioritization for the great and the good to discuss. Financial risk, unsurprisingly, still ranks at number one, followed by high unemployment or underemployment. Water crises come in third place with climate at fifth, behind severe income disparity. There is therefore a growing recognition that economy, ecology and equity are all in crisis; that they are all fundamentally interconnected. None can be solved without solving the others. None can be solved without accepting the physical boundaries of a resource-constrained world. The water scarcity crisis is driven — from South Africa to China - in part by coal expansion, which is also driving climate change. While many in Davos keep us addicted to coal, an energy revolution based on renewables could generate many more jobs than business as usual.

We know that we need to break the carbon-corporate control over politics. The last UN climate negotiations in November took place in Poland, one of the most coal dependent countries in the world. If that wasn’t bad enough, fossil fuel companies sponsored the conference. The Polish government also hosted a summit for the coal industry at the same time. That’s not ironic, it’s simply outrageous. It shows us how much work we have ahead to shift our sources of power.

While the WEF suggests it’s members deal with the cause of the crisis, not just the symptoms, we know that we are running out of time and that the window of opportunity to avoid an ecological catastrophe is quickly closing.

Yes, some progressive corporate players, either for fear of consumer pressure or because they truly get it, are changing. Only last year we saw two of the biggest paper and palm oil companies commit to end forest destruction. Our Detox campaign is helping shift the clothing industry onto a path of clean production, backed by active and networked consumers, who are seeking a new relationship with the brands they buy.

The emerging horizontal power structures can work and a large part of that will be down to whether the kind of people who go to Davos understand not only the shifting nature of power but equally important they need to understand the shifting power of nature and embrace the change that is critically necessary if we are to secure this planet for human survival into the future. If they simply adopt a green front to defend their ‘greenbacks’ they can slow the change, perhaps enough to ensure catastrophe for all.

So, off to Davos I go, armed with a copy of the 2014 Global Crisis report, a thick skin, and the support of many millions of people around the world who want to have a say in their own future and that of their children and grand children.

Kumi Naidoo is executive director of Greenpeace International. This post originally appeared here.

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