Averting the world’s end, on trust

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As the word, “systemic”, appears not once but three times in the two-page Executive Summary of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Risks 2014 report, you get the distinct impression that this members-only club of the planet’s uberinfluencers is already planning for the apocalypse.

In previous risk assessments (released annually) the WEF has been content to merely list the various threats – financial, social, economic – that it thinks imperil the world’s fragile accommodations to national well-being.

This year, however, the Forum is determined to emphasize how these risks have become so well integrated that they pose a systemic danger to civilization, itself.

To be sure, it’s a little like watching a street prophet foretell the arrival of the four horsemen.

“Each risk considered in this report holds the potential for failure on a global scale; however, it is their interconnected nature that makes their negative implications so pronounced as together they can have an augmented effect,” said Jennifer Blanke, the WEF’s chief economist, in the news release that accompanied the report last week. “It is vitally important that stakeholders work together to address and adapt to the presence of global risks in our world today.”

The hit parade of hazards include, in no particular order of pernicious effect: income disparity, fiscal crises, monetary collapse and illiquidity (that means you New Brunswick). There’s also structurally high underemployment and joblessness, especially among the world’s youth.

There’s oil price shocks, critical infrastructure failures and currency devaluation.  Then there’s climate change: greater incidence of extreme weather events; greater incidence of natural catastrophes. There’s also greater incidence of man-made environmental catastrophes, such as oil spills nuclear meltdowns.

If that’s not enough to send you back beneath the covers, consider the failure of global governance models, political collapses, increasing corruption, a major escalation in organized crime and illicit trade, large-scale terrorist attacks, the deployment of weapons of mass destruction.

Wait, we’re nowhere near done.

There are food crises during which access to appropriate quantities and quality of nutrition becomes inadequate or unreliable.” There are pandemic outbreaks thanks to

“inadequate disease surveillance systems, failed international coordination and the lack of vaccine production capacity.” And there’s the “increasing burden of illness and long-term costs of treatment” which threaten “recent societal gains in life expectancy and quality while overburdening strained economies.”

Apart from growing income disparity, by which the WEF seems most troubled, the problem of the kids today hovers like a dark cloud. “Many young people face an uphill battle,” offers David Cole, the Group Chief Risk Officer of the Forum-affiliated Swiss Reinsurance Company. “As a result of the financial crisis and globalization, the younger generation in the mature markets struggle with ever fewer job opportunities and the need to support an aging population. While in the emerging markets there are more jobs to be had, the workforce does not yet possess the broad based skill-sets necessary to satisfy demand.”

Naturally, there’s a bunch more perils – including a nifty event the WEF rather provocatively dubs “cybergeddon”, in which “systemic failures of critical information infrastructure (CII) and networks negatively impact industrial production, public services and communications” – but why blunt the point with too much repetition?

We might as well face it folks. We are well and truly. . .um, you might say, fastened by means of a screw.

Or, maybe not. All good end-of-the-world myths contain escape clauses. And they all share the same qualities: an almost childlike faith in certain principles, the absence of which caused our headlong rush to perdition in the first place. The WEF’s creation/destruction story is no exception.

It wants us to put on our “longterm thinking” caps, get busy getting together for “collaborative multi-stakeholder action” that includes effective “global governance.”

Most crucially, though, its wants us to “trust”.

Trust, it says, “is necessary if stakeholders are to work together to tackle global risks, but trust is being undermined in some systemically important areas. For example, much of the younger generation lacks trust in traditional political institutions and leaders, while recent revelations about cyber espionage have undermined trust in the Internet in general and the governance of cyberspace in particular.”

Of course, restoring trust to a bitter, cynical world on the brink of collapse would be a neat trick, indeed.

One might even call it systemic.

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