Nobel Prize for the Environment?

This past week, reports that Stockholm’s County Administrative Board has opened an investigation into the practices of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee and asked them to explain how they continue to fulfill the goals of Alfred Nobel’s will.   One of the main objections is that rather than focusing on peace between countries, the committee has begun focusing on environmental issues.  Although little will come of this investigation, it brings to the fore the question: whether the committee should add an additional Nobel Prize for the Environment?

An editorial in the Jerusalem Post yesterday by Michael M. Cohen (building from an earlier articulation in the Huffington Post) makes the argument for exactly such a Nobel Environment Prize.  He writes:

“While the establishment of a new Nobel prize should not be taken lightly, humanity has entered a new century where Alfred Nobel’s goal to improve the human condition and the conditions for our survival now face grave challenges caused by the deterioration of our global environment… While the prize in Economics was not part of Alfred Nobel’s original list of prizes as described in his will, it is considered almost as prestigious…There are those who will say that the Nobel Peace Prize is the appropriate venue to recognize outstanding achievements in the field of the environment, as was done four years ago.  There is a logical connection between peace and the environment…Despite that connection between peace and the environment they are too great to be shared by one Nobel prize.”

Excellently stated case.  Certainly the interrelationships between peace and the environment are no more direct than the interrelationship between economics and the environment (as seen, most recently, with the award to Elinor Ostrom).  I’m convinced that there deserves to be an environmental action award; I’m not quite convinced it will help either the Nobel Prizes to update nor environmental concerns.

So, the choices are: 1. Occasional recognition of environment in Nobel Peace Prizes. 2. New Nobel Environment Prize or 3. Prize for environment outside of the Nobel array.  If we are confronted with problems of a new century, then it seems reasonable that we may want to develop new systems of recognition.  The Peace Prize for all its accomplishments is a fairly stodgy system: often beholden to the political system of the times.  See Joshua Keating’s list of the IgNobles and David Kenner’s list of “also-rans” and the picture becomes clearer: rarely do the Nobel Peace Prizes take proactive stands in ongoing problems (2011 may have broken this criticism) and the politics of the day can dominate the nominations.

This is not a plea for an alternative or challenge to the Nobel Peace Prize, the joke of the Confucius Peace Prize out of Beijing is not anything for any reasonable person to be associated with.  However, there may be a role for an alternative award, with high standards, building its authority through smart choices overtime.

The Goldman Environmental Prize offers one possible route to simply supporting an already existing international environmental award.  Although the award is less than the Nobel Peace Prize in both international recognition and monetary support; its six winner system brings to the fore a range of efforts in different countries and contexts.  In terms of adaptability of the prizes, they are often years ahead of other awards.  Wangari Maathai won the Goldman Prize 13 years before the Nobel.  Ken Saro Wiwa was recognized early by the Goldman Environmental Prize, but the slow moving Nobel Peace Prize did little before he was executed by the Nigerian Government.  Other alternatives certainly exist, this is but one.

Piggybacking on the high standing of the Nobel Prizes is certainly one route to go; however, the question comes about whether that prestige comes with limitations.  An alternative prize, with a different structure from the Nobel Prizes, and high standards from a diverse board seems like it could offer the chance for an award to help contribute to a better environmental future in an adaptive manner.


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