Each year, political and economic leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland, in meetings organized by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Issues discussed at Davos are typically at the top of national and international agendas, and many see the gathering as one of the key spaces from where the ideas driving capitalist thinking around the world emerge.
The 2023 meeting that concluded on 20 January was marked, according to The Guardian, by a mood of cautious optimism after three disastrous years that saw a global pandemic, disruptions in supply chains, armed conflict in Europe, and the highest inflation rates in decades. The Guardian Economics Editor Larry Elliot noted that “inflation rates in the US, the eurozone, and the UK appear to have peaked. Central banks may, therefore, be able to limit the extent of future increases in interest rates. China has rebounded more quickly than expected after abandoning its zero-tolerance approach to COVID.” These developments are being seen as good news for markets.
This created the opportunity to discuss a topic that, at least in the eyes of the global corporate elite, just might steer the world towards a brighter future: the possibility that global capitalism might be able to transform itself into an economic system able to deal with the existential challenge posed by climate change.
A report prepared for the WEF by researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the London Grantham Research Institute and Systemiq found that transition to green technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) will drive growth in the next five years. “More than half the tipping points for key green technologies will have been met,” the report states, with costs for solar and wind power falling below those for coal and gas in the US and other countries, cost parity of electric vehicles with gas-driven vehicles and green fertilizer with conventional methods, and the use of AI to address climate change impacts and step up the decarbonization of entire economic sectors.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Germany, protests raged as thousands of local residents and activists demonstrated against the demolition of a village in North Rhine-Westphalia to expand a coal mine, a move that would result in significant new emissions at a time of climate crisis. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish environmental activist, who took part in and was detained at the demonstrations, called the situation a “betrayal of present and future generations.”
The disconnect between these two spaces is stark. On the one hand, the global capitalist elite is enthusiastically promoting investment in green technologies as a way out of the climate mess, which in a sense is a continuation of the same logic behind existing market-based mechanisms to tackle environmental degradation (such as the carbon credit system that has faced much criticism from researchers and non-profits like Greenpeace), and is introducing new market-based dynamics into already highly complex social, political, and economic contexts in the global South. On the other, people are fighting to protect their town from destruction by a commercial mining company and calling for a radical system change.
This contrast raises questions not only about whether our current economic system can truly transform itself to tackle the environmental issues it created in the first place, but also about the voices that are shaping this vital debate for the future of humanity.
Is it the voices of global corporations at Davos that promise a sustainable future by following a business-as-usual economic model? Or is it the voices of vulnerable communities around the world that for generations have borne the brunt of an economic model based on the relentless extraction of natural resources and displacement from their territories? Whose voices are we choosing to listen to? And, more importantly, what are the power dynamics that result in greater visibility through traditional and social media for one side of the debate over the other?
In this context, communication rights can provide a way forward. The push for climate justice necessarily includes the struggle for communication rights and communication justice. The voices of those protesting environmental destruction and calling for a different relationship between humans and nature — from villagers in North Rhine-Westphalia to Indigenous communities in the Amazon to the people living in Pacific Island states — must be heard in media agenda-setting spaces like Davos. Until then, we might as well be living in an alternate reality.
Photo: (l) A panel at the WEF 2023 in Davos. World Economic Forum/Michael Calabro (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), (r) Police clash with environmental activists in Lützerath, Germany. Lützi Lebt/unwisemonkeys (CC BY-NC)