Is it possible for the extremely wealthy to advise us on saving the planet? This is a belief held by Generation Z, according to Martha Gill.
There’s just something about corporate chieftains meeting at a ski resort to save the world that seems to get people’s backs up.
The terminology used at the Davos conference last year included the term “mattering”, which is a noun. Another factor could be the self-assured demeanor of certain attendees. During the conference, former US secretary of state John Kerry remarked, “It’s truly remarkable that a select group of individuals, who have been impacted by various experiences in our lives, can gather in one room and have meaningful discussions about preserving our planet… it’s almost otherworldly to consider.”
Critics frequently struggle with the notion that addressing climate change, poverty, and gender equality can be left in the hands of private jet owners, beneficiaries of corporate tax loopholes, and a gathering still predominantly made up of men. In reality, the World Economic Forum, whose mission includes “improving the state of the world,” has gained a reputation for hypocrisy and superficial displays of virtue. It has become a place for the wealthy to pat themselves on the back for their supposed impact. As American author Anand Giridharadas has observed, “I have a feeling that girls in Africa are tired of being empowered by men in Davos.”
Progressive individuals seem to have reached a consensus on this matter, making it a widely accepted belief. It is disconcerting to consider that this belief may be changing. Surprisingly, this year’s Davos conference had some unexpected supporters. According to a YouGov and Salesforce study, the younger generation known as generation Z showed support for the conference. Approximately 60% of those surveyed expressed hope in its potential to address important global issues like climate change and improve the world.
What has caused the sudden increase in faith among young people towards business leaders who posture? Or is it simply because they are now seeking hope wherever they can find it? I wonder if this indication of a potential shift in opinion is reflective of another change. It used to be widely accepted until about ten years ago that the values promoted by Davos – such as globalism, progressivism, and decarbonisation – were shared by much of the Western world. However, these values are now falling out of favor. For the generation that grew up during the rise of populist nationalism, the growing anti-environmentalist movement, and the presidency of Trump in the US, the Davos agenda may come across as refreshingly different, even when presented by an out-of-touch elite.
In recent years, the number of forums that are open to discussing these types of ideas has decreased. There is also a growing doubt about the value of Davos from those on the political right. Just last week, Argentinian President Javier Milei delivered a scathing speech denouncing the progressive beliefs that form the foundation of the conference. He criticized the idea of social justice and those who rely on government support. He also accused international organizations of being influenced by collectivism, radical feminism, and a harsh environmental agenda. Rishi Sunak, who is currently attempting to portray himself as a nationalist, did not attend the event, and business leaders on the right, like Elon Musk, chose to mock it from a distance.
There are certainly more effective methods for improving global conditions than a corporate event led by cosmocrats. However, the younger generation may have a valid point – it is possible to defend Davos from a progressive perspective. Criticisms of Davos from the left are not based on the values it promotes, but rather on the belief that its efforts are ineffective and led by the wrong individuals. Ultimately, progressives have two main grievances with the conference: its lack of usefulness and its hypocrisy. Let’s examine these issues separately.
Despite popular belief, Davos does have some positive impacts, especially in the realm of high-stakes diplomacy. It was at Davos where representatives from East and West Germany came together to discuss reunification, and where Nelson Mandela and South African president FW de Klerk made their first joint appearance on the global stage, a significant step towards ending apartheid. Additionally, Davos has been the site of major contributions, such as Bill and Melinda Gates’ pledge of $100 million to combat AIDS, the launch of Nicolas Negroponte’s “one laptop per child” campaign, and the establishment of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, which has helped vaccinate 760 million children. While these achievements are commendable, there is still room for improvement, and pressure to do so often comes from within the conference itself.
There is certainly more that can be accomplished. However, the main criticism of Davos – what bothers critics the most – is the hypocrisy of the event. Wealthy individuals who travel around the world have the audacity to engage in prominent philanthropy and woke concepts, despite their own corporate wrongdoings. This criticism is similar to that of “woke capitalism”. How dare these individuals, who we consider to be immoral, attempt to align themselves with ideas that we view as moral? They should be required to practice what they preach, in order to highlight the contrast with our own virtue.
I find this moral purity to be unproductive. If the Davos event were to suddenly end, would the individuals considered as “thought leaders” redirect their efforts towards personal acts of kindness such as paying more taxes, giving up private jets, or donating to charitable causes? I highly doubt it. While it can be frustrating to witness someone signal their morality, it can also lead to positive actions. Despite the annoyance of Davos, the social pressure it creates can ultimately have a positive impact.
There is a counterargument to this, suggesting that participating in Davos and espousing moral platitudes allows unscrupulous capitalists to protect themselves. However, I believe it actually leaves them vulnerable to criticism. Hypocrites, who strive to please the crowd, are easier targets than those who boldly defend the status quo. Davos serves as an ideal platform for calling out billionaires on their tax avoidance practices – as historian Rutger Bregman demonstrated with his viral speech in 2019. Each year, Oxfam releases a report on economic inequality to coincide with Davos, capitalizing on the event’s media coverage. This year, over 250 millionaires and billionaires signed an open letter to political leaders at Davos, urging them to increase taxes on the wealthy. The pressure from their peers can be a powerful force, and in some cases, it can lead to positive change.