Davos: How Will This Crisis Change Us?

03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In a plenary session titled "The Values behind Market Capitalism" this morning, I started with this:

Every morning when I wake up in Davos, I turn on my television to CNN in my hotel room. And every morning, there is the same reporter interviewing a bundled up CEO with the snowy "Magic Mountain" of Davos in the background. The question is always the same, "When will this crisis be over." They actually have a "white board" where they make the CEO mark his answer...2009...2010...2011...later.

But it's the wrong question. Of course it's a question we all want to know the answer to, but there is a much more important one. We should rather be asking, "How will this crisis change us?" How will it change the way we think, act, and decide things; how we live, and how we do business? Yes, this is a structural crisis, and one that clearly calls for new social regulation. But it is also a spiritual crisis, and one that calls for new self-regulation. We seem to have lost some things, and forgotten some things--like our values.

We have trusted in "the invisible hand" to make everything turn out all right, and believed that it wasn't necessary for us to bring virtue to bear on our decisions. But things haven't turned out all right and the invisible hand has let go of some things, like "the common good." The common good hasn't been very common in our economic decision making for some time now. And things have spun out of control. Gandhi's Seven Deadly Social Sins seem quite an accurate diagnostic for some of the causes of this crisis. They are "politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice."

If we learn nothing from this crisis, then all the pain and suffering it is causing will be in vain. But if we can learn new habits of the heart, perhaps that suffering can even turn out to be redemptive. If we can regain a moral compass and find new metrics by which to evaluate our success, this crisis could become our opportunity to change.

Yesterday, I attended an extraordinary session here at Davos called "Helping Others in a Post-Crisis World." It was full of the insights of social entrepreneurs, and innovative philanthropists, all discussing new patterns of social enterprise--where capitalism is again in service of big ideas and big solutions; not just making money. But the session was held in a small room; not this big hall. And it wasn't full. New ideas of business with a social purpose have been here at Davos before but, as in the global economy, social conscience is a side bar to business. Social purposes have become "extra-curricular" to business. It's time for the side bar to become mainstream and move to the main hall of discussion and to the center of the way we do business.

If we just wait until the economic crisis is finally over to get back to business as usual again, we will have missed the chance we now have for re-evaluation and re-direction. Some of the smartest people in the world as assembled here on the mountain. But are we smart enough not to miss the opportunity that crisis provides to change our ways and return to some of our oldest and best values. Almost half of the world's population, three billion people, lives on less than two dollars a day--virtually outside of the global economy. Maybe its time to bring them in.

Jim Wallis is the author of The Great Awakening, Editor-in-Chief of Sojourners and blogs at