Terence Corcoran: At Davos, the world is aflame. Everywhere else, things are awesome

Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, interviewed broadcaster Sir David Attenborough at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos this week.

Reaching deep for the hard question, Prince William asked: “David, recently you were in Poland and you spoke out very powerfully at the UN climate change conference there. How urgent is that crisis now?”

Sir David did not fail to take up challenge: “It’s difficult to overstate it.”

But let me try, he might have added. “We are now so numerous, so powerful, so all pervasive, the mechanisms that we have for destruction are so wholesale and so frightening, that we can actually exterminate whole ecosystems without even noticing it.” Attenborough — promoting Our Planet, a new Netflix series set to stream in April, backed by the environmentalist activists at the World Wildlife Fund — also told a Davos audience “The Holocene has ended. The Garden of Eden is no more.”

That may be true, but who wants to go back to the Garden of Eden, when humans were at the mercy of nature, including routine weather events? In his bestselling book last year, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Harvard University’s Steven Pinker writes: “Our ancestors were powerless to stop these lethal menaces, so in that sense technology has not made this a uniquely dangerous era in the history of our species but a uniquely safe one.”

In Enlightenment Now, out in paperback this month, Pinker fills hundreds of pages with text and graphs that show the world to be on a trajectory of progress, with less extreme poverty, more food, less violence, and growing prosperity even as the world’s population continues to expand.

I looked through the list of Davos performers but could find no sign of Pinker. Instead, as is traditional at the WEF sessions, every known aspect of human existence is portrayed as a threat, a risk, a source of looming disaster. The usual suspects were on hand to join CEOs and other private-jetsetters whose aim is to turn corporations into knights charging into battle against global economic, political and environmental forces that seem to be out of control.

A video feed from the WEF’s website starred such experts as Al Gore and Bono. “Capitalism is a wild beast that needs to be tamed,” said Bono, who is estimated to have amassed a net worth of US$700 million from selling rock music to the capitalist beast.

But the greatest alarmism came from WEF itself, via its own annual Global Risks publication, assembled for the annual Davos festival of doom by a pair of insurance industry giants. “The world is facing a growing number of complex and interconnected challenges,” said WEF president Borge Brende in the forum’s annual Global Risks report.

Nothing is off the list of threats that are circling the planet this year: climate change, rising urbanization, degrading environments, man-made ecological disasters, food crises, profound social instability, rising cyber dependency, rising sea levels, emotional disruption, monetary populism, deflation, data fraud, aging populations, urban population growth, rising chronic diseases, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss, social instability, rising inequality, increasing nationalism etc., etc., etc.

To hammer home the mind-boggling scale of the risks and all their spine-tingling interconnectedness, the WEF report produced a dramatic if incoherent Graphic of Gloom, which is reprinted here (see accompanying graphic).  “Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis?” the report asks. “Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking.”

Enough. Next year the World Economic Forum should invite Pinker to reset the organization’s compass. His Enlightenment Now is an encyclopedia of data and analysis that demolishes most of the Davosian portrayal of a world in a perpetual state of crisis brought on by human action.

Despite the fact that human life expectancy has risen, diseases have been eliminated, terrorism deaths have declined, income distribution has risen, and the world is a better place than it ever has been, a sense of dystopian doom pervades Davos. Another book Davosians could benefit from is Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change by two Toronto academics, Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak. They also dissect the Davos myths that the world is going to a hell in a handbasket of overpopulation and never-ending crises.


Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore delivers a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty

Pinker has many explanations for the rise of doomism, including this reference. “Starting in the 1970s,” he writes, “the mainstream environmental movement latched onto a quasi-religious ideology, greenism, which can be found in the manifestos of activists as diverse as Al Gore, the Unabomber and Pope Francis.” Pinker quotes the 2015 Papal encyclical, which sounds like a line from an Attenborough documentary script: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share a life… (who) now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her.”

At Davos, everything is a panicky crisis, with one point of risk piled on top of others, from the economy in China to Brexit, to the risks of recession and trade wars, population growth and the rise of nationalism and populism.

In the opening words of Enlightenment Now, Pinker outlines his theme, which is “the historical sweep of progress.” We may not be living in a perfect world. But neither are we living the nightmare that the Davos conclave portrays every January, when the real world is filled with great achievement and even greater opportunity.

Published at Fri, 25 Jan 2019 11:00:52 +0000