At the World Economic Forum this year, business elites and political leaders charted a new form of climate-friendly capitalism. But it's a palliative capitalismby Oli Mould / February 19, 2020 / Leave a comment
As we entered the new decade, bushfires swept across Australia, hinting at the dystopian post-climate change landscape we may all have to inhabit in the near future. Meanwhile, 10,000 miles (and about 40 degrees centigrade) away in Switzerland, a group of global leaders and influential elites in the mountainous town of Davos were charting a course for our world to avert such a future.
At this year’s World Economic Forum, popularly known as Davos, founder and executive chair Klaus Schwab penned the “Davos Manifesto.” In it, he urged the 3,000 plus invite-only attendees to move toward something he called “stakeholder capitalism”—a system of production that aims to prioritise the welfare of workers, the sustainability of production methods and the social concerns of their consumers.
First unveiled in a blog post titled “Why we need the ‘Davos Manifesto’ for a better kind of capitalism,” Schwab argues that we have had 50 years of “shareholder capitalism,” which believes that a corporation’s primary goal is to maximise profit for investors, executives and shareholders. But citing the “Greta Thunberg effect” that sees young people demand systemic change to avert climate catastrophe, Schwab—and many business elites—are now advocating seemingly radical changes to the system. Indeed, Jeff Bezos announced yesterday that he intends to donate $10 billion dollars to launch a fund supporting climate change research.
But is this change so radical? To the elite who frequent Davos, solving the climate problem, it seems, is to simply do what we have been doing before, only “greener.” Take Amazon, which recently threatened to fire employees who spoke out about the company’s role in the climate crisis and work with oil and gas companies (a company spokeswoman responded noting “Our policy regarding external communications is not new and, we believe, is similar to other large companies.”) Absent an overhaul of the very goals, and strategy of the company that made his empire, Bezos’s announcement masquerades as an act of selfless philanthropy, further endearing billionaires like him to the populace and enshrining their necessity in the system.
Rather than being a programme for radical change, measures like the Davos manifesto are merely a confirmation that there is a pervasive blindness among captains of capitalism, who cannot imagine a vision of collective life outside of what they have created. It is not stakeholder capitalism; it is palliative capitalism.
Commenting on the failures of “shareholder capitalism,” Schwab argues that “millennials and Generation Z no longer want to work for, invest in, or buy from companies that lack values beyond maximizing shareholder value.” But rather than shift the socio-economic conditions that created these corporate behemoths in the first place, his answer is to “look for ways to link environmental and societal benefits to financial returns.” Sadly, what Schwab can’t seem to grasp is that it is the “financial returns” bit that is doing all the damage.
For all its talk of “stewardship” and “improving well-being,” Davos’s diagnosis for the current crisis is yoked—and subservient to—a continual desire for growth, and therefore destruction of the already ecologically fragile world. Other measures that might help, like overhauling production methods, supply chains and wage structures to be more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable, fall by the wayside. Palliative capitalism merely involves repackaging the same products with a different aesthetic gloss that will appeal to our consciences.
In the last decade or so we have already seen the preponderance of sustainable products, but these can do more damage by giving us a guilt-free get-out clause to continue consuming. If anything, as Emma Flynn writes, the only thing they actually sustain is our rapacious desire to consume. Supermarkets are waging war against plastic waste by reducing plastic bags, but 46 per cent of the plastic in the oceans come from the fishing industry. So, whether we carry home our fish in a plastic single-use bag or a branded “Bag for Life” is not the real issue—it’s how much fish we have in there in the first place that counts. But to challenge that would be to drastically change industrial fishing methods and ultimately, corporate profits.
Even the consumption patterns that we could adopt to tackle climate catastrophe are being repackaged as mere “quirks.” Vegan food has now become the flavour of a month. Despite having the obvious benefit of enraging reactionary morning TV hosts, most fast-food chains that serve vegan dishes do so to maintain the growth protocols of corporate expansion. These outlets are not offering vegan dishes instead of meat ones: their vegan options, rather, help get more people into their restaurants. Meanwhile beef-farming is one of the most carbon-omitting and land-grabbing forms of agriculture there is. The growth of vegan options without a systematic attempt to curb meat consumption is mere window-dressing.
And perhaps most pernicious of all, there is the rather crass climate change chic. Fashion companies are hawking designer face-masks to smoke-chocked citizens; the world around you may be burning, but for a price, you can look good while it does.
Palliative capitalism, then, is all about keeping us sedated so when the apocalypse arrives we’ll be too busy scrolling for our next purchase. The one thing it cannot allow is our consumption to slow, the insatiability of economic growth to be questioned, or for new ways of organising society beyond the privatisation of everything to develop. Those changes may imperil the livelihoods of those who frequent Davos and benefit from the continued functioning of the current system. The predicted global temperature rises of 3-5 per cent may well see vast swaths of the world burn and mass-migration on an unprecedented scale, but these are likely to be incidental to the 1% who will be spared the brunt of the catastrophe in their specifically prepared luxury bunkers.
Fredrick Jameson once said that is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It looks like, we’re about to really put that idiom to the test. And we should really hope he was wrong; our future depends upon it.