Business Unusual

Who is Klaus Schwab and could he help save the world?

The first thing to clarify is that the world is not in trouble of dying, it is humanity that is most at risk. Our actions will result in the death of many other species, but then we have always been an extinction factor for our fellow lifeforms on Earth.

This time it is our survival that is in peril. It would not wipe us out but it may reset the population to levels not seen for 300 years.

Averting a crisis that could mean the death of more than half of the human population sounds like it may need the intervention of everyone. Ideally, that would make things easier, but I think with grassroots campaigning just 3,5% of us and some responsible behaviour by the planets wealthy 1% and the work of a few key individuals we can do it.

One of the institutions that enjoy membership of most of the most powerful nations and companies globally is the World Economic Forum (WEF), founded half a century ago by engineer and economist Klaus Schwab. When it was first founded he hoped to change the way Europe worked. American innovation and management had created an advantage over the rest of the developed economies. Schwab believed getting European countries to gather for meetings to understand the American way and copy it was critical to remaining competitive and they while that focus has changed, it continues to claim to want to identify and address the greatest risks facing the world.

The Risks

The World Economic Forum polls a panel of 750 “global experts and decision-makers” to determine the risk factors for the year and decade ahead. Those surveyed are most likely part of the 1% with the political, economic and technological power to shape the world for better or worse. Their collective view should offer something beyond a national view or special interest. While the behaviour of the 1% may not give many hope their collective view is as good an indicator of what might occur as any.

They list 10 risks, five are environmental, two are technological and one each are societal, geopolitical and economic.

The Long Term Risk Likelihood Outlook WEF 2020 Risk Report

These are the top 5 risks by likelihood over the next 10 years:

  • Extreme weather events (e.g. floods, storms, etc.)
  • Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Major natural disasters (e.g. earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, geomagnetic storms)
  • Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse
  • Human-made environmental damage and disasters

The Long Term Risk Outlook Global Impact WEF 2020 Risk Report

These are the top 5 risks by the severity of impact over the next 10 years:

  • Failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • Weapons of mass destruction
  • Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse
  • Extreme weather events (e.g. floods, storms, etc.)
  • Water crises

The 1%

The term 1% refers to a section of a population that earns more than 99% percent. You might think that the distribution of power in a democratic population would be evenly spread or at least that the majority would be the most influential even if there were some who were very wealthy with greater individual influence. Instead, the nature of modern economies has created a very powerful minority who control most of the wealth and so can influence the economy and politics of a country more than the majority.

The US individual income to qualify as part of the 1% is about R5 million annual income. Despite it being a high bar for most, the scale of wealth within the 1% is also highly spilt with the minority earning enormous amounts of income and as a result, being very influential.

The World Economic Forum counts those super powerful as members and trustees of its organisation suggesting that despite the actual impact of the forum the potential for significant change rivals bodies like the United Nations.

But the few can’t make changes without support from the rest although it appears you don’t need many more to bring about change.

The 3,5%

Erica Chenoweth, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has determined from a review of 200 violent protests and 100 non-violent protests than the non-violent protests resulted in positive change in 53% of the cases while violent protests were successful 26% of the time. Besides less harm to those involved in the protests, there is a much greater chance of success with a non-violent protest. A key success factor is that the protests enjoy a certain measure of support though. She determined that if 3,5% of the population in a country engaged in non-violent protest then they had more than a 50% chance of success.

In South Africa that would be a sustained but non-violent campaign by about 2 million South Africans. The EFF received 1,8 million votes in the 2019 national election and that would be the minimum size to bring about wholesale change.

The WEF may enjoy global support, but it also attracts significant and often justified opposition, in their presentation above they accept that it is not a perfect solution, but then few things are.

Who will lead the change?

In the same way that Nelson Mandela was the face of the struggle in South Africa, he relied on the extensive support of ANC members in South Africa and abroad. So too, any movement for change has a greater chance of success when there is someone that can help frame the challenge and rally support.

Here are some individuals that I reckon have played a part in getting us to this point and some that can hopefully help us avert the looming crisis.

Our environmental challenges began with our use of fossil fuels. That began in the 1770s in what we now refer to as the 1st Industrial Revolution. It would be almost a century later before Arnold Toynbee would popularise the term in lectures that explained how British innovation had transformed their economy and the world. As it became more widely recognised it triggered the interest and development in what would become known as the 2nd Industrial Revolution.

While some hold that the computer revolution in the 50s was itself an industrial revolution others disagree but there is a growing consensus that we are at the start of a new industrial revolution and it was Klaus Schwab that first described it in 2016. Whether it is eventually called the 3rd or 4th is not as significant as the preparation needed for the impact of its arrival.

It offers both opportunity and risk, but the risks, when compounded by the environmental risks, can result in a perfect storm of disruption for humanity that will certainly result in widespread human suffering if not all-out global conflict.

Addressing the risks of environmental harm is the priority but one individual who blundered into an unjustified war may have helped trigger the shift needed to give us the means to actually tackle global warming, that person was George W Bush. I am not suggesting he intentionally did anything positive but the disastrous war in Iraq in 2003 saw the global oil price spike to levels that justified the investments into alternatives from natural gas which is slightly less harmful to the advances in renewables allowing it to now become a cost-effective alternative even as oil prices have stabilised and oil prospects have increased.

I will include the efforts of Elon Musk indirectly to demonstrate that travel and terraforming of the Moon and Mars are conceivable albeit very difficult which when compared to what will be required to avert a climate crisis on Earth look a lot more manageable by comparison.

Climate scientists as represented by activists like Greta Thunberg help focus the urgency of the intervention needed. The agitation from critics like Rutger Bregman and Anand Giridharadas who make the compelling and simple case that unless a tax is used to cost for the impact of inequality and environmental harm, no gathering of the wealthy and powerful will result in meaningful change.

Finally, there is the role that is needed to remind nations that despite their national interests no-one is spared the impact of climate change and that unless nations like America can see that they are both the world’s principal polluter but also its best hope, the work for everyone else is much greater. If the WEF can use its luxury gatherings to align those attending to understand what is as stake and to get the captains of industry and disruptive tech to pressure those with political power but no political will to shift and for those willing to use political power to enforce better policy to regulate industry, then rather than look back at half a century of looking after the interests of the few, it can look forward to remaining relevant for the growth and prosperity of all humanity.


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