“We need to accept this challenge or our children and grandchildren will see us as the greatest criminals who ever lived”


“THE idea that after the fall of the USSR we would have this liberal democracy spreading around the world was of course naive. We have a Western elite that isn’t really interested in democracy unless their allies win. Otherwise, they are happier with a dictator whom they are friendly with. Often if the wrong people win then, suddenly, democracy is seen as not such a good idea,” said Jakob von Uexküll, founder of the World Future Council (2007). Mr. Uexküll is also the founder of the Right Livelihood Award (1980), often referred to as the “Alternative Nobel Prize,” and co-founder of The Other Economic Summit (1984).

As a former Member of the European Parliament (1987-89), Mr. Uexküll served on the Political Affairs Committee and later on the UNESCO Commission on Human Duties and Responsibilities (1998-2000). He has also served on the board of Greenpeace, Germany as well as the Council of Governance of Transparency International. He is a patron of Friends of the Earth International and lectures widely on environmental, justice and peace issues.

Mr. Uexküll received the Future Research Prize of the State of Salzburg, Austria (1999), the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana of the Republic of Estonia (2001), The Binding Prize (Liechtenstein) for the protection of nature and the environment (2006) and the Order of Merit, First Class, of the Federal Republic of Germany (2009). In 2005, he was honoured by Time Magazine as a “European Hero” and, in 2008, he received the Erich Fromm Prize in Stuttgart, Germany. He is also a recognised philatelic expert with publications such as The Early Postal History of Saudi Arabia (London, 2001).

Born in Uppsala, Sweden, Mr. Uexküll is the son of author and journalist Gösta von Uexküll and grandson of biologist Jakob von Uexküll. After schooling in Sweden and Germany, he graduated with an M.A. (Honours) in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Christ Church, Oxford. He holds dual Swedish and German citizenship. Mr. Uexküll is married and has three children. He lives with his family in London.

As the founder of the Right Livelihood Award, he recalled past experiences succinctly, “I saw it was needed so I set it up. It was criticised and people thought it was crazy or a CIA plot or a KGB plot at the time. One Member of Parliament believed in it and she convinced her colleagues. After five years, we were invited to present in Parliament and have been able to do so every year since, which I think it is a remarkable attribute of Swedish democracy and Swedish parliamentarianism. Parliament has no say in the choice. We don’t have to inform them beforehand who we have chosen; that is remarkable and I am very honoured and overwhelmed that we have been allowed that.”

“The challenge is making the award well known so that the recipients get support and their work is spread widely. The purpose of the award is publicity and inspiring others. I think we have succeeded here.” On the comparisons between the Right Livelihood Award and the Nobel Prize he clarified, “It is not an anti-Nobel prize. It is also for those who bring the greatest benefit to humanity, like Alfred Nobel wanted.”

On a cold December evening in an exclusive interview conducted in Stockholm, Sweden, Nilantha Ilangamuwa, editor of Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives interviewed Mr. Uexküll. The conversation spanned Mr. Uexküll’s dazzling career, his thoughts on climate change, freedom of the press and global development, as well as Mr Uexküll’s hopes for the future and advice for the international community.

Nilantha Ilangamuwa (NI): Your background is very varied and interesting. After you completed your degree at Oxford University you went into journalism. What inspired this path?

Jakob von Uexküll (JU): My father was a journalist and I found it very interesting. When I grew up Germany was very conservative and my father was critical. When an editor instead of paying me asked for money to help keep his magazine going I realised that I had to earn a living and become financially independent some other way. So I also turned my hobby into my profession: I became a dealer of rare postage stamps and worked for various auction companies. However I always kept up my interest in what was going on in the world and volunteered at international conferences.

NI: The freedom of the press is often considered key for successful democracies. How do you perceive this relationship?

JU: There is a huge gap between the way the world claims to be progressing and what is actually happening in many countries. As we see now with the Snowden affair we don’t really have deep democracy in the West either. It is wonderful we can sit here and talk without being afraid the secret police will arrest us, but still many people are afraid here. They are afraid of losing jobs, of being spied upon, of change. Princeton last year defined USA as oligarchy and not a democracy. There is a worldwide rule of money with a democratic facade. It is very difficult to get the truth out. The ability to judge and trust facts and form an opinion and hold onto it is very difficult in the West too. You have remarkable papers, like the Guardian in Europe. But also the Murdoch press and media intrusions. We cannot be so self-satisfied. I always believe that rights come with responsibilities and a major problem we have had with media in the West is the lack of responsibilities.

NI: Tell us about your philosophy. You have strong ideas about the use of resources and development.

JU: Firstly, I’m a generalist. There are too many areas I am interested in. You need specialists and generalists. I also define myself as a possibilist. Pessimists do nothing and optimists assume others will solve their problems but possibilists have hope. What has driven me is that we tend to forget we are part of the natural environment and without that we have nothing. When it comes to the environment the pessimists have been overwhelmingly right. The environment is seen as a “luxury issue” which is a huge mistake. The media like to present two sides but you shouldn’t compare a scientist to any nutcase who says climate change is not manmade.

Secondly, in terms of rights as you can only have a right to what is possible. It is impossible for China to have the same per capita consumption of resources as Taiwan, or Sweden. Yet everyone needs basic essentials. As Gandhi put it, “there are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” If you don’t have these basics then that will be your main focus. In Europe we have forgotten the concept of sufficiency and enoughness and believe the rich still have to become even richer. Our economic growth paradigm is ideological nonsense as we live with limited resources and have to share. We have moved from the rule of real life to the rule of economic theory which is in the service of the wealthy, global elite who know that when the growth stops they will have to share. So they claim that growth will continue. But if the average Ethiopian had the Swedish lifestyle then the Swedes would all be billionaires, it is just complete nonsense. We need to arrange things differently. There’s no objective economical science which says we must live like this, destroy the earth and create huge gaps between the poor and rich. It is an ideology imposed by a small, rich minority. They pretend they are somehow scientific but it is nonsense.

Inner resources however, are much less restricted. The Club of Rome report on limits to growth said there is no limit the amount of languages you can learn and instruments you can learn to play. Once we have fulfilled our basic needs such as education and food we need to look at spiritual needs and not accumulating material possessions as the planet can’t afford that.

NI: So is mass political participation the way forward?

JU: In regards to creating meaningful change the main problem now is the lack of trust and cynicism. Everyone wants to hand over a better world to their children. Why do we live with problems we can solve? We cannot mobilise enough will and need to start building trust. The elites do not want people to be involved in politics because politics can change something. They have created this idea that politics is dirty and the media have helped in that. There are some responsible papers but many have cultivated the idea that politics is corrupt and who wants to participate in that? It means that the global elite can rule things behind the scenes.

Democracy was created in Ancient Greece and it was your responsibility to get involved in public life and if you refused to get involved you were an “idiotus”. I was an Member of the European Parliament for 5 years and learnt how this system works. If you want to influence a Member of Parliament you must go to their voters. We need greater political awareness and participation from voters.

NI: Your work at the World Future Council focuses on good public policy. Do you think that 9/11 was a landmark in domestic and foreign policies to become irrational?

JU: We are creating debt much faster than we are creating wealth. Debt is a claim on future wealth, based on the assumption that we will all be much richer in the future.   Simply put, if we destroy the environment then we won’t be. You can’t eat money. The current global system is built on sand. This requires innovative solutions. In order for best practices to become the mainstream they need to be backed by best policies and for that you need to work with policymakers, find good laws, spread them and ensure that when the crisis comes you have not only ideas but proven solutions.

Many people are very good at criticism. But the difficulty is going from critique to working out how to actually solve the problem. Our work at the World Future Council is to identify the main policy reforms, the how.

Everyone agrees on certain things, like the importance of getting rid of subsidies on fossil fuels but then income collapses and there are riots, as we saw in Sudan. We haven’t actually got a way to do it. We need an integrated approach and a five to ten year strategy. Prices have been too cheap. At the same time, we need a strategy for the global poor. No politician dares say we have lived above our means and now we need to pay those bills and change the way we do things,with those who have not been able to live as well as that receiving compensation. But it is true. We talk about being global citizens so we need sharing. In practice that works by funding concrete projects. You can make unconditional, non-interest bearing and non-repayable grants to fund projects, like wind energy in Indonesia. This is the way to go.

NI: On laws and policies, it is our experience in Asia that there are many laws but the implementation is lacking, rendering them largely useless. What is your answer to this chicken and egg style debate?

JU: Without the law you have nothing to work for. Once that is in place it can be fought for. At the World Future Council we have this interesting technique to encourage the strengthening of the rule of law. We give prizes for the best laws, for example there is a community community forestry law in Gambia where people get legal ownership of the forest when they prove they can look after it. Through the giving of prizes we install pride in people so that when a change of government comes about they defend the law and it remains in place and protected. In Ecuador the previous Vice President Lenin Moreno created a very good for persons with disabilities, inspired by his own experiences as a wheelchair user. People are proud of this and this law will continue.

NI: Many countries, particularly in Asia, have minimum space to participate politically. Do you think that the international community has a role to play here?

JU: We can have the sanctity of the nation-state in a way where every struggle is national. Unfortunately when there is outside interference it is very rare that it is positive. I encouraged intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s and was very glad of it. But most instances are in the interest of superpowers and have been disastrous, like in Iraq. I cannot imagine things would be as bad now if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to stay in power. I do believe we need to defend the principles of the United Nations: if a country is attacked it should be defended, but can we intervene to overthrow undemocratic regimes?

I think the situation in Sri Lanka deteriorated while it has improved in countries such as Indonesia. Sri Lanka, in many ways, is a tragedy—with people’s lives and livelihoods threatened in a situation made complex in the civil war as no one had much sympathy for the Tamil tigers either.

NI: Do you see any legacy or hangover of colonialism in the influence of the West in the Global South?

JU: Colonialism was very good dispensing responsibilities but no powers. The legacy of colonialism is that in many decolonised and independent countries we still see a lack of power.

I work with parliamentarians all over the world and many have no real power. Under the new elites, officials and World Bank bureaucrats run the show, with the wealth of Africa being sold off far too cheaply. Are they truly independent and allowed to rule themselves? International institutions put a lot of pressure on the Global South to sign unfair commitments limiting their own development.

NI: You visited Gaza recently. Do you believe in a two state solution?

JU: I think it is unrealistic to think you can have one state when there is so much hatred and so many Israelis who feel that they are endangered. Therefore a two state solution is more realistic. What is clear is that the distrust and the hatred between the two sides is so deep that they cannot negotiate, that they will