Davos 2019: Mountains and men

Davos man talks about saving the world. But does he mean it?

Pascal Debrunner 1297240 Unsplash

Our convenor Oliver Greenfield reflects on his week amongst the millionaires and mountains of the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland.


The train winds up and up, the mountains let us in, the snow is so deep, the air minus 17ºC, the sun bright: it is breathtakingly beautiful.

Then the town, Davos, invaded by crowds of suits, reinforced by intimidating security, with ordinary hotel rooms going for £10,000 a night. Everyone quickly knows their place by the level of their access badge. The mountain town is swamped by jostling brands, power posturing and the accompanying cacophony of self-promotion. It was tragic parody to see a long line of black limousines stuck in their self-made traffic jam as we walked past them, trying not to be polluted by their fumes.

After a surprisingly short time I found myself losing interest in the conference and longing instead to hang out in the mountains. So, I did. And there I dwelled on a thought that would not occur to 99% of the people attending. And it was this.

“So, refreshed, I re-engage with the conference. This year the main theme is "Globalisation?" – which unfortunately came across as a superficial "Globalisation: 😢 ”

If I was to ask the best engineering companies at Davos to build one of the world’s largest reservoirs on an uneven surface with a 1 in 2 incline, that works as a drip irrigation system to a vast surrounding region with a self-regulating mechanism to release and disperse water where and when it is most needed, and this reservoir would also be a globally popular playground with soul-lifting beauty, the engineers would tell me: “that's moon-landing difficult, with current technology – impossible”. But ask Nature the same question, and there's absolutely no problem: “here is snow on mountains”.

So, refreshed, I re-engaged with the conference. This year the main theme is "Globalisation?" - which unfortunately came across as a superficial "Globalisation: 😢".

Why? 2 reasons.

Firstly, the poor quality of the self-reflection embodied by their flagship global risk report. Most of the risks in this report are systemic risks – posing an existential threat to life and society. They are the accumulated negative impacts that are directly created by the companies and management of this very WEF community, who by the way pay over £1m a year to be in the club and are happy with this report.

The report needs to clarify the origins of these risks, quantify their impacts and highlight a range of solutions and clarify who is responsible for sorting it out. Does it do any of this? No. I give it an F.

Davos 2019 World Economic Forum OG and Panel
Oliver Greenfield address the panel at our "What Is Wealth" Davos side-event

Secondly, the public zeitgeist this year has been nature, plastics, and extinction, so our hero David Attenborough is invited, he speaks eloquently and is given a polite reception. The environment movement is also here in force. But, on the basis of the global risk report, Sir David’s intervention and the paucity of the self-reflection makes this feel like the environmental NGOs invited to Davos are nothing more than an old-fashioned Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department. We are not on the board, addressing the economic and corporate strategy and making real change happen, but are here only to give those responsible some good PR.

There are some signs of change, some brave corporate leaders and some insightful events (one of which was our own - What is Wealth?) but these were mostly on the fringe, outside the security cordon of WEF proper. We were in the SDG Tent, a much-needed island of wisdom, honesty, and vision, where there were a number of inspiring and pragmatic debates. But why were these messages not being delivered inside the WEF itself?

So instead, I spoke to a group of students – from Venezuela, from Mali, and from Europe, with their banners “system change not climate change”, and I agreed with them. Real, systemic change is urgently needed. But the corporations of Davos seem very far away from any real action.

So my summary of WEF week: inspired by Nature, let down by Davos man.


- Oliver Greenfield, Convenor, GEC

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