Davos dribbles

What a world of blath­er, the Davos meet­ing must be. The cor­po­rate chat­ter­ing class­es titi­lat­ing them­selves with scary, fuzzy, big-pic­ture booga­loo. Clever talk and a few good din­ners mus­ing about issues they guess are com­plex, loom­ing, and some­one else’s prob­lem (tomor­row) must con­sole them for the rest of the year when they have to deal with prob­lems that are bina­ry, here today and bet­ter be solved now.

At least, that’s the only expla­na­tion I can think of for the gloomy twad­dle that the Davos organ­i­sa­tion pro­mul­gates (in unread­able charts) about the glob­al risk “cen­tres of grav­i­ty” that are bound to drag us into a hot, crowd­ed, hate-filled future. 

Dystopia, the oppo­site of a utopia, describes a place where life is full of hard­ship and devoid of hope. Analy­sis of link­ages across var­i­ous glob­al risks reveals a con­stel­la­tion of fis­cal, demo­graph­ic and soci­etal risks sig­nalling a dystopi­an future for much of humanity

Extract from Glob­al Risks Report [Davos] 2012: The Seeds of Distopia

It must be a good screw, this high-toned scare mon­ger­ing. From Erlich’s pop­u­la­tion bomb, to the Club of Rome, to the UNEP Rio Report and the IPC­C’s scan­dalous cli­mate scares, the same steamy entrails seem to be served up every few years to the alarm­ing trum­pets of anoth­er ide­o­log­i­cal priest­hood dom­i­nat­ed, typ­i­cal­i­ty, by rent-seek­ers and grant-hun­gry aca­d­e­mics. It’s as if the prob­lems of scarci­ty, allo­ca­tion, con­sump­tion and invest­ment were not age-old and eter­nal but some­how sur­pris­ing new crises chal­leng­ing the fab­ric of our soci­eties in ways nev­er before con­ceived. As if the almost expo­nen­tial growth in glob­al pros­per­i­ty of the past three hun­dred years were bound, ineluctably, to come crash­ing and burn­ing to a calami­tous halt just in our life­time (if not soon­er) despite all of the evi­dence to the contrary.


Take, for exam­ple, the high­est impact and most like­ly risk “cen­tre of grav­i­ty” that the Davos report dis­cerns — by sur­vey­ing just 470 peo­ple among whom aca­d­e­mics (30%), NGOs (17%) and Inter­na­tion­al Orga­ni­za­tions (9%) fig­ured promi­nent­ly (sur­prise, sur­prise!) —a “Water Sup­ply Cri­sis.” A quick check on Google Schol­ar reveals that the prob­lem of the alleged glob­al short­age of fresh water has been chest­nut since the late 1960s; that is, for fifty years or so the prob­lem of poten­tial excess demand has been dis­cussed by aca­d­e­mics and pol­i­cy mak­ers with­out, how­ev­er, much evi­dence that a glob­al “cri­sis” point has been reached or is even imminent. 

On the con­trary, the evi­dence is that the known, avail­able, recov­er­able sup­ply of fresh water exceeds human demand (6.9 bn peo­ple) by a fac­tor of 10 (see this help­ful sum­ma­ry by geo­sci­en­tists: Oelk­ers, E.H., J.G. Her­ing, and C. Zhu. “Water: Is There a Glob­al Cri­sis?.” Ele­ments 7, no. 3 (2011): 157). There are, cer­tain­ly, seri­ous pol­i­cy chal­lenges in mobil­is­ing, allo­cat­ing and dis­trib­ut­ing exist­ing fresh water resources, espe­cial­ly for agri­cul­tur­al use (drink­ing water is a tiny frac­tion of total fresh water use). Excess demand for fresh water in some loca­tions is chron­ic and abuse is grow­ing: see the graph­ic illus­tra­tion in the Oelk­ers et. al. paper of the shrink­ing of Lake Chad. But the prob­lem is not about sup­ply; it’s about demand, or to be more pre­cise, about water pro­duc­tiv­i­ty espe­cial­ly in agri­cul­tur­al use. Water is a renew­able resource that demands urgent improve­ments in pric­ing and man­age­ment, espe­cial­ly, in most places, to increase the price to farm­ers to some­thing more in pro­por­tion with con­sumer prices. But there is no glob­al fresh water sup­ply crisis.

Would­n’t it be refresh­ing if, instead of ped­alling this alarmist fluff based on an index of fear, the Davos organ­i­sa­tion could treat the evi­dence of prob­lems more seri­ous­ly and focus on plau­si­ble solutions. 

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