The Man Behind the Other Nobel Prize

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Mr. Jakob von Uexküll (on right) presenting the Right for Livelihood Award.

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Mr. Jakob von Uexküll (on right) presenting the Right for Livelihood Award.

The life stories of Jakob von Uexküll and Alfred Nobel are curiously intertwined, even if starkly different. Mr. Nobel was born in 1833, Mr. von Uexküll 111 years later, in 1944. While Mr. Nobel was the inventor of dynamite and an arms manufacturer, Mr. von Uexküll was a professional stamp collector and journalist – the latter profession a key link between the two men and the prizes each established.

In 1888, a French newspaper, mistakenly thinking the inventor and industrialist had died, published Alfred Nobel’s obituary, headlining it “The Merchant of Death is Dead.” The obituary read: “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who made his fortune by finding a way to kill the most people as ever before in the shortest time possible, died yesterday.” Actually, Alfred’s brother Ludvig was the one who had died. Mortified upon seeing how he would be remembered posthumously, the (younger and then still alive) Mr. Nobel reconsidered his impact on the world and decided shortly thereafter to establish the now-world-famous set of international awards.

As a professional journalist, Mr. von Uexküll is keenly aware of how each year, every important media outlet in the world pays attention to the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners. In doing so, the media generates public awareness and credibility for the winners, who according to Mr. Nobel’s will must be: “The person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; …the most important chemical discovery or improvement; …the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; …produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and …the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”

In 1979, Mr. von Uexküll began to wonder: Why not use this vast amount of annual media attention to “recognize the efforts of those who are tackling the challenges of humanity more directly?” Why not use this power to highlight those individuals who have found “practical answers to challenges like the pollution of our air, soil and water, the danger of nuclear war, the abuse of basic human rights, the destitution and misery of the poor and the over-consumption and spiritual poverty of the wealthy?”

Convinced of his idea, Mr. von Uexküll wrote a proposal to the Nobel committee, suggesting the establishment of two additional awards, one for ecology and one for poverty reduction. After all, in 1968, just 12 years prior to Mr. von Uexküll’s request, the Nobel committee had decided to establish the Nobel Prize for Economics. If approved, Mr. von Uexküll promised to provide $1 million to fund the initial set of awards by selling his philately business. Upon review, the committee answered with a polite “no.”

Unwilling to back down, he decided to sell his business anyway, and to use the one million to set up the Right for Livelihood Award, today also widely known as the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” The mission, according to Mr. von Uexküll, is “to honour and support those offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges facing us today.”

On September 26, 2013 the Alternative Nobel Prize was presented for the 23rd time in the Swedish Parliament. This year’s recipients are Denis Mukwege, who offers treatment to women survivors of sexual violence in the Congolese war; the American Paul Walker, who is one of the most effective advocates for the abolition of chemical weapons; Raji Sourani, who has practiced human rights law in Palestine under exceptionally difficult circumstances for the last 35 years; and Dr. Hans Herren from Switzerland, who is pioneering work in promoting a safe, secure and sustainable global food supply.

Jakob von Uexküll speaks at a recent event at University of Zürich.

Sunnie Toelle

Jakob von Uexküll speaks at a recent event at University of Zürich.

In person, Mr. von Uexküll is soft-spoken, reflective and to the point. By the time I had taken off my trench coat, sat down and started my dictaphone, he was already in the midst of explaining the main global challenges of our time. Clearly, this would not be a traditional question-and-answer interview. Rather, it was an educational dialog in which a wise man of almost 70 years of age was eager to impart his deep understanding about the state of the world and its most pressing social and environmental issues. Fifteen minutes later I conceded to Mr. von Uexküll that he had just provided me with one of the best outlines of everything that was going on in the world and the many interconnections. To which he replied with a message for the youth:

“If I am in a position of power tomorrow, what will I do? You have to have a clear vision, don’t just make demands. Get engaged in politics and public life. It is an absolute must for democracy to work. In ancient Greece the politically engaged citizen was known as a ‘polites’ and the one who wasn’t engaged was known as an ‘idiotes’. Today you think the one who gets into politics is an idiot. We cannot afford to look down and sneer at politics. If we don’t like it, we have to get in there because that is what sets the framework in which we live and operate. It sets the incentives and if we don’t get in there and set the right incentives the wrong incentives will continue to prevail.”

Why establish a prize if politics holds the key to a better world? “The prize highlights true role models,” according to Mr. von Uexküll. “Not just people who are doing exceptional work for the betterment of the world, but who live responsibly and lightly on the earth, also in respect to the needs of future generations.”

For 2013 laureate Dr. Herren – founder and President of the Biovision Foundation and President and CEO of the Millennium Institute in Washington DC –the prize is a source of motivation: “This is a big new push to continue my work. It is an exceptional award, one that brings attention to sustainable agriculture, a cause to which I have dedicated my whole life. I was thinking about retirement, but now this changes things. I will use the prize money for a project called ‘Changing Course in Global Agriculture’, but what’s even more important than the money is the public attention that the award is generating.”

A prize however, is not enough, Mr. von Uexküll and Dr. Herren agree. Even after highlighting the important work of 153 role models from 64 countries, Mr. von Uexküll believes “the problems are still growing faster than the solutions.”

Hence, Mr. von Uexküll has concluded that policy solutions should also receive more public attention leading to the founding of the World Future Council, an international forum made up of 50 eminent personalities – some of them Right for Livelihood Laureates – from government, academia, civil society, the arts and business. Their main aim is to identify holistic solutions for a wide range of issues and to make politicians aware that they have an ethical responsibility to assess every decision-making process on the basis of how it will affect future generations. They then advise political decision-makers, offering them tried and tested courses of action and supporting them in the concrete implementation of new policies.

When asked about next steps, Mr. von Uexküll passionately outlines how he wants to continue growing his impact through the two-pronged approach of highlighting role models and their best practices as well as helping to implement policy solutions. With 70 years of age, but with the vitality of a 25-year-old, there is something inherently noble about his crusade to build a better world for future generations.

Right for Livelihood Award Ceremony in 2009.

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Right for Livelihood Award Ceremony in 2009.

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