14 Oct 2007

The Nobel Peace Prize

[Warning: Grap a drink and a snack before you start reading this post. You will need them to fortify yourself. This post was inspired by a conversation I had last night, and is a little more serious than normal. Regular programming will return tomorrow. I promise.]

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of five Nobel Prizes awarded annually in the name of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite.

Following his death, Nobel left a will detailing his bequest, in which he specified that prizes for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature were to be awarded on an annual basis by a committee appointed by the Swedish government*. The recipient of an annual peace prize, on the other hand, was to be chosen by a committee appointed by the Norwegian government.

Nobel did not explain his reasons behind this division, but since Norway was under Swedish control at the time of his death, and only had domestic rule, it has been speculated that he thought this would protect the peace prize selection process from being influenced by foreign powers.

Others believe that Nobel may have been attempting to diffuse the growing discontentment and desire for independence in Norway by giving that country the responsibility for awarding a peace prize. If that was indeed his motivation, however, his goal was not achieved. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, but only four years later, in 1905, Norway acquired full independence from Sweden.**

The recipient(s) of the Nobel Peace Prize is announced each October, and a formal award ceremony is hosted on December 10th, the anniversary of Nobel's death, in Oslo, Norway. The relatively modest and low-key reception takes place at Oslo City Hall, attended by the Norwegian Royal Family. Unlike the Swedish ceremony in which the Swedish King presents the laureates with their medals, the Peace Prize is awarded by the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The ceremony is followed by a torch procession by locals and visitors towards Grand Hotel to honour the Nobel Peace Laureate, who usually comes out to acknowledge the well-wishers.

Over the years, the Nobel Peace Prize has probably become the most famous, and, at times, the most controversial of the Nobel prizes. Clearly, picking the person who has "done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses"*** can not be done without a certain amount of subjectivity and politics playing a role.

As announced by the Norwegian Nobel Committee earlier this month, this year's recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize are former Vice-President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change".

As in years past, controversy has been quick to follow. Some argue that the committee is completely off-track, awarding a peace prize to an environmentalist.**** They question whether this was what Nobel had in mind when he set up his bequest more than a century ago. Environmental issues were hardly on the agenda in the day, so this is probably not something Nobel could have envisioned. Nevertheless, I feel that the award captures the spirit of Nobel's wishes. Global environmental changes running amok could foreseeably become a massive destabilizing force threatening not just all human beings, but all living beings on our planet. Thus, in my opinion, this is also peace-promoting work, albeit on a different level.

Of course, the appropriateness of this year's winners presupposes the notion that climate changes are happening. Not everyone accepts this. Some dispute the entire notion of global warming, while others agree that the Earth is heating up, but argue that this is part of a natural cycle in which humans play little or no role. Others still believe that people are in fact causing climate changes, but that these are not as serious or happening as quickly as "doomsayers" will have us believe.

This year's Peace Prize recipients have presented compelling evidence that changes are happening on a large scale across the planet, as well as laid out the groundwork for safeguards we need to implement to counteract these changes.

Gore's own Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" effectively states his belief that the time to make broad global changes is now. He has even coined a new saying, based on the African proverb 'If you want to go quick, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' His version: "We have to go far quickly."

For a layperson, it can be difficult to choose what to believe. There are layers upon layers of information to sort through, some of which is contradictory, much of it emotional, and all of it political. Personally, I find it hard to believe that years of excessive consumption, industrialized pollution and exploitation of our planet's resources, combined with an ever-growing population, have not somehow affected our planet's ecosystem.

It's the extent to which our planet is being affected that I am not sure of. And, frankly, the daily overload of information on the topic is not making that any easier for me to figure out.

In fact, on the very same day that Al Gore was named co-recipient of the Peace Prize, a British court ruled against "The Inconvenient Truth", stating that the film is a political work that promotes only one side of the argument, and further that eleven inaccuracies have to be specifically drawn to the attention of school children watching this movie in Britain.

