A Kaleidoscope of Suffering and a Kaleidoscope of Hope: Ole von Uexkull on the Work and Ambition of the Right Livelihood Foundation

The coming years have global threats in stock, each one of which is more lethal than Covid-19, and they are amalgamating fast into a fatal downward spiral. Our best hope to mitigate them is by treating them as symptoms of the same underlying systems crisis – a crisis that has multiple entry points for every one of us to start acting.

A quick look back: It is March 4, 2020. The deadline to submit nominations for the 2020 Right Livelihood Award. Anyone in the world can nominate – and anyone can be nominated. And on this early day of March – just weeks before our lives turn upside down due to the Covid-19 pandemic – the nominations come pouring in. Letters from Egypt. Books from Brazil. Drawings from Malaysia. Submissions through our online platform from more than 70 countries.

Over the following weeks and months, as most of Europe goes into lockdown, we sit and read. We conduct interviews. We study reports. We read about Nigerian girls abducted to Europe and stuck halfway in the desert. We read about refugees held captive by Australia on prison islands without remedy or representation. We read on about the plains of Siberia being ripped open for monumental open-pit coal mines. Women bleeding to death from unsafe abortion. The plight of political prisoners in China. Hundreds of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution. We learn about executions and mass graves and perpetrators enjoying impunity, with a record number of nominees serving prison sentences. Taken together, we see a kaleidoscope of the state of the world in 2020. It is a kaleidoscope of suffering.

We also find much courage and hope in the nominees' work: The successful struggle by an entire Kenyan village against a coal-fired power plant. A joint peace initiative by former enemies in Israel/Palestine. A village vigilance system to protect girls in Cameroon. A cooperative supplying tens of thousands of people in poverty with cheap nutritious food in Latin America. The use of art to preserve historical memory in Europe. The protection of wetlands in the sub-Arctic region. Successful environmental litigation in India. Or cheap water filters made from local materials in East Africa. The picture is the same every year: there is no doubt that humans can rise above themselves in the face of crisis, threat and suffering.

But going into our 42nd Award Cycle this year, a long-term trend seems clear and increasingly worrying: Most global threats are worsening. The most salient among them: the threats to democracy and human rights; the destruction of ecosystems and the plunder of natural resources; the horrendous economic injustice in the world; the absence of governance for new technological developments; the arms trade and ever-present risk of nuclear annihilation; and the unchecked man-made change of our climate. These threats are not just worsening on their own. They are amalgamating into an ever-faster downward spiral, with fatal cross-accelerations between them.

Even against the many hopeful developments, these trends taken together seem overwhelming. For their sheer force. For the powerful interests backing and bankrolling them. For the frightening simplicity and brazenness of their populist appeal. As mitigating any one of these threats takes such enormous efforts – how can we ever hope to gain ground across all of them, with the pace now required?

The only way, it seems, is to understand them as symptoms of the same systems crisis and for people around the world to get organised and fight this underlying crisis. We need to fight for integrated solutions, so that the effort invested into mitigating any one of these threats also has a positive effect on the others. Integrated, in this understanding, does not mean unified, though, not a "one-size-fits-all" approach. It means solutions as comprehensive as the expressions of the crisis, turning connected problems into connected solutions, going from vicious to virtuous circles.

It is with this mindset that our international jury convenes in September. Jury members hail from different regions of the world and different professional backgrounds. And when – over an intense three-day meeting – they put the submissions in context, the nominees become alive around the (virtual) table. Categories and borders disappear, connections and synergies shape the discussion. The Chilean jury member, an environmental activist trained in biology, argues for awarding the Belarusian struggle for democracy. The Afghani jury member, connecting online from a Kabul engulfed in violence, speaks for the importance of civil rights and historical memory in the US.

So while the Laureates chosen by the jury during this weekend in September work in specific contexts, their fights are interconnected and have global implications. Imprisoned Iranian Laureate Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer specialising in the defence of political activists, has become a symbol of hope and courage far beyond her home country. US Laureate Bryan Stevenson, one of the most successful lawyers reforming his country’s criminal justice system, also works with the country's racist legacy and talks about questions of historical memory globally. Nicaraguan Laureate Lottie Cunningham Wren who has worked ceaselessly for protecting indigenous lands and communities from plunder and exploitation is also a fighter against climate change with its devastating effects on her people. And the Belarusian Laureate, pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski and his organisation "Viasna", does not cease to stress that his work for justice is linked with the other Laureates. That they fight the same fight.

And so, our choice of Laureates in any given year is just one way to cut through the picture of a world engulfed in systemic crisis, one way to celebrate integrated solutions. And in the way our Laureates connect the dots, in the way they organise and mobilise and inspire people to rise above themselves, the picture flips and the kaleidoscope of suffering becomes a kaleidoscope of hope.

Because the fact that the crisis is systemic – all around us, all the time – also means that the entry points for fighting it are everywhere. All the time. There for us to grab. The only thing that sometimes keeps us from seeing them is an antiquated, mechanistic mindset. A lingering belief in quick fixes and silver bullets, an (often male) fantasy of genius concepts or magical machines. So, let us forget about fusion reactors and geoengineering. About gene drives and golden rice. About cognitive enhancement and artificial superintelligence. Once and for all.

The only thing we need, then, is courage. The courage to act with what we have, to speak out as who we are. Starting a protest outside our city hall. Switching our bank account to an ethical bank. Holding our members of parliament accountable for their action and inaction. Joining a human rights group. Refusing to fly. Organising a boycott of insurance companies that invest in nuclear weapons. Switching to a vegan diet. And most importantly: getting organised, mobilising others to also raise their voices.

If that happens on a massive scale, if many people find the courage to withdraw their complicity in an unjust system and demand fundamental political change, then we can indeed mitigate the planetary threats and build a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. The best way to get started is to ask ourselves: what have we long been thinking that someone ought to do? And do it. For, as Right Livelihood Laureate Greta Thunberg expresses it: “When we start to act, hope is everywhere. So, instead of looking for hope - look for action. Then the hope will come.”

Ole von Uexkull is the Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation, a partner of THE NEW INSTITUTE. At the helm of the organisation that bestows the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, he has supported the work of courageous changemakers for more than 15 years.

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