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Archbishop at World Economic Forum in Davos

Sunday 31st January 2010

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, lead the Closing Session of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2010 in Davos, Switzerland, with a discussion on "Being Responsible for the Future".

World Economic Forum, Davos © World Economic Forum

Press Release:

The theme of this year's meeting is "Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild" and among the particular focuses are strengthening economic and social welfare, ensuring sustainability and creating a values framework.  The Archbishop will be offering his reflections on the importance of pursuing these goals, and their connection to a wider understanding of what constitutes human well being.

Dr Williams will be joined in conversation by six representatives of the British Council's Global Changemaker programme, and by Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, who will be chairing the closing session.

The closing session draws together five days of working sessions, where over 2,500 business, government, civil society, academic and cultural leaders are addressing pressing challenges and future risks.  The Archbishop is among more than a dozen faith leaders attending the 40th anniversary of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting.

The Archbishop's address follows a trip to New York, during which he spoke at the Trinity Institute's 2010 Conference "Building an Ethical Economy", and met with UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop’s speech below, or click download on the right to listen [9Mb].

The Archbishop of Canterbury, from the closing session of the 2010 World Economic Forum in Davos

People sometimes quote the old cliché; why should I worry about posterity, what’s posterity ever done for me. And I think what we have to come to terms with first of all is recognising that here and now, we are taking decisions that whether we like it or not have effects long beyond our own lifespan.

Those decisions may be conscious decisions; we know what values they are based on, we know where we want to get. Or they may be short term, narrow decisions whose effects we don’t understand or control and don’t very much care about.

So the very first thing I’d want to say is that it is important for us here and now to wake up to the fact that what we decide, what we simply accept or let by, the habits we value, the behaviours we reward; these things create the world of the next generation. And we can’t get away from that, whether we like it or not.

If it’s important then for human beings to live as if they were intelligent, as if they were capable of understanding themselves, it’s important for human beings to be aware of the consequences of their actions.

So posterity is not just some abstract thing from which we are divided. We here and now are the makers of a new generation, a new climate. Some of us are literally parents; we have made our contribution to the next generation.

So let’s wake up to who we are, let’s wake up and do justice to ourselves. I say that because sometimes if you speak about doing justice to the next generation, again it can sound abstract. But what about doing justice to ourselves? Acting as if we really understood that we were making a difference for good or ill in the coming generation.

So I’d frame the whole discussion in the light of that recognition. And that has, I think, the rather strange effect of making us realise that the best thing we can do for the future, to show our responsibility to the future is living responsibly in the present.

Now sometimes when people say “We’re living in the present” it’s as if they’re saying “We live as if there were no tomorrow. We live for the immediate moment.” But actually living responsibly in the present, really being aware of the kind of world we are in, the limits it imposes, the wisdom it suggests; that living responsibly is the best gift we can give to the future. It’s a kind of realism, it’s a kind of truthfulness about who we are and where we are.

And the worst thing that has emerged out of the economic and ecological crises of the last few decades is of course our failure to live in the real world. We live in a world of fantasy, a world where there is endless material resource to be exploited. A world in which it is possible to change the destiny of millions of people by financial transactions happening in mid air.

That is not the real world and I do take some offence when some people say “Oh you theologians and people who talk about ideals and values don’t live in the real world.” I see plenty of evidence of others, other decision makers not living in the real world in that sense. And I think what my colleagues here on the platform have been talking about is the real world.

So living responsibility in the present, living within the limits that are imposed by being part of a world, part of a system of interdependence. Human interdependence; depending on each other, dependence on the resource of the world we are in.

In the light of that I would say there are two or three huge, obvious priorities in terms of our responsibility to the future. The first of these I’ve already touched on, you hardly need it underlined. And that is responsibility around the environment. Are we living in the world now in such a way that it will be inhabitable by the next generation? Or are we spending the natural capital of our globe in such a way that it is harder and harder to live a secure, reasoned, mutual life in the next generation.