I try to be cognizant of the fact that everyone can only speak to their own opinion and assessment of issues, and that certainly also pertains to Al Gore. His personal motivations - and possible, albeit unlikely, political aspirations - must have influenced his presentation.

But does that make everything in the documentary wrong? I don't believe so.

Furthermore, the ICPP, as a panel established by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is open to all members of the UN and WMO, which certainly takes it beyond the ambitions of a single man.

Perhaps the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose Al Gore and the ICPP as co-recipients partly as an attempt to deflect the inevitable questions about Al Gore's personal motivations?

And in the process bring the focus back onto our planet as a place we need to protect for the generations coming after us.

* A prize in economics was introduced later by the Swedish Central Bank in Nobel's memory.
** Having said that, the separation from Sweden was exceedingly peaceful, all things considered, so perhaps a goal was reached anyway?
***From the will of Alfred Nobel.
****Al Gore is not the first environmentalist to win the Peace Prize. The prize was given to Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan campaigner for sustainable development, three years ago.


Queen of the Mayhem said...

I am always a little leary of believing anything that comes from a man that claims to have "invented the Internet"! :)

You make some very interesting points.....great post!

Kellan Rhodes said...

Thanks for the background - sure didn't know all that. And I think you might be right about ,"Perhaps the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose Al Gore and the ICPP as co-recipients partly as an attempt to deflect the inevitable questions about Al Gore's personal motivations?" Whatever the reason ... I believe much of what Al Gore says and think it is imperative that things need to change. The debate has only just begun.

Rimarama said...

I never knew the specifics of the history behind the Nobel Peace Prize, and you know what? And I like how you defended/explained the correlation between peace and the environment.

Thanks for a thought-provoking entry.

jen said...

what a terrific post. i learned so much - and am glad to have found you.

Mountain Dweller said...

Thanks for popping by my blog!
I enjoyed this post on the Nobel Prize and agree with you that the winner will always be contentious. But anythng that can be done to promote environmental issues can only be a good thing, even if Al Gore isn't your typical Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Hae Yung said...

I feel little intimidated by this one Heidi. I feel like I am reading a clinical paper. There are footnotes and references....oh my.

Do I get points since I knew that the Nobel Peace Prize is given out in Oslo and I am familiar with the hotel.

Regarding Al Gore, I have mixed feeling about it. I think the environmental issues are important and he definitely have raised awareness and got people talking, which is great. I just think that celebrities just hop on the new hot issues and they also drop off just as easily. I am not convinced of their dedication and passion for the issues. I am thinking that there are many people who work for causes without recognition and really fight for the cause they believe in and when celebrities put their name to the cause, I am not sure if they put in as much effort as others. I guess some do and some don't but I do wonder about their motives. Am I too cynical? I think Al Gore does care about the issues but if he wasn't a celebrity would he have gotten the prize?

Hae Yung said...


Alpha DogMa said...

I'm waiting to pass judgment of the appropriateness of Al Gore's win until 2008 or 2009. I fear that the Nobel Prize was swayed by the cult of celebrity (not the cult of personality -- this is Al Gore we're talking about), but only time will tell. But if Oprah or Bono win next year - my head will explode.

Now I'm going to go read your archives - my husband was over here the other night and raved about your writing. My expectations are HIGH!

Family Adventure said...

Thanks everyone. I, too, wonder, sometimes about whether the Nobel Committee is too swayed by political undertones. They have made some awkward choices in the past.
As I said earlier, maybe that's part of the reason they did not pick Al Gore alone to receive the prize. The ICPP gives added gravitas, I think.
Assuming we agree that environmental changes are necessary, how do we go about implementing them? Practically and realistically speaking? I still feel like most change has to come from government, by regulation. I am not convinced that left to our own devices, we can (will) do enough quickly enough. (I know that is a very socialist European point of view - sorry).
I would love to have a real sitdown conversation about this with y'all, it's kinda hard to only use the comment feature :)
Thanks again for responding!
- Heidi