By The Washington Post · Dan Zak · FEATURES
They're here at this time every year, to negotiate and network and divide up the exciting business of solving the world's problems. This week was the 50th meeting of the World Economic Forum. The themes were cohesion and sustainability, though humanity seems capable of neither right now. See the mega-fires in Australia. See the situation with Iran, whose foreign minister scrapped his attendance here at the last minute. See the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, or Prince Harry leaving the United Kingdom. See the world leaders and billionaires park their jets in Zurich and then float into Davos on helicopters to watch the leader of the free world make misleading boasts about the U.S. economy as the Senate tries him back home on an abuse-of-power charge.
In Davos, the trials are both incredibly broad and exquisitely niche. "ACT ON CLIMATE," someone has written in big letters, in the snow, near the helicopter landing zone. In the center of town, lupine packs of black Benzes prowl the jammed streets looking for fossil fuel executives and hedge fund managers to scoop up. Cryptocurrency traders shatter their wrists slipping on black ice after too many glasses of $5,000-a-bottle wine. A sketchy guesthouse rents single bedrooms with communal bathrooms for $1,000 a night despite online reviews like this one, translated from a Polish guest: There is a terrible chaos.
There is a terrible chaos elsewhere, yes, but not here at Davos. Here the chaos is orderly, policed and profitable. Here the chaos is shoehorned into sessions on "escaping the liquidity trap" and "the global impact of a tech cold war." The chaos is blurred by flutes of Cristal at parties thrown by corporations and entire nation-states, who plaster the town with garish pleas for investment (Canada: Everyone else is investing in us; why aren't you?). Poverty, disease, climate change, artificial intelligence - in Davos, these are not obstacles but opportunities for collaboration among 3,000 invited diplomats, corporate swashbucklers, academics, "thought leaders" and "changemakers."
Why are we all here? It's a practical question that can turn metaphorical in the rarefied air. Davos is an impossible summit. It's a place where guests can attend a session on resilience at a mountain base camp, preceded by Yo-Yo Ma himself playing Bach's Suite No. 3 in C Major. At its worst, it is not merely an example but a celebration of luxury, hierarchy, exclusivity. But it's also a place where people gather to talk in idealistic terms about the future of the species - presidents and CEOs and royal highnesses, who can move massive amounts of capital (intellectual and otherwise). If the key to our collective fate cannot be found here . . .
But hold that thought, because now comes Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist, to suggest that being here matters not at all.
"I've been warned that telling people to panic about the climate crisis is a very dangerous thing to do," Thunberg announced to 200 attendees Tuesday, referring to her comments in Davos last year. "But don't worry, it's fine. Trust me, I've done this before, and I can assure you: It doesn't lead to anything."
Then again, try telling that to Anthony Scaramucci, who felt like a small fish at his first Davos 13 years ago but made deals here, built his company's management portfolio into $11.5 billion, did an extremely brief but very eventful turn as White House communications director and now hosts one of the week's most popular parties. At his yearly "wine forum," there is jollity, not panic, and 100-point Spanish Riojas, not trillions of flecks of ocean-bound plastic.
"I would say that in the last 50 years, collectively, we're having a frat party with the environment," Scaramucci said over a quadruple espresso Thursday. "Now Greta and her children and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to be living in the frat house on Sunday morning after we destroyed the place on Saturday night. And so the problem is: When you are an impermanent person on Earth and you're enjoying the frat party, it's very hard for you to stop the frat party."
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At the start of the week, in a bar at the InterContinental hotel, billionaire Marc Benioff and the musician will.i.am brought down mallets on a cask of Japanese whiskey, poured themselves a shot and toasted the guests at Time magazine's kickoff party.
"Thank you for making me feel like family here on this mountain," will.i.am said from the stage. "It's a brand new decade, y'all. This decade is going to define the rest of freaking humanity."
That's the consensus here among the elites: This is it! We were made for this moment! And the way that humanity survives itself while maintaining the world order - and adapting to the "fourth industrial revolution" - is through something called "stakeholder capitalism," which is an academic way of saying "capitalism that doesn't grind people into chuck, and suck the planet dry, but still makes us lots of money."
The forum has set itself the ambitious goal of improving the state of the world.
If Davos is a microcosm of stakeholder capitalism, then the rest of the world can look forward to cigarette giant Philip Morris transforming a storefront on every Main Street into a swanky lounge where Sheryl Crow performs near signage advising customers to "UNSMOKE YOUR MIND," which is probably what a million cancer patients wish they could do to their lungs.
On a WhatsApp group of Davos denizens, one man reviewed the Philip Morris lounge thusly: "Upbeat music. Hot attendants. Cocktails. It's a nice change from sustainability and gender pay gap etc etc."
The et cetera et cetera - the serious discussions about the outside world - is happening in the World Economic Forum's official gathering place, a congress center fortified like a castle, where actors like Big Tobacco are banned. There you can bump into both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the 15-year-old chief water commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation of Canada. There you can drink celery juice from the health bar while watching a digital map the size of a one-bedroom apartment that depicts the incidence of child slave labor around the world. There you can watch foreign ministers puzzle over the future of NATO, and a 25-year-old blind YouTuber from Los Angeles talk about how to understand disability.
In keeping with the forum's hard pivot toward the climate crisis, the carpets were made from used fishing nets and the paint on the walls was made from seaweed. The forum is heavily promoting a global effort to plant 1 trillion trees by 2030 and has asked its business participants to commit to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
"Banks and pension funds with CEOs attending Davos are collectively financially exposed to fossil fuel companies to the tune of $1.4 trillion," Greenpeace reported this week.
Old habits, you know.
Outside the et cetera et cetera, Davos becomes a four-day funhouse for media outlets and corporations, consisting of a hierarchy of badges and titles, where the currency is the perception of importance and even millionaires grovel for invites to private suppers in chalets. (George Soros is a perennial host.) The great-granddaughter of J. Paul Getty is Instagramming from a mountaintop hot tub. The great-grandson of Sigmund Freud is throwing parties at the town golf club. Magician David Blaine keeps appearing everywhere. Russia, like other countries, has rented out a whole building for its own junket; last summer, two Russians who claimed to be plumbers supposedly tried to install surveillance equipment around town. This week, Davos was wallpapered with ads from the Saudi government that encourage investment and tout the foundation of its crown prince, who would like the focus on youth leaders rather than his kingdom's execution of journalists and dissidents.
"This whole event is sort of a dictator's bazaar," mused activist-investor Bill Browder, known as Putin's Enemy No. 1, over a dinner of rosti Wednesday. (Says a managing director of the forum: "Our message is clear: Institutions, rule of law and good governance underpin the world's most successful economies.")
Down the street in this world of stakeholder capitalism, a neon sign by Deutsche Bank asks, almost mockingly: "Is growth an illusion?" Nearby, Russian oligarchs mingle at a lounge named "Caspian Week," which sounds like a tourism bureau for Azerbaijan but is actually a small energy conference co-sponsored by a Swiss oil company.
Don't tell Greta, who walks around Davos with a police entourage the size of a world leader's. But she is a world leader, isn't she? Her name is on everyone's lips here. On the opening day of the meeting, she was in the 10th row of the congress hall to listen to President Donald Trump, who addressed the 17-year-old obliquely.
"To embrace the possibilities of tomorrow, we must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse," said Trump, who is derided by much of the Davos crowd for his nativist anti-intellectualism but tolerated for his anti-tax philosophy.
Before introducing Trump and thanking him for his leadership, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, praised the "transformational power" in the auditorium.
"If you aggregate our goodwill and action," Schwab told attendees in his German baritone, "we can say to the next generation: 'You can rely on us.' "
That morning, a small army of activists from that generation had blockaded the road into Davos, choking off Uber's black-car service and sending a ripple of inconvenience through the town.
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"This era is over."
Robert Julius Blokker, 32, had just marched 13 miles to Klosters, one town over from Davos.
"Millionairism is done."
He was sitting on a sleeping pad in an auditorium crawling with activists, who were on their way to tell the World Economic Forum that 50 years was enough.
Davos "is not some fun classy getaway cool thing to do if you're a CEO," said Blokker, who is from the Netherlands. "This is a besieged fortress of the last people building walls against reality, thinking that they're still in charge of a world they lost control of a long time ago. And it's very troubling that we might see how far they're willing to go to uphold the illusion."
If Davos is an illusion, it's a good one. In 1971, Schwab chose the town, a former health resort for tuberculosis patients, to host a "a workshop of the elite" from the business world, as the first invitation described it. What used to be a yearly salon of nerdy men in wool sweaters and tweed jackets became, over a half century, a kind of shadow United Nations that attracts a dizzying panoply of fascinating, impressive people with a genuine desire to better the world. Davos is the place where the heads of East and West Germany first met for negotiations, and where Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk first appeared together abroad.
Not merely a frat party, but also a college.
Fifty years on, amid trade wars and a retaliation against globalism, the forum and its annual meeting are needed more than ever, says Tony Fratto, who has attended Davos as both a U.S. Treasury Department official and partner at a private communications firm.
"Yes, it's expensive and they're spending money and having parties and you can hear the jewelry jangling," Fratto says. "But it is people who are committed to trying to elevate standards of living and expand rights and opportunities for people."
During the lifetime of the forum, says author and political scientist Ian Bremmer, globalism created incredible wealth, buoyed life expectancy, broadened access to education, lifted droves out of poverty.
"But environmental catastrophe is the bad side of it, and, inside the advanced industrial democracies, we have failed our people," says Bremmer, who was first invited to Davos more than a decade ago as part of program for young global leaders. "Inequality has grown and grown and grown. I think the globalist ideology and Davos have become synonymous with the system being rigged."
This is a besieged fortress of the last people building walls against reality.
On Wednesday, a Wall Street Journal party on the promenade was blasting the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" into the frozen starry night, and it felt exactly right.
And you may ask yourself, "Well - how did I get here?"
The answer to that question is Klaus Schwab, the great convener, the first and only sovereign of the World Economic Forum. He is regarded as a visionary, a genius, an enlightened being, a narcissist, a cult leader, a wannabe Nobel laureate. Depending on whom you talk to, his creation is viewed as a magnificent achievement that has nurtured the world, or a brilliant boondoggle that prizes chat above action and revenue above the public good. A few high-ranking former employees contacted for this story would not comment on the record because they fear his power. Civil-society groups have charged the forum with exerting undemocratic, pro-business influence over the United Nations.
Angela Merkel, however, keeps coming back for the et cetera et cetera. This was her 12th Davos.
"This is something unique that was created here in the Swiss mountains," Merkel said in her keynote speech Thursday. "The forum has set itself the ambitious goal of improving the state of the world. . . . I think if you look back five decades, you can tell that the world has indeed gotten better."
Schwab was not available for comment on short notice - it was, after all, the busiest week of his year - but his personality shines through a self-congratulating coffee table book about the forum that was distributed to attendees.
"It is my deep personal conviction that we must move towards a society which is no longer based on production and consumption," Schwab says in a Q&A in the book. The World Economic Forum "aims to be a pioneer in this new social order based on ideals rather than on material values."
Capitalism is all about materials, though, and they swirled around the congress center: mutual funds, cloud technology, petroleum, cannabis, consultancy, cryptocurrency.
There's a feeling one gets here, as an outsider here: that there is a system, or a game, and that these people have figured out how to play it. The hive of social activity is the Belvedere hotel, which was transformed this week into a labyrinth of branded cocktail hours and candlelit dinners in private rooms.
A quote from a senior consultant at Deloitte welcomes people into this realm: "Profit and purpose can exist in harmony."
If you pass the guards with submachine guns, scan your badge on a blinking kiosk and shuffle through security, you find yourself in front of four portals, each leading to a different ecosystem labeled with the acronyms of big sponsors: PwC, Citi, WSJ, KPMG. It's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," but with business cards instead of playing cards and a lucrative contract as the white rabbit.
And you may ask yourself, "How do I work this?"
Maybe the key to the future can be found in Davos.
Maybe the only people who can get to it are the ones who arrived with keys of their own.
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What is Davos good for? Whom is it good for? Is it good for someone like Scaramucci, with his ingratiating self-awareness? Is Davos good for someone like the Prince of Wales, who loaned his fusty imprimatur to a hip-sounding "Sustainable Markets Initiative"? Is it good for Ivanka Trump, who met with the prime minister of Pakistan and co-hosted a breakfast with American CEOs? Is it good for will.i.am, who appeared with primatologist Jane Goodall on a panel titled "Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution," or is it good for Jane Goodall, who appeared on the panel with will.i.am?
Is Davos good for the rest of us, who may indirectly benefit from the forum's focus on strengthening cybersecurity in global aviation?
On Wednesday, the forum launched "Reskilling Revolution" (yet another initiative) to "provide one billion people with better education, skills and jobs by 2030."
A billion jobs.
A trillion trees.
Sounds wonderful. (Sounds too good to be true.)
If you want to pursue a united front, probably the only place on Earth where that could even be moved from fantasy into a reality is Davos.
Maybe Davos is good for someone like Micah White, who protested the World Economic Forum in New York in 2002, when he was 20 years old, and helped start the Occupy movement in 2011. On Tuesday, White was walking the sunny promenade of Davos as a guest. He wore a navy suit and carried a backpack branded with the logo of the World Economic Forum, which has been recruiting more activists, women and young people into its fold.
Accepting the invitation could be "reputational suicide," White says, but he views climate change as a threat that requires immediate collaboration between activists and elites, not a time-consuming political revolution where one tries to overthrow the other.
"If you want to pursue a united front, probably the only place on Earth where that could even be moved from fantasy into a reality is Davos," says White, seated in Facebook's hub after a private meeting with industry leaders. "That's not my fault. We have 10 years [to act on climate], and we have to work with what exists right now."
You can see Davos as everything that's wrong with the world, or you can see it as an opportunity to save the world. Sometimes you can see both at the same time.
On the edge of town, by the ski slopes, an activist for the homeless camped in a tent in 20-degree weather as forum attendees paid thousands of dollars a night for lodging. During the day, Andrew Funk hoped to educate them whenever they stepped out of their inner sanctum. On Thursday, he spotted and approached Jimmy Wales, the co-founder of Wikipedia, and came away believing that Wales might join him for a frigid camp-out at next year's Davos.
"Three thousand euros ends homelessness for one person through our program," says Funk, who lives in Barcelona and runs an organization called Homeless Entrepreneur. "Every night a person stays in Davos could end homelessness for one to three people."
It was something real and true to think about, whenever confronted by absurdity here. Like the lone bagpiper flown in from Scotland to blow his instrument for 2 1/2 hours outside a whiskey bar, which was set up by an asset manager from Edinburgh with a portfolio worth $700 billion. The bagpiper wore a kilt, so his knees were bare. His undercarriage was well acquainted with the Swiss winter. He stood behind a large, branded frame that said, "This is #MyDavos," to encourage selfies and Instagrams.
There on the promenade, a company had turned a man into a product.
How much longer does he have to do this?
"Counting the minutes," he said. Then he kept blowing into the frigid night.