Endless growth is no solution

As usual, the yearly gathering of the world’s top business executives and their invited cabal of leading political figures provided a scene of surreal contrasts in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) that ended this week is traditionally a place for business figures to congratulate themselves on record growth and to extol the wonders of the global economy and the benefits of world trade liberalisation. But the business leaders were this year more worried than jubilant.
Not only is there growing momentum behind popular dissent over the effects of corporate globalisation, there is also economic fragility, financial markets are weak and there is the prospect of imminent war in Iraq.

On top of that, a survey conducted by the WEF confirms that public trust in large companies has reached an all-time low, fuelled by corporate scandals.

Inside the WEF, it feels as if a siege has been laid. Though many of the issues and concerns raised at demonstrations around WEF meetings in recent years are now on its official agenda, there are still no hard signals that the WEF members plan to alter their basic views, policies or strategies.

Despite the ever more vociferous protests against the social and environmental costs of the global free market, solutions to the world’s many pressing challenges are still couched by business leaders in terms of more “free trade’‘, “competition’’ and “growth’‘.

Their next opportunity to advance this economic agenda will come in September at the next ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Cancun, Mexico.

Preparation for Cancun was high on the agenda at Davos. Activists know that Cancun will be a crucial watershed for campaigns to promote a more sustainable and just world. Indeed, while the global elite met about 100 000 grassroots campaigners met in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to shape new economic ideas for a fairer and safer world.

Conspiracy theorists have been lampooned down the decades over their fears about the military-industrial complex. Up in Davos, though, the military-industrial complex was no laughing matter. Alongside leading political figures from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Nations Security Council countries, top executives from BP, Shell, TotalFinaElf and Lukoil were there. So was the architect of the first Gulf War, General Colin Powell, the United States Secretary of State.

General Wesley Clark, the former Supreme Allied commander for Nato in Europe, turned up as well to give a presentation on “military scenarios for a possible confrontation with Iraq’‘.

While this group gathered, Friends of the Earth handed out a leaked Deutsche Bank analysts’ report entitled Baghdad Bazaar: Big Oil in Iraq. This frightening document lays out how different oil companies and countries could benefit from the replacement of Saddam Hussain’s regime and speculates on how different oil companies might be involved in post-war control of the Iraqi state oil company.

To challenge this, or any other economic grouping, inside the WEF meeting is not straightforward. A few campaigners (including me) were invited in, but any press releases circulated must be “approved’’ by the WEF media team. An attempt this year to bring in letters calling on world leaders to take corporate accountability seriously was prevented by a heavy-handed security response.

But attempts to stifle dissent and to control the message do not mask the palpable sense that the architects of corporate globalisation have lost their way. The certainty that endless growth would solve the world’s problems no longer holds.

The question is, what should now be done — continue as before, or embrace new ideas? — Â

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