Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 15 November 2019

Today's leaders in business and science don't have all the answers to humankind's biggest challenges

There is a hunger for alternative solutions to the world's problems

A protest march in Hendaye, south-west France, against the annual G7 summit attended by the leaders of the world's seven richest democracies, Georges Gobet / AFP
A protest march in Hendaye, south-west France, against the annual G7 summit attended by the leaders of the world's seven richest democracies, Georges Gobet / AFP

A number of controversies this month have illustrated how ill-prepared many of us for the biggest challenges facing humankind.

The massive long-term pressures to change our lifestyles in the face of climate change and the post-2008 economic crisis are making fools of high-profile figures as well as testing experts.

There was the controversy over Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's flight on Sir Elton John’s private jet to the south of France for a holiday, at the same time as Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg refused to board a plane and decided to cross the Atlantic Ocean by yacht instead for the UN's Climate Change Summit in New York.

As the Amazon fires raged, G7 leaders took potshots at one another. At the G7 meeting in France this weekend, president Emmanuel Macron spoke of his anger that the “lungs of the planet” in the Amazon rainforest were aflame. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has been criticised around the world not only for the immediate crisis but a policy agenda that prioritises development over ecological concerns.

Then there was the attention-grabbing warning from the UN’s panel of scientists calling for us to switch to a plant-based diet to help tackle climate change.

And there was an initiative to defend the capitalist system by top chief executives, who called for a shift from quarterly profit maximisation to concentrate on stakeholder welfare.

The 180-strong business roundtable of US companies issued a statement of corporate purpose that attracted the signatures of bosses from Amazon, American Airlines and JPMorgan Chase.

The idea that firms should be run for the benefit of shareholders was rejected in an embrace of social responsibility for corporations.

The letter did not arrive out of the blue. Although economic growth and stability have been restored in the decade since the financial crisis, their enduring power and the doyens of capitalism continue to come in for questioning.

Massive state intervention to shore up the financial system was an indictment of the private sector’s fundamental resilience. Workplace disillusionment is high and there is a broad hunger for an alternative means of earning a living.

There is an argument this discontent is leading to a post-capitalist era. If so, the business roundtable charter is likely to be too little, too late.

Looking across community initiatives that exist outside the marketplace, it is possible to see new non-monetary networks as templates for a rebalanced, if not radically reformed, economy.

Although economic growth and stability have been restored in the decade since the financial crisis, their enduring power and the doyens of capitalism continue to come in for questioning

Whether it is local barter schemes, community-based childcare projects or even cryptocurrencies, the emphasis is on reducing reliance on cash as a means of exchange. This could be the start of a grassroots rejection of the corporate economy.

As Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JP Morgan Chase, said last week, more needed to be done to convince communities that businesses were on their side.

“Major employers are investing in their workers and communities because they know it is the only way to be successful over the long term,” he said. “The American dream is alive but fraying.”

The measures promoted by Mr Dimon and others could prove palliative but are unlikely to remedy basic issues facing all global corporations.

Efforts by Sir Elton to defend his friends, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, by stating he had made a payment ofsetting the carbon foootprint of their flight, equally did little to convince critics of the trip.

According to experts, the return flights were equivalent to more than three times the annual emissions for the average British citizen, or more than 50 times the footprint of someone living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this disparity, it would have cost Sir Elton about $600 – small change to the multi-millionaire – to offset the flights.

There was dismay, too, over Miss Thunberg's gesture, which was dampened when a German newspaper revealed that the crew and skipper manning her yacht would fly the Atlantic before and after the Maliza II completes its voyage. It had already been pointed out that not everyone has the option to take a fortnight-long voyage as a guest of the nephew of the prince of Monaco.

Debate about the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, calling for a drive to eliminate meat from the modern diet, rages on. The farming lobby has pointed out that many crops use more resources than rearing animals, most notably rice.

Improved farming practices such as more long-grass pasture cut down the amount of fodder used in the meat industry and represent good carbon storage, a way of trapping emissions and mitigating the effects of global warming.

Comparing efficient farming with less ethical rivals, the British National Farmers' Union says the industry can be carbon neutral by 2040. “We must farm smarter, focusing on improving productivity, encouraging carbon capture and boosting our production of renewable energy,” it said in a statement.

Global meat consumption has risen in tandem with better economic prospects, longer lives and more productive careers. This has been true in the West since the industrial revolution and in recent decades in China. Now Africa’s daily calorie intake is on the rise too, including meat consumption. It does not seem fair to deny dietary options to the world’s poorest. The panel's proposals are not practical solutions.

Familiar tactics are no longer working as a means to allay public outcry. Easy solutions are quickly exposed as flawed or impractical. Those dependent on these tools are vulnerable to an even larger backlash.

Updated: August 24, 2019 04:10 PM

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