‘The Garden of Eden is no more’

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is almost half a century old now. It describes itself as “the international organisation for public-private cooperation” and says it is “committed to improving the state of the world”. Early on in its journey, the Forum introduced a system of membership for “the 1,000 leading companies of the world”. Quite naturally then, over the years, it has acquired the reputation of business fat cats meeting in an expensive and exotic location to discuss the future. The agenda covers a large canvas usually, but the tone and the underlying tenor is business – for business, about business, by business. And business is now worried about the kind of change that is in the air – restive youth, declining trust, rising inequality and the plunder of the planet. How does the modern day corporation chart the road ahead in these times?

Two statements at the just-concluded 2019 Davos meet sum up the nature of the challenge. One of them came from the respected 92-year-old naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who provided a dramatic and poignant one-line summation of the State of the world: “The Garden of Eden is no more.” The other came from the global consulting giant Accenture, which put up a large sign that said, “Trust is the ultimate currency.” As several speakers noted, the value of that currency is fast eroding.

Take the views and concerns on what WEF calls the “Global economy in transition”. The three words that drive this are prosperity, sustainability and security. It is easy to see the priorities and ask prosperity for whom. Economic growth has magnified, not reduced, inequality. Oxfam reports on inequality ahead of the WEF every year. The number of billionaires has almost doubled since the global financial crisis with a new billionaire created every two days between 2017 and 2018. At the same time, wealthy individuals and corporations are paying lower rates of tax than they have in decades.

Davos is thus tuned into important voices crying out for change – from within and outside. Yet, it remains concerned with mitigating the challenges while driving largely on the road it has travelled over the last half a century. The nature of the journey it seeks today and tomorrow is not very different from the road it has travelled all these years. It is after all an “economic forum” and is concerned with driving economic growth as the means of reducing poverty while growing business and its reach in a world that is supposed to be globalised. In reality, this world does not exist.

Take the views and concerns on what WEF calls the “Global economy in transition”. The three words that drive this are prosperity, sustainability and security. It is easy to see the priorities and ask prosperity for whom. Economic growth has magnified, not reduced, inequality. Oxfam reports on inequality ahead of the WEF every year. The numbers are distressing and getting worse. Consider these few headlines: The wealth of the world’s billionaires increased USD 900 billion in the last year, which translates to USD 2.5 billion a day. Last year, 26 people owned the same wealth as all of the 3.8 billion poorest – the number was 43 in 2017. The number of billionaires has almost doubled since the global financial crisis with a new billionaire created every two days between 2017 and 2018. At the same time, wealthy individuals and corporations are paying lower rates of tax than they have in decades.

The Oxfam India report points to numbers that are as shocking: The wealth held by Indian billionaires increased from 49 billion dollars in 2004 to 479 billion dollars held by richest 100 billionaires by 2017. The total wealth of Indian billionaires is 15 per cent of the GDP of the country. Interestingly, almost 40 per cent of Indian billionaires have inherited their wealth, with the inheritors accounting for almost two-thirds of the total wealth of billionaires. All 15 real estate billionaires in India joined the billionaire club between 2005 and 2010. Incidentally, they have also seen the fastest rate of wealth growth. On the other hand, IT sector billionaires have among the lowest rates of wealth growth.

What emerges is not a picture of innovation to solve the big problems of the globe – poverty, disease, education and a decent standard of living for the bulk of humanity. Globalisation has not brought us a seamlessly connected, borderless world. Borders are open for those who have the means but are made impenetrable for others. The capitalist order and the insatiable thirst for more by exploitative business practices and runaway consumerism has brought the planetary eco system to its edge.

Sir Attenborough put it well. Asked how grave was the threat of climate change, he went on: “"It’s difficult to overstate it, we are now so numerous, so powerful, so all-pervasive the mechanisms we have for destruction are so frightening that we can exterminate whole eco-systems without noticing it…we have to recognise that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take, comes from the natural world.”

Sitting within corporations, what can the highly qualified professionals and managers and their so-called leaders do when the big story in itself is so wrong? How much can they fix the car and the road when the destination is to doom and leaves in its wake widespread poverty for the majority and destruction the natural resources that sustain us as a species?

These are big questions that the WEF is ill-equipped to take on.  Those who have caused this crisis and have a big stake in perpetuating the existing order are probably the last persons to turn to fix it. This includes a majority of those who are seen at the Davos party every year. They are the leaders of the sleep walking brigade, pretending that this is a machine which can be fixed with some oiling and some new spare parts when the entire edifice itself is has become outdated. Recognising that is important for change to begin. 

Sir Attenborough put it well. Asked how grave was the threat of climate change, he went on: “"It’s difficult to overstate it, we are now so numerous, so powerful, so all-pervasive the mechanisms we have for destruction are so frightening that we can exterminate whole eco-systems without noticing it…we have to recognise that every breath of air we take, every mouthful of food we take, comes from the natural world.”

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR)