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30 - Is a future Nobel out there ?


Is a future Nobel out there?

Peter Nias
The Peace Museum, Bradford, UK

(in association with the Exhibition on Nobel entitled 'Champions of Peace' displayed at the International Peace Museums' Conference May 2003)



Alfred Nobel did well for himself, both economically in life and in his subsequent reputation with the century of prizes that he started. But even he would be shocked to know that his peace prize is still being awarded.

He had thought with his paradoxical invention of dynamite, and his father's invention of land mines before him, and future 'advances' in devastating weaponry, that war would have to cease within thirty years, otherwise humankind would wipe itself out. His shock would be twofold, first that the weapons have become millions of times more powerful and second that we haven't yet managed to wipe ourselves out.

But there is another surprise, this time for us all. Namely that despite the changes in the social, political and economic world from 100 years ago, we haven't come up with something to take the idea of peace on further. His will seems to have worked, together with the other Nobel prizes which are given for achievement in knowledge.

However, after a century of the worst wars in history, what has been the result of the Nobel Peace Prize? Stopping things being even worse? Quite possibly, yes. Positive advancement? No, arguably not.

Can we meaningfully compare the two worlds, a century or more apart, and still say something relevant for tomorrow? Using Elise Boulding\u2019s \u2018200 year present\u2019 concept (Culture of Peace 2000 p163) in which the present is influenced by events up to 100 years ago, and in which the next 100 years is influenced by what we are doing now, we can pose the question: where would a latter-day Nobel put his (yes, it\u2019s still likely to be male) money today? There are several possibilities, to which we shall return.

Nobel's era : 1860's to 1900

The 19th century in the West was a time of rapid scientific and technological developments, of world exploration, of colonial domination, of empires, of immense riches for a few and limited money and education for a few more.

The Darwinian thinking of survival of the fittest gained a firm hold. There had been the rise of nationalism, with its concurrent acceptance of mass casualties in nationalistic wars from Napoleonic times onwards. There was the economic rise of the working classes \u2013 the Independent Labour Party in the UK was born . Writers imagined utopias, ranging from H G Wells (who wrote dystopias as well) to reactions against the slum cities by planning new towns (Ebenezer Howard).

There were other issues of conscience by philanthropic campaigners. There was the rising status of women in the economy and society. Votes were in the offing.

The politics of the day was struggling to keep up with the science. The military tactics were lagging well behind the war technology. There was gradually increasing fear of major war. The late 19th century in particular was a time of great change. There seemed to be no limit to human endeavour. There was an optimism that any problem could be cured. Nobel was perhaps also a utopian, particularly on the issue of peace. Did he think that war could be cured and not just prevented? Perhaps he thought that if humans strived for his prizes then society would be fitter in the Darwinian sense and thereby less likely to want to fight. Or was it the aforementioned increasingly awfulness of arms that moved him? Or was it just the wish to salve his and perhaps also his father's consciences? After all, if you think that you and your family might, even inadvertently, have had a major role in contributing to humankind potentially destroying itself in the next few decades, you might wish to leave a more positive legacy. In any event, he was persuaded by the great campaigning Baroness, Bertha von Suttner, to put some of his money in the direction of peace. He said to her: "Inform me, convince me and I will do something great for the [peace] movement". She did, and he did. So what happened? Nobel prizes of all kinds have been seen as beacons of success during the 20th century. They are an annual reminder that the world is progressing in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, (and later, economics) and, possibly, peace. The emphasis is on discovery of the new. They were the first major prizes to be awarded by an individual. They are also a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.

But why didn't someone else offer them sooner? Carnegie came a little later, in 1910. He had a considerable impact too, but arguably not as great as Nobel. After all, many industrialists made huge fortunes at the time. Some built towns for their workers. Others created art galleries or other buildings. However, Nobel chose a different memorial. He invested in people and their ideas. And, contrary to his times, he invested in the international community. It paid off, both in the memory of his name and for the world.

But by doing so in such a big way he cornered the market in the prizes that mattered. Subsequently, a ferociously nationalistic and ideologically wracked 20th century ensured that rich citizens kept their giving largely within their own country or for cold war political purposes.

So, in world terms, was Nobel a one-off wonder in the promoting of peace? It looks like it at the moment.

Early 21st century

Where are we a century later?

Remarkably, the Nobel prizes are going strong, both in reputation and financially. The stability and generosity of Scandinavia has helped. The absence of scandals in the awarding committee and the lack of knife-turning revisionist histories of Nobel has helped. The occasional wrong award has not been devastating. There has, too, been some movement with the times, with more women, more people from outside the USA and Europe and, once or twice, more grassroots awards. Still conservative rather than radical though, which arguably defines its long term continuation.

