The World Economic Forum, sometimes called Davos, the name of the Swiss resort town that has hosted it since 1971, is a huge conference in which CEOs, world leaders, celebrities, and breathless financial reporters converge to talk.
This year, the theme is “The New Global Context,” specially designed by the WEF directors to be as vague as possible. That way, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s condemnation of Russian militarization, Emma Watson’s plea for women’s rights, French president Francois Hollande’s instructions for fighting terrorism with business, and an interview with International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde on global inequality could all sit side-by-side and inform one another.
Plus, this year’s presentations on the environment: “How Can We Save the World’s Forests?,” “Can the World Buy Its Way Out of Hunger?,” a Q&A on how to tackle climate change denial, and discussions on everything from the power and harm of cheap food, to Russian oil reserves, to the global water crisis, to preventing Australian animal species from going extinct. There’s a purpose to the breadth of the conversation: capturing the attention of as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Climate change is here, and there’s no time to lose.
Of course, all that time to chit-chat is a luxury belonging to a precious few. For some, Davos has become a garish symbol of the cluelessless of the global economic elite’s to realities of inequality, an obliviousness that extends to how they confront a changing environment—1,700 private jets ferried many of this year’s attendees to the alpine wonderland, where they met with other luminaries who paid $40,000 a ticket to talk manmade climate change over $43 hot dogs.
Despite the clownish display of wealth, many of the summit’s guests really had come to meet environmental challenges head on. Take, for example, a joint speech from former vice president Al Gore and singer/songwriter/producer Pharrell. The unlikely duo announced Live Earth, a seven-continent awareness-raising concert series, complete with an Antarctic date headlined by a band of scientists at an as-yet unannounced research outpost. "It is absolutely crucial that we build public will for an agreement," Gore said. “The purpose is to have a billion voices with one message, to demand climate action now.”
Pharrell took the stage as the creative director of Bionic Yarn, a company that recycles plastic into textiles. “I think you guys know how serious the global warming thing is, and so for us, we’re taking it very seriously, and we wanted to do something very different this time. Instead of just having people perform, we literally — and I can’t go all the way into it now, because some interesting surprises [are] coming up soon — but we literally are going to have humanity harmonize all at once,” said Pharrell, leaving the specific references to the Paris event to Gore.
Will.i.am, the lead singer, songwriter, and producer of the Black Eyed Peas, gave a speech in which he referenced “a new way of learning” and spoke at length (though without proposals for solutions) about the lack of technology role models in inner-city neighborhoods.
A meditation expert named Jon Kabat-Zinn held daily meditation sessions and gave speeches in which he instructed CEOs on how meditation might assist executives to be better at their jobs. The Gates Foundation released a long statement about the future: “Breakthroughs will be driven by innovation in technology — ranging from new vaccines and hardier crops to much cheaper smartphones and tablets — and by innovations that help deliver those things to more people.”
Whether Davos’s public-facing speeches should be taken seriously is up for debate, but it’s probably worth reflecting on some of the conference’s past triumphs. The US-Middle East Free Trade Zone, which opened trade between Arab nations and the U.S., was launched from Davos in 2003. The Global Plan to Stop Tuberculosis was launched by, among others, Bill Gates from Davos in 2006. And various partnerships to combat hunger, to fund education, and to provide connected technology have all sprung from Davos in the past few decades. It’s easy to sneer at Davos, and it’s not unwarranted, but this is one of the few places where an activist biotechnologist might run into Bill Gates and manage to corner him in a hallway for a few minutes. And that could be important.