I spent the past few days at a conference in New York on building an ethical economy. And one of the people there who shared the platform with me was the Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, whose great contribution to economic discussion in recent years has been insisting that you factor in to your economic calculations the degradation of natural capital, which often our mathematics around finance and economics simply doesn’t do.

And so we can’t but begin with that. What are we squandering, what are we ruining, how much are we making the world of the next generation harder for people to inhabit. With honesty, truthfulness, responsibility, care, mutuality.

The second thing is again to do with security. By which I mean things like security of work and food supply as well as environment. And it’s a pity that the word ‘security’ has come to signal almost exclusively, in some people’s eyes, military and strategic security. Those are not small things. But behind them and around them lies the far, far greater question of what is going to provide that secure human environment where there is work, where there is food.

And so our responsibility to the future is also about sustaining levels of care for one another, especially for the most vulnerable. And if we think about the imperative to create and sustain national wealth, at the heart of that ought to be the imperative to sustain care for the vulnerable, to sustain the security that means nobody need live in perpetual fear of failure, of falling through the nets.

Environment, employment and care. The third dimension is in some ways the most important of all and that’s why I’m feeling particularly privileged to be on the platform with the people I am with here. And the third element is what I would call passing on the cultural legacy. Passing on a picture of human behaviour, human achievement and human aspiration that is worthwhile.

What are we giving to the future in terms of the human stories that we value? What sort of behaviour do we look as if we most valued in our world at the moment?  The answers are often rather depressing. We reward achievements of a certain kind. We speak and we work very often, as if the behaviours that ought to be rewarded were either obsessional or selfish or both.

And so the challenge is; what do we here and now, in the present, value as human beings? Why not start living as though those values mattered. Because, and here is the blindingly simple message of the day; the old cliché of not being able to take it with you is actually true. And it goes back to the gospels by which I try to organise my own life.

Jesus’ story about the rich man who was woken in the middle of the night by a vision of God saying “Your soul is required of you tonight and what difference does all that make.” That is something worth bearing in mind.

Our souls, our lives are going to be required of us. The most we can ever do with what we achieve is to put it at the service of the world we inhabit; the human world, the wider world. That is the most we can ever do.

And to lead lives here and now which suggests that that is what we want to pass on, that’s the vision of humanity we want to communicate. Once again, it takes us back to where I started; living responsibly now is the best way of showing responsibility to the future.

When people don’t think about the future, when they don’t consider they have a responsibility to the next generation and beyond, what they are really saying is “We don’t actually value humanity enough to want to keep it going. We don’t value our own humanity sufficiently. We are not content enough, grateful enough to be human, to want that humanity to live in other people.” And that is a real tragedy.

We are so undermining that sense that humanity is precious that the new generation rising up might very well look at us and say “What was it that wounded you, that distorted you so deeply that you can’t see what matters humanly? What was it that taught you, us, me, people of my generation, what was it that taught you to undervalue humanity like this, so that you didn’t think a rich and full humanity was worth passing on to the next generation?”

Again you see, it comes back to the question of how we live now, how we understand ourselves now. And to that mixture of the selfish and the obsessional that so often we reward in our working practises and our social practices.

So in sum, I think I’d simply say this. Responsibility to the future is responsibility for a vision of humanity that has excited and enlarged us. It’s taking responsibility for a humanity in which mutual generosity, mutual nurture are the things that live, that literally breed, that generate and create a world worth living in. It’s a matter of telling the stories of that humanity in such a way that they enlarge and define the world for another generation.

Sometimes we talk as if we don’t really need heroes and heroines in our world. Nonsense I say. We need stories of how humanity can be lived. We need good stories of the kind of social and individual practise that shows people valuing the human, living in the present responsibly, enjoying the humanity that is enriched by mutual giving, mutual attention, mutual value.

And that’s the kind of story that the others on this platform will have to tell and we will have to tell about them. And that is why it is so crucial and such a gift that they are here. And I’d really like to hear from them at this point.

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