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Right Livelihood Award

This year's winners included China's solar pioneer Huang Ming (pictured far left).

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The world's 'alternative' Nobel Prize: an award fit for the 21st century

Matilda Lee

26th December, 2011

How a rejection by the Nobel Committee spurred Jakob von Uexkull to create the Right Livelihood Award celebrating the solutions helping to ensure a healthy planet and people

My question was always, "Why do we live with problems we can solve?"

On the 5th of December this year, guests filed into the grand old Swedish Parliament for the 32nd Right Livelihood Award (RLA) ceremony. Jakob von Uexkull (pictured below), the Award's founder, gave the opening speech and presented the awards to the four Laureates: all four are from different continents and their work spans the gamut of what can be described as practical activism - promoting human rights in Chad, solar energy in China to natural childbirth and sustainable farming.  Whereas the ceremony for the Nobel Prizes, another Swedish award taking place just days later, had scores of publicity, the RLA ceremony was newspaper feature material rather than headline news.

For founder Jakob, who spoke to the Ecologist the day after the ceremony, the fact that the award exists is a dream fulfilled in itself. ‘I'd grown up in a family where we'd always discuss questions on the situation of the world. I always learned to be interested not just in the questions, but also in the answers. I also learned to think outside the box, and not be afraid to do something unusual,' he says.

'Unusual' is something that runs in Jakob's family. Having been born in Sweden, he lived there until age 11 when his father, a journalist who fled Nazi Germany, took the family back to Hamburg. His maternal grandfather in Sweden was a revolutionary architect and his paternal grandfather was one of the originators of biosemiotics, a radical challenge to conventional biology.

'I wasn't quite sure where I could make an impact, but I was interested in so many things. My question was always, "why do we live with problems we can solve?"'

‘I found I could not survive as a journalist, so I turned by hobby into my profession,' he says. He became a dealer in rare stamps, a philatelist, which led him to travel and work in big international conferences, at around the time when the global agenda began to include the search for common principles to help preserve the environment. The biggest was of course the Stockholm Conference - the world's first sustainability conference - in 1972.

‘There were usually side conferences where people came up with the solutions and I wondered why the two did not connect. I thought maybe they needed more publicity and wondered how you get taken seriously in the world today. Of course, having grown up in Sweden, it was clear to me that if you get a Nobel Prize, you get taken seriously. It was already the most famous award, as it was a very international award in a very nationalistic time,' he says.

A Nobel Prize for the planet

Yet, in Jakob's view, the Nobel award, while it had a lot of mileage, was not in tune with the times. ‘There were two problems. In Alfred Nobel's time, there were no problems to challenge the view on development and environmental threats. I thought there needed to be more Nobel awards, at least one or two for these areas. My other concern was the worship of technological and scientific brilliance in the Nobel awards was not really connected to the real world. Alfred Nobel wrote that he wanted to support through his award "those that had brought the greatest benefit to humanity". There was very much a question of social relevance there.

Jakob wrote to the Nobel foundation and suggested these two awards - for environment and human development. 'So that they would take my proposals seriously, I offered to make a large donation- not enough to endow the prize - but I offered $1 million, which I would get from the sale of my business. I would feel that this is my contribution,' he says.

This was around the time of a growing awareness of the importance of the natural environment and how dependent it is on creating just, developed societies. To Jakob it seemed logical that the most famous international award would to introduce an award for the environment.

‘But they discussed this, and I was told later, at the board meeting that they decided they were not going to have any new Nobel awards. Of course, if Alfred Nobel had created all the Nobel awards, I would have seen some sort of justification. But there had been a new award - the Nobel Prize for Economics. That to me seemed strange. You create one new award, and then you say, no that's it. That's why I felt morally justified to try to do it myself. Of course, it would be a much smaller award; dealing in stamps is a lot less profitable than inventing dynamite [Alfred Nobel made his fortune creating and developing dynamite and explosive materials]. I didn't know how I was going to continue with it, but I decided to try it.'

The 'greatest benefit to humanity today'

The first two recipients of the Right Livelihood Award has set the mould for the Laureates ever since. To Jakob, they symbolised what the award was for: combining vision with real, practical action. He speaks of the ‘ivory tower' attitude of some of the winners of the Nobel Prizes and feels that the Right Livelihood Award is more grounded in ‘real people's lives'.

One was Steven Gaskin - who had set up a very large commune in the US - and created a volunteer aid organisation, Plenty International. 'When there was an earthquake in Guatemala, they would assemble all their resources and go down to rebuild the village; they created their own ambulance service in the slums of New York because the official ambulances never dared to go there. We felt it was very impressive,' he says.

The other Laureate was already in his 80s, Hassan Fathy, who created an ‘architecture for the poor' to show that modern architecture, 'should not mean that you reject and forget everything that we've learned over thousands of years and put up some corrugated iron shack for the poor where small children die of heat exposure.'

‘I came back to Stockholm, where I hadn't lived since I was 11. I knew nobody and nobody knew me. Someone gave me an office to use, another an apartment. I had rented a hall. The award recipients came here. I sent out a press release, held a press conference, gave the award. I said to them at the time, this is to be seen as an alternative to the Nobel Prizes and it is a challenge about what are our priorities today. It is not an anti-prize. It is a prize that looks at, as Alfred Nobel said, those who "bring the greatest benefit to humanity today"'.

After 5 years, they had support from all the Swedish parties for the award to be hosted in the Swedish Parliament, where it has taken place ever since. ‘They trust us. They may not all agree with all our recipients every year, but as one said to me "we can see that there is a values community"' Jakob says.

The Right Livelihood awards people for ‘outstanding vision and work on behalf of our planet and its people'. The recipients since 1980 read like a who's-who in the international environmental movement - from Maude Barlow, Nnimmo Bassey, David Suzuki, Walden Bello, Tewolde Egziahbher, Herman Scheer, Herman Daly and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Vandana Shiva, Jose Lutzenberger and Frances Moore Lappe. There are no categories for RLA winners, a reflection perhaps of Jakob's reaction to the Nobel being too narrow in scope.

The Greenbelt movement

The late Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to ‘sustainable development, democracy and peace' after which she was catapulted on to the global stage in a very demanding way. In an interview years later she said that it was unbelievable and surprising to hear that she had won. She said it was, ‘the first time the Nobel committee had connected governance, peace and sustainable management of resources together'. She added: ‘We always knew these issues were connected but we didn't know that they were looking at these issues.'

Of course Maathai's Greenbelt Movement embodies the kind of holistic vision and socially transformative action that Jakob von Uexkull had been so adamant about when he approached the Nobel committee to start a new award. Indeed, Maathai's work had been recognised some 20 years previous to winning the Nobel Prize - in 1984 she was one of the winners of the Right Livelihood Award. At the time of winning the RLA she was imprisoned and being attacked for her oppositional work.

One of Jacob's intentions for the Award is that winners get not only international recognition but, through that, safeguards that allow them to continue their work when their lives are under threat. Maathai herself referred to the Award as being, ‘very, very protective'.

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