On Dec. 10, 2004, Jakob von Uexkull was a special guest at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. He was invited by Kenyan environmentalist and human-rights activist Wangari Maathai, who had been awarded the world's most prestigious prize precisely two decades after Von Uexkull's own Right Livelihood Awards had honored Maathai for her efforts to save the African forests. "If the Nobel Committee continues to follow in our footsteps, 20 years of delay is all right with me," he commented.
It was a satisfying, and good-natured, rebuke. Twenty-five years ago, Von Uexkull approached the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm to suggest adding Nobel Prizes for ecology and efforts to fight poverty in the Third World to its roster of honors. He even offered to help underwrite the costs. His proposal was turned down, since it is Nobel Foundation policy not to adopt other prizes than those originally instituted by Alfred Nobel.
So Von Uexkull founded the Right Livelihood Awards known as the alternative Nobel Prizes in 1980 to honor those who "didn't fit into the ruling ideology," as he puts it. Initially the award was funded by $1 million he earned when he sold a stamp collection "which is, of course, much less profitable than inventing dynamite like Alfred Nobel did," says Von Uexkull, who was a member of the European Parliament for the German Greens from 1987-89. Among the more than 100 luminaries he has recognized are Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef (1983), for his Barefoot Economics, which promoted sustainable development; Australian physicist Martin Green (2002), for his work on solar energy; and Indonesian human-rights lawyer Munir Said Thalib (2000), who fought against his country's military regime and was murdered four years after he received his prize. The winners for 2005, announced last week, include Roy Sesana, an advocate for the rights of the Kalahari indigenous people of Botswana; and Irene Fernandez of Malaysia, for her "outstanding and courageous work to stop violence against women and abuses of migrant and poor workers."
Adopting the Buddhist concept of "right livelihood" which teaches that each individual is responsible for his or her actions and should take only a fair share of the earth's resources the emphasis of the prizes is on practical solutions to the main challenges of our time. "I've always thought it is outrageous that we continue to live with problems we can solve," says Von Uexkull, 61, who was born in Uppsala, Sweden, and holds dual Swedish and German nationality. Von Uexkull's Right Livelihood Foundation currently donates $258,000 annually to four winners for outstanding work in the fields of ecology, peace, human rights, democracy or poverty alleviation. Since 1985, the awards have been presented in the Swedish Parliament, usually on Dec. 9, the day before the Nobel Prize ceremony. These days, Von Uexkull is busy establishing the World Future Council, designed to provide direction for a sustainable future. "What is clear to me is that our generation doesn't have an institution that speaks up for the future generations," he says. In everything he does, Von Uexkull remains focused on the future.