When Jakob von Uexküll was nine years old, his pacifist father made a deal: if Jakob handed over his toy guns, in return his dad would give him a stamp collection. A philatelist was born. Jakob’s stamp collection eventually became a stamp business which, when sold, provided the means by which Jakob could establish what is known in English as the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes also known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize.
This Swedish-born student with Baltic German Estonian heritage graduated from Oxford as a Master of Arts (Honours) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. He wondered why the world lives with problems when there are so many solutions and people of courage, wisdom and action. He wrote to the Nobel Prize Foundation, thinking if the Bank of Sweden could bankroll a new Nobel Economics Prize perhaps the Nobel Foundation could start other prizes, in particular one relevant to ecology and the needs of the poor. He offered to contribute to prizes that recognised those coming up with practical answers to challenges like air, soil and water pollution, the danger of nuclear war, the abuse of human rights, the destitution and misery of the poor and the over-consumption and spiritual poverty of the wealthy. He got a polite reply. There would be no new categories to give Nobel Prizes.
In 1980 when the first Right Livelihood Awards were given to recipients in a rented hall, a major Swedish newspaper’s editorial board discussed whether it was a CIA or a KGB plot to discredit the Nobel prizes. In 1985, the Swedish Parliament invited the Right Livelihood Prize to be bestowed there and this has continued, shortly before the Nobel Prize Ceremony each December.
To list Right Livelihood Laureates is to be reassured about the courage and essential goodness of humanity. Many Quakers will have come across these names in decades of activism:
• Bill Mollison (Australia) for permaculture
• Petra Kelly (Germany) for ecological concerns with disarmament, social justice and human rights
• George Trevelyan (Britain) for his educating the adult spirit to a non-materialistic vision of human nature
• Amory and Hunter Lovins (USA) for alternative energy paths
• Wangari Maathai (Kenya) for mass action for reforestation (20 years after receiving this award, she received a Nobel Prize for the same work)
• Johan Galtung (Norway) for his peace studies
• the Chipko Movement (India) for conservation and ecologicallysound use of natural resources
• Mordechai Vanunu (Israel) for his self-sacrifice in revealing Israel’s nuclear weapon program
• Vandana Shiva (India) for her eco-feminist approaches to development
• Astrid Lindgren (Sweden) for her work on the rights of the child
• Herman Daly (USA) for his ecological economics
• Trident Ploughshares (UK) for their principled, transparent nonviolent direct action to rid the world of nuclear weapons (this included at least two Quaker activists Helen Steven and Ellen Moxley)
• David Lange (New Zealand) for his nuclear-free work • Walden Bello (The Philippines) for his analysis of corporate globalization
• Maude Barlow (Canada) for her trade justice and water rights work
• Daniel Ellsberg (USA) for his commitment to peace and truth by leaking the Pentagon Papers at considerable personal risk
• Alyn Ware (New Zealand- Aotearoa for his creative advocacy to abolish nuclear weapons)
• Amy Goodman (USA) for political journalism, and
• David Suzuki (Canada), granted an honorary award for his lifetime advocacy of socially responsible science and action on climate change.
The Right Livelihood Award has also recognised those who may have laboured with even less recognition:
• Anwar Fazal (Malaysia) for his work for consumer rights
• Participatory Institute for Development Alternatives (Sri Lanka)
• Ibedul Gibbons and the people of Belau (Palau) for defending their right to remain a nuclear-free Island
• Manfred Max-Neef (Chile) for ‘barefoot economics’
• Imane Khalifeh (Lebanon) for inspiring the Beirut peace movement
• Self-Employed Women’s Association/Ela Bhatt for helping home-based producers
• Winefreda Geonzon/Free Legal Assistance Association (The Philippines) for prisoners’ aid
• Cary Flower (Norway) and Pat Mooney (Canada) for work to save the world’s genetic plant heritage
• Duna Kör/Janos Vargha (Hungary) for helping preserve the Danube
• Evaristo Nugkuag Ikanan (Peru) for assisting the rights of Amazonian Indians
• Seikatsu Club Consumers’ Cooperative ( Japan) for creating a very successful sustainable model of production and consumption in the industrial world
• Melaku Worede (Ethiopia) for preserving Ethiopia’s genetic wealth
• Bernard Lédéa Ouédraogo (Burkino Faso) for strengthening peasant self-help movements, and
• Sulak Sivaraksa (Thailand) for his activism and spiritual commitment to more democratic and just development.
Although not a Buddhist, Jakob Uexküll took the term ‘right livelihood’ for this award, because it spoke to him about a wider view of why we are here. If you are ever discouraged, it may be replenishing to learn a little more about any one of these laureates, who resonate with a passion, dedication and deep spirit for humanity. And that would not seem very far at all from the advice which suggests to each Quaker: ‘Let your life speak.’