01/31/2013 12:55 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Resilience Requires Resources

Last week, the great and the good met in Davos for the 2013 World Economic Forum (WEF). The driving theme of the conference was resilient dynamism, a subject that has attracted attention from an array of politicians and business leaders because of the jolts that have buffeted our natural and socioeconomic systems in recent years. Events like the BP oil spill and Superstorm Sandy have demonstrated the vulnerability of long-standing economic dynamics and infrastructure networks to disruption and destruction in the absence of shock absorbers. But when it comes to resilience, are we really, truly ready to put our money where our mouth is?

What often surprises me in discussions on resilience is the inability of participants to fully grasp one simple idea: resilience requires resources. I do not dismiss the money that foundations and governments have committed thus far, and I am glad that some of the world's most influential people spent several days in the mountains of Switzerland reminding one another about Earth's most pressing challenges. Still, I worry that the real and demonstrable need for institution building and investment in sustainable energy, climate change adaptation, and poverty alleviation attracts less urgency when the world's high-flyers return to sea level. Beijing is concerned about domestic growth and internal corruption, Brussels remains fixated on the crises facing Europe's Mediterranean economies and questions about the EU's future, and Washington remains riven by partisan gridlock. In such settings, action on items like greenhouse gas emissions and foreign aid inevitably falls through the cracks.

I urge the well-connected, globe-hopping people who populate forums like Davos to put their power to good use. Mobilize citizens to change their consumption patterns. Encourage political leaders to pass targeted and achievable measures to boost energy efficiency and curtail fossil fuel consumption. Connect well-established companies and research institutes with emerging hot spots for innovation. Acknowledge the importance of redundancy and slack. Facilitate the bi-directional exchange of ideas and investment to combat disease, deforestation, and drought in developing countries.

In a report released last week by the WEF, consultants from Accenture wrote that as much as $5.7 trillion of spending on infrastructure, power generation, and water management will be needed each year between now and 2020 to keep pace with projected demand and comply with global development and emissions control objectives. This is a huge commitment, one that far exceeds what one Fortune 500 company or foundation can muster in isolation. There has been much talk about the need to rein in spending in developed countries, but it is imperative for us to bank the necessary resources for a transition towards a more sustainable growth path. As we aim to spend our money effectively in this effort, we must also understand that a transformation of this magnitude cannot be done on the cheap.