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Eccentric orbits

If he were alive today Alfred Nobel would have wanted an environment prize

Deforestation wasn’t a big issue in Nobel’s day. EPA

It’s Nobel Prize week, with awards for Medicine and Physiology, Physics, Chemistry, Peace and Economics being announced over the next seven days. We will discover who will win the literature prize later in the month.

While a Nobel is not the most lucrative accolade in academia – it “only” awards US$1.2m whereas since 2012 the Fundamental Physics Prize has paid out US$3m per recipient – it is easily the most recognisable and prestigious. You may be the most highly cited scholar in your field, have a small army of postdocs and a shelf full of books discussing your theories, but adding “Nobel Laureate” to your CV reaches the parts other accolades can’t.

The first prizes were awarded in 1901, five years after the death of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel, who in his final will bequeathed the majority of his considerable fortune to the establishment of the a foundation that would award prizes to: “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.

The Nobel Foundation has previously made awards within the area of sustainability – most famously the 2007 peace prize jointly awarded to Al Gore and The IPCC. But if the foundation is primarily tasked with rewarding those individuals and organisations that have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind, then a Nobel Prize for Sustainability should be central to that aim.

Recently the WWF and the Zoological Society of London reported that the number of wild animals on Earth has halved over the past 40 years. This dramatic decline in the abundance of fauna has been associated with an equally dramatic decline in the diversity of all species such that we are currently in the middle of what may prove to be one of the great mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. Our global emissions of carbon dioxide continue to rise and we are currently on course towards dangerous climate change within decades.

So why not add the names Edmond Becquerel, Rachel Carson, Dian Fossey, James Lovelock, the Penan people in Malaysia and others that have done the most to promote ways to live sustainably on our home planet to the 876 other recipients of a Nobel Prize?

The Penan fight back against loggers. A Nobel-worthy protest? Friends of the Earth, CC BY-NC-ND

It was Nobel’s wish that the foundation would award five prizes (the economics prize was created much later, after an endowment from the Swedish central bank in 1968 “in memory of Alfred Nobel”). As he never explained why he chose those particular themes, we can only speculate as to his reasoning.

Arguably physics was the foremost science in the late 1800s, as it was in the process of transforming our understanding of the universe with new theories on the atom, electricity, magnetism and cosmology. Great advances were also being made in medicine and the physiology and what is man without an understanding of literature? Promoting peace is clearly a laudable aim. Perhaps easiest to understand is the prize for chemistry, given that Nobel was a gifted chemist and made his fortune largely by building an industrial chemicals empire.

For example, in 1867 Nobel invented dynamite and in 1875 gelignite. These easy to handle and very powerful high explosives greatly aided mining and the extraction of natural resources such as coal and iron that was needed to continue to drive the industrial revolution. Nobel’s 1887 invention of ballistite, which he sold to the Italian military, made rifles and cannons significantly more reliable and lethal. Nobel was more directly involved in armaments through his 1894 purchase of the steel producing company Bofors which he put on course to become one of the world’s leading weapons manufacturers.

Whatever his motivation, today the name Alfred Nobel is firmly associated with his eponymous prizes and a celebration of those reasons to be optimistic about humanity’s achievements and future. In many ways, Nobel was entitled to feel optimistic about the positive impacts that could arise from the age of great acceleration in knowledge and development in which he lived.

At the start of the 20th century, the global average life expectancy was 31. It is now 67. People live longer, healthier lives thanks to better medicine, sanitation and diets. The significant reduction in death rates is an important reason why there has been such a significant increase in the total number of humans. In the past 45 years the world’s population has doubled. This exponential increase in the numbers of people is eclipsed by the intensity of consumption. In the past 20 years our global civilisation consumed more energy than it did in the previous 2000. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there are limits to this trajectory and that the processes of industrialisation are at risk of tipping the Earth system into a state that would not accommodate our global civilisation.

Would awarding a Nobel Prize for Sustainability change any of that? In isolation, of course not. But I like to think that Nobel himself would understand that in the 21st century conferring the greatest benefit to mankind means looking beyond ourselves and considering how we interact and affect the other species with which we share planet Earth.

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