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Davos X Factors

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On January 23-27 the World Economic Forum held its tres chic annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.  Admission was by invitation only.  Nick Paumgarten of The New Yorker offered the following explanation of how different segments of society view the annual Davos event:

People like to project onto Davos their fears and fantasies about the way the world works. Right-wingers see insidious, delusional liberalism, in its stakeholder ethos and its pretense of world improvement.  They picture a bunch of Keynesians, Continentals, and self-dealing do-gooders participating in some kind of off-the-books top-down command-control charade.  Left-wingers conjure a plutocratic cabal, a Star Chamber of master puppeteers, the one per cent – or .01 per cent, really – deciding the world’s fate behind a curtain of heavy security and utopian doublespeak.  The uninvited, the refuseniks, and even many of the participants see a colossal discharge of hot air, a peacock strut.  They all deploy, with a sneer, the term Davos Man, coined by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, who decried a post-national wealthy globe-trotting élite.  Davos Man can be either a capitalist oppressor or a Commie conspirator.  Either way, he is a windbag, a pedant, and a hypocrite. Businesspeople who have never been to Davos find many ways to be dismissive of it: “I can’t do business there.”  “It’s too political.”  “It’s not what it used to be.”  The translation may be that that person has not been invited.

The World Economic Forum’s website explained the role of its official communities:

A key part of the Forum’s activities is the creation of distinctive communities of Member and Partner companies as well as leaders from civil society for more informal opportunities for interaction.

I would assume that at this year’s meeting, one of the most popular topics must have been risk management – including risk aversion.  Ever since the financial crisis, the world has been on the verge of economic chaos.  The possibility that Silvio Berlusconi could return to power in Italy has heightened concerns that the European sovereign debt crisis could reverse course from its current recovery trajectory and head into oblivion.

One of the World Economic Forum’s communities is the Risk Response Network.  The RRN “was launched to provide private and public sector leaders with an independent, impartial platform to map, monitor and mitigate global risks.”  It is comprised of individual representatives of leading global corporations, research institutions, media outlets, governments and NGOs.  The Risk Response Network released a 78-page report for this year’s annual meeting entitled, Global Risks 2013 — Eighth Edition.  The report’s topics included:  Testing Economic and Environmental Resilience, Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World, The Dangers of Hubris on Human Health and Building National Resilience to Global Risks.

I found Section 5 of Global Risks 2013 to be particularly interesting.  It begins on page 55 of the report and is entitled, “X Factors”.  The report described this section in the following terms:

In this section, developed in collaboration with Nature, a leading science journal, the Risk Response Network asks readers to look beyond our high-risk concerns of the moment to consider a set of five X factors and reflect on what countries or companies should be doing to anticipate them.

*   *   *

X factors are serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict. They capture broad and vaguely understood issues that could be hatching grounds for potential future risks (or opportunities).

The five X Factors discussed in the report were these:

Runaway climate change:  Is it possible that we have already passed a point of no return and that Earth’s atmosphere is tipping rapidly into an inhospitable state?

Significant cognitive enhancement:  Ethical dilemmas akin to doping in sports could start to extend into daily working life; an arms race in the neural “enhancement” of combat troops could also ensue.

Rogue deployment of geoengineering:  Technology is now being developed to manipulate the climate; a state or private individual could use it unilaterally.

Costs of living longer:  Medical advances are prolonging life, but long-term palliative care is expensive.  Covering the costs associated with old age could be a struggle.

Discovery of alien life:  Proof of life’s existence elsewhere in the universe could have profound psychological implications for human belief systems.

My favorite was the last X Factor:  Discovery of alien life.  Although the report focused on the notion that astronomers involved in the study of exoplanets could find spectral information revealing chemical signs of life, the last paragraph of the section provided some insights on the fear which has been keeping this subject under wraps for years:

Through basic education and awareness campaigns the general public can achieve a higher science and space literacy and cognitive resilience that would prepare them and prevent undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery and paradigm shift concerning mankind’s position in the universe.

So The Powers That Be are worried about “undesired social consequences” and “paradigm shift”.  Why is that not a surprise?

Those in search of “the right stuff” on this subject might be interested in what the late astronaut, Gordon Cooper had to say about it.

A good “basic education and awareness campaign” should begin with that video clip.