Many others have attempted to tread this path. Seeing the reputational success of Nobel, several hundred other peace prizes have been created, especially in the 1980's and 90's. (The Nobel Peace Prize and the Global Proliferation of Peace Prizes in the 20th Century : Peter van den Dungen 2000, The Norwegian Nobel Institute Series, Oslo, p18). All play a part, but these have followed a long way behind (most are of lower value, many are occasional, too many are self-propagandist) : none approach the noble status of Nobel.
But should other peace prizes be more adventurous, selecting winners in order to encourage them to do more rather than reward for those who have already done? After all, that was Nobel's original aim too (Why, and how, did that change I wonder?)

One recent practical action by all the living Nobel Peace Prize winners was to initiate the idea of the United Nations' declaration of the International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World, 2001-2010.

Has Nobel's Peace Prize worked?
Yes, in the sense it is still going.
No, in the sense that it is still going.

So, have potential Nobels given up on the ideals of peace after such an horrendous century? Do people now think that 'money can't buy me love' so they don't put large amounts into peace but into health or something else?
Also, giving prizes for other peoples' achievements is the easy way. Nothing practical has to be done. So with the Nobel Peace Prize still going strong, even if you had desire and the financial means to act, you have to think of something else to do.
Hmm, tricky.?

What comparisons are there now with a century ago?

One hundred years on, the early 21st century world is still a time of rapid scientific and technological developments, even faster than before. The rich are getting richer, many in the middle have become well-off, the rest are getting relatively poorer. But there again, that applied to an extent a century ago.
We now realize that nationalism is a bit dangerous. We are also able to know what's happening in most parts of the world, although we often don't care about it.
There is almost never a time when wars are not going on somewhere. Mass casualties seem no longer to be acceptable on one's own side (they are on the other side though). And we are well on our way to accepting civilian casualties elsewhere as necessary collateral damage.
The past century has destroyed any aspirations towards utopia and we now seem to take a perverse joy in dystopian arts and culture.

All the talk now is about conflict resolution, not about peace per se. Dozens and dozens of conflict resolution centers and courses, whether on issues of war, on community conflict and on interpersonal conflict, abound throughout the world, most being in the USA.
So are we a more violent society across the globe, with seemingly intractable issues? Apparently so. Or perhaps we're just realising it more than before, and trying to do something about it.

We may note some limited measure of communal conscience with the growth of peace museums. With most arising in the last two decades, is this a small way of societies saying sorry to themselves for the horrors of the 20th century?
There have also been some formal expressions of apology for past events from some governments, churches, individuals. There haven't been many of them, and they're often reluctantly made, but at least they have occurred.

Latter-day Nobels?

Where would a latter day Nobel put his money? (yes, it's still likely to be male).
And in wealth terms who could qualify as a latter-day Nobel? Bill Gates springs to mind, but he's putting his money into health.

Can any latter-day arms manufacturer have a Damascene conversion? Although mostly answerable to shareholders, there is a massive gap in the public relations market in which the merchants of death could creatively fill by using serious money and expertise to good effect.

What can we do now?

So what are some possible issues that a new Nobel-type person or business or organization could offer finance to help tackle? Not necessarily in prize form either - it could, and perhaps should, be in positive R & D.

Arms trade and Land Mine issues, making links with Nobel Laureate Jody Williams and to Nobel's father's invention.

Invest in the promotion of conscience as a key factor in societal growth. There seems to have been a distinct increase in the lack of it lately, expressions of sorrow notwithstanding. As life gets more complicated and even more rat-racey, we need to have more conscience, not less. How? Establish Global Ethics Foundations?

We often hear the statement "there can be no peace without justice", especially but not only applying it to the third world. Will this be seriously addressed, or is it a truism which is left in the air?

Religion and Peace - will anyone encourage a serious look at this, or is it too hot to handle (which is, in fact, the reason to tackle it)

What about women and peace? Arguably, with women seemingly being better, on average, at education and in doing things in the information economy, then as that sort of economy progresses further, women will gradually become predominantly in charge of society. It could take another century. However,it may eventually lead to a more peaceful or at least a more conflict resolving and prevention situation.
So, perhaps by the end of the 21st century the belligerent male outlook may have been superseded.
In the interim, what is needed are latterday Bertha von Suttners to exercise their influence over the current predominantly male money. What about a series of major grants or awards for women bettering the cause of the world?

So get to it. Actively persuade those who have means. If you have the means, just do it.

Our world needs us

How will people look back on the Nobel Peace Prize bi-centenary in 2101? Will it still exist by then? Doubtless there will be the need. As long as there is the money, and the ethos is sustained and the world still exists, it may well continue to reward such endeavours. However, what would diminish it would be a sustained shortage of suitable candidates : it will need people at local, national and international levels to continue to do positive actions for peace.

The Peace Museum Office, Jacob's Well, Manchester Road, Bradford BD1 5RW. Tel. +44(0)1274754009
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Created by toussa01
Last modified 2005-02-02 09:52 AM

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