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Is Davos the ant-thesis of Darwin?

28 January 2014
Vineet Nayar

Life evolves. Species evolves. Flora, fauna and algae, DNA, micro-organisms and even the dark matter evolves. Charles Darwin called this simple law of nature as “evolution”.

Wikipedia describes “evolution” as the change in the inherited characteristics with evolutionary processes giving rise to diversity at every level, while the Oxford Dictionary describes it a gradual development of something. Some people widely, though loosely, call this natural progression as Darwinism. Simple fact of science.

Not so simple when you take it to the non-scientific world or more specifically to a new center of our universe that emerges every third week of January in an alpine town called Davos. As host of the World Economic Forum (WEF’s) Annual Meeting, Davos enjoys many nomenclatures and descriptors; but perhaps the one it deserves more than any other today is – “the anti-thesis of Darwin”!

My introduction of this piece should have made this conjecture self-explanatory but let me tell you why nonetheless. Every year hundreds of CEOs, tens of Head of States, Experts, Authors and business executive congregate in the Swiss municipality of Davos-Klusters to discuss and debate on the “issues reshaping the world” but alas they end up doing the same old, talking the same old, and discussing the same old.

A quick study of the last 5 years of the WEF Agenda will give you an ample idea of what I mean. Even though its programme girth has almost doubled since then, the topics of discussion have refused to evolve. My research revealed that over the last 5 years only 20 topics/words have pretty much defined the agendas of WEF and they have remained the same year after year; these are -- Hyper connected world, Global Risk, Energy and Environment Context, Insights on China, Africa, India and Russia, Digitization, Inclusive growth, Lost generation, Eurozone and US economy, Capitalism, Women, Climate risks, Healthcare, Gen Y and Unemployment.

What’s worse there’s not even been an evolution in the gender/age diversity demographics at the Forum, Gender ratio has in fact gone down this year by 2% and the numbers of under-35 year olds remains a dismal 40 out of 2500 total registered attendees which is less that 1% of the congregation!

With its non-evolved agenda, uninvolved audience, non-evolved demographics and even non-evolved format, I’m left wondering whether Davos has perhaps emerged as an anti-thesis of Darwin when it comes to public debate.
Conversely speaking if it was to evolve in synch with the urgent issues of our times I believe that 5 issues deserve a more involved and action-oriented discussion this year; the real issues that deserve some real talk and even more real actions.

1. Corrupt governance – Whether it be the wounded democracies of South Asia or the sophisticated corridors of western bureaucracies, one thing that’s common across the political corridors of the world is the malice of graft or corrupt governance. Practical and transparent solutions to this issue need to be drafted on priority.

2. Unsustainable consumption – while 870 million people are suffering from chronic undernourishment, almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day, nearly 1 billion people in the developing world don't have access to clean, safe drinking water and nearly 1.6 billion people – around a quarter of the human race – have no access to electricity in the developing world. The earth does not contain enough resources to indefinitely sustain the current enormous population growth. We are hurtling at break-neck speed towards a future of great scarcity of primary resources and the caucus of world leaders should be unilaterally focused on this topic alone.

3. W20 not G20 – In a world obsessed with global economy, we have forgotten to focus on some fundamental non-negotiables like the dignity of our women. Whether it be the NIrbhaya rape case in India or the litany of girl child abuse cases across the world and dramatically rising cases of domestic violence against women, as a human race we have short-changed our better half and its time we give its issues and vulnerabilities a priority hand.

4. Biodiversity Crisis - Human beings are currently causing the greatest mass extinction of species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. In a survey of 400 scientists commissioned by New York's American Museum of Natural History, nearly seven out of 10 of the biologists polled said they believed a "mass extinction" was underway, and an equal number predicted that up to one-fifth of all living species could disappear within 30 years . The rapid loss of species we are seeing today is estimated by experts to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. These experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species will become extinct each year. And as WWF rightly states, “unlike the mass extinction events of geological history, the current extinction challenge is one for which a single species - ours - appears to be almost wholly responsible” without realizing that if the biodiversity balance skews too low than we may face extinction ourselves. Worth an immediate debate? yes I’d say.

5. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) - The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is today one of the most pressing issues and threats to the international peace and security. This Urgent Problem of the world needs an immediate multi-lateral debate and I’m wondering why is there not a single session on it in this year’s WEF Agenda?

But there is hope out there. I do know that in the corners of some coffee shops, in protestor igloo camps and hotel lobbies many intellectuals and committed individuals would have spread the word in Davos about some of these issues. Real debate, catalytic debate is not at the mercy of any printed agenda or official forums. And as long as there is even one mouth voicing these “existential, rudimentary and real problems” and two feet standing up to question the WEF leaders in its packed ivory halls, the “evolution” will hopefully find its course in Davos too! Amen!