Utne Reader Visionary: Jakob von Uexkull

When this Swedish journalist and translator sold his collection of rare Saudi postage stamps to a museum in Saudi Arabia in 1980, the proceeds went to a noble purpose: the endowment of yearly prizes–“alternative Nobels”–for individuals and organizations whose work has addressed environmental degradation, human rights, the worldwide misery of the poor, and what Uexkull has called “the overconsumption and spiritual poverty of the wealthy.” The Right Livelihood Awards, which were first presented in a rented hall in Stockholm before an audience of 35, are now hosted by the Swedish Parliament, and Uexkull’s pioneering work on behalf of this and other good causes throughout Europe earned him a seat on the European Parliament and membership in a number of important international bodies. This “concerned generalist” continues to promote growth and development: “the growth of love and the development of compassion.”

“We need a global body that represents us as citizens and members of a planetary ecosystem and insists on seeing past short-term economic gain. In this so-called decade of democracy, country after country has set up formal democracies that actually have weakened the powers of government to protect the people. In Bangladesh, World Health Organization limits on the selling of useless and dangerous drugs were actually supported by the former, authoritarian government–but the new “democratic” government found itself unable to resist the pressure of U.S. drug manufacturers.

“Everywhere we are told by politicians, by corporations, and financial institutions that we have fewer and fewer options–that the market won’t tolerate this or that reform. Today money has the power to divert the debate. Like the old anarchists who dominated mass meetings by staying later than anyone else and taking over the proceedings, today a rich nomenklatura of international nomads have the economic means to “stay later” than the rest of us.

“We need a body that will uphold the principle that a decent society has values that are not to be exposed to economic criteria.”

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