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The World Economic Forum — Masters of Greenwashing?

Or genuinely living in blissful ignorance? A frank opinion.

Sustainability, Economy, Society, Policy, Politics, Davos, Switzerland, World Economic Forum, Environment, Sustainable Business, Leadership, The SustainabilityX® Magazine

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"With great power comes great responsibility.”

It was when I decided to use this quote to begin this article that I discovered its origin in the Spider-Man comic books. There are many similar quotes by equally notable, real people.

However, it appears to be an ideal that those in positions of power don’t seem to be grasping (when power = money or status in our constructed society).

Or if they do, they’re not taking it very seriously at all.

Take, for example, the members and many of the guests of the World Economic Forum in Davos every year (you can see a list here of some attendees in 2019). The names on that particular guest list reflect people I would refer to as ‘powerful’ — in the context of that money/current societal status thing again. They are the 1%. They hold and hoard wealth. They meet every year to discuss how the world will operate for everyone in it. Great power. So where is the responsibility?

From what I can gather, they’re either passing that baton onto us. Or, they genuinely cannot see the baton is theirs to take a hold of and run like the wind.

Masters of greenwashing?

The “World Economic Forum” has been around since before I was born. 1971 to be exact. Set up as a ‘not for profit’ it’s an “independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” Wow, it really does sounds so wonderful. For 50 years the World Economic Forum has been working towards this commitment. The Founder, Prof Klaus Schwab must be so proud of what they have achieved in half a century.

Or must they?

Whilst some might say yes for several flimsy reasons, I am well and truly in the no camp. I don’t think we have made much progress at all. In fact, I’d argue that in many areas, we are going backward, as my beloved Depeche Mode sings about.

I want to believe the intentions laid out in the WEF mission statement. I do. But there are far too many reasons for me not to believe.

When I first came across the World Economic Forum I had no idea about the annual meeting at Davos. I had no idea what the WEF really was. I thought it was a place for genuinely good ‘ideas’ and useful information. I followed the Instagram feed and would like the videos they were sharing about climate change and inequality. To be perfectly upfront, I have absolutely no idea what happened to change my mind.

I do know it was only the beginning of last year when the WEF light switched on inside my mind. It was the culmination of reading, learning, listening, talking to others, and educating myself about the state of the world. I then had the magical moment in May 2020, during the first lockdown, when I discovered Rutger Bregman’s speech at Davos in 2019. The man knocked it out of the park. He’s a modern-day hero.

Now, when I see their posts, the greenwashing and kindwashing drips from my screen. If it was scratch ’n’ sniff, well, I wouldn’t enjoy the smell that’s for sure.

Here are a few recent examples of their (not-so) blatant posturing (my new favourite word):

A video praising people for litter picking in boats in Australia — picking up the plastic bottles and waste that Davos attendees have directly (or indirectly) benefited from or government leaders are choosing to do nothing about.

Or, the one where black people in a black community are shown queuing outside a shop, being praised for using plastic bottles as currency to solve the problem of single-use plastic waste. The only plastic Davos attendees use as a currency is their Dubai First’s, Royal Card. A credit card that’s embedded with a white 325-carat solitaire diamond and trimmed with gold.

Then there’s the video asking showing footage of the Greenland ice sheets which are on the brink of a tipping point. “What does that actually mean?” they ask. Um, well, you know, maybe it’s happening because you lot, who are contributing the most to climate change, are choosing to look like you’re trying to do something, rather than actually doing something?

I could go on and on and on and on. And I am going to. But not right now!




Are they choosing to believe, everything will be ok in the end?

As a race, humans are very good at ignoring a problem until something major happens. This then leads to something having to be done about it.

Take smoking as an example. Smoking was once considered fashionable and ‘safe’ and was even promoted as such in advertising in the 1940s. It took decades before cigarette advertising was banned and it took even longer for smoking bans to happen on planes or other indoor areas in many countries across the world. Only recently have we seen warnings on packets and cigarette display cabinets being covered.

And still, some countries haven’t yet caught up. How many lives could have been saved had something been done about it sooner?

Then there’s the very recent Grenfell tragedy in London. A primary cause of the loss of lives was the highly flammable cladding that was installed on the exterior. Still, four years on, there are buildings all over the UK that have dangerous cladding on the outside. Are we going to wait for yet another tragedy before any action happens?

As far as climate change goes, we’re already seeing its effects through extreme weather events like flooding, loss of biodiversity, bleached coral reefs, and so on.

We simply can’t wait until something horrifyingly huge happens before we fix it. Because that something will most likely signify that it’s too late to do anything.

We don’t need the benefit of hindsight to know that things aren’t going to be good if the ‘powerful’ keep doing nothing or doing very little.

Defaulting to truth or an unwillingness to face uncomfortable realities?

I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “Talking to Strangers. Gladwell tells us that part of the human psyche is to “default to truth”. He says in doing so we’re able to work and live together better as it means we aren’t continually in a state of distrust of one another.

Defaulting to truth has its advantages but as Gladwell shows us, it also has its downsides too. To shift out of this default mode, we apparently need a lot of evidence to convince us to shift away from ‘defaulting to truth’.

This has had devastating results as Gladwell explains. Parents failing to believe their children when they tell them they’re being inappropriately touched by their Coach, or when a white police officer in the US defaults to their ‘truth’ about black people.

I’m not sure how convinced I am by the ‘default to truth’ thing. Not when it comes to ‘powerful’ people who meet in secret — whether that’s Davos (they have private meetings only certain people are invited to) or the annual Bilderberg meeting which has a strict, ‘Chatham House Rules’ policy and no minutes are taken or shared.

Sure, we need to trust each other, but I also wonder how much ‘defaulting’ is actually unconscious biases or the preference to ignore and not deal with difficult subjects or feelings — our own or those of others.

Then there’s a group of people who, Gladwell tells us, are the polar opposite — ‘Holy Fools’. These people have most likely been conditioned not to trust others. Or, I’d like to suggest, they might have a brain and a gut that are very much in tune with each other. So they trust that connection, that ‘gut feeling’, and are more likely to question anything that doesn’t look or feel right. Today these people are more commonly known as ‘whistleblowers’ — thank you for being so brave. You know, just in case Edward Snowden or Julian Assange ever read this….

So is the WEF defaulting to their truth?

Maybe they aren’t doing anything constructive because they’re so ensconced in their own luxurious world — a world that’s so far removed from the reality of the 99%, that they simply cannot comprehend how their choices, their corporations, their inherited wealth, their shares, their investments, their pensions, their lifestyle is affecting everything?

Perhaps they are blissfully ignorant about their contribution to almost everything that’s wrong with the world because they don’t see it.

Or, there’s not enough evidence for them that anything is wrong with the world.

I am trying to be understanding. Trying to look at it from the perspective of my own ignorance. A very simple example being balloon releases and flying lanterns. Until several years ago, I never gave them a second thought. Why would I? It’s not an activity I would ordinarily engage in and when I saw them on TV, it was just a nice thing to see. I had never considered how something seemingly innocent was so damaging to nature and animals. Because I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think that those balloons and lanterns have got to land sometime, somewhere.

Are the 1%, like I was, just not thinking about the devastating effects of balloon releases?

Mmmm, I don’t think so…

If what they meet to talk about every year is in line with their mission statement, I can’t comprehend how this could be the case. They banned Rutger Bregman from ever appearing at Davos again after his brave and honest speech in 2019 (I can’t help but grin every time I watch this). So if they weren’t aware of it before, Rutger sure did plant a very hard-to-swallow seed in their minds. Maybe the seed is taking a long time to grow.

“I mean 1500 private jets have just flown in to hear Sir David Attenborough speak about how we’re wrecking the planet. And I hear people talk in the language of participation and justice and equality and transparency but then almost no one raises the real issue: tax avoidance, right and of the rich just not paying their fair share?”

“It’s another world”

When I think about or see evidence of the lives of the rich and famous (or extremely private) elites, the usual response or thought is something along the lines of “they live in another world.”

But it’s not.

It’s the same world.

The only difference is their world is perfect in its appearance. Crystal clear waters surround their private yachts. Breezing through security when they arrive or depart on their private jets. All the food and drink they could ever want or need — the very thought of food banks must baffle them. They have no litter — their streets are spotless. They have no waste, as they never have to deal with any of it. There is no war. No threat of violence. They can go anywhere, anytime.

They are cocooned and protected in a bubble of extreme wealth.

In their world, where they have financial and material ease, where everything is outwardly and materialistically perfect, I wonder if they genuinely believe they’re working towards their mission to save the world. That they’re doing absolutely everything they can, and have been doing so, since 1971, to improve the state of the world.

Maybe I need to lower my expectations. Because my mission to improve the world is and would be far more ambitious and utopian than theirs is.

Maybe we need their truth to default to something more in line with reality.

Maybe we need to change ‘positions of power’, to ‘positions of responsibility.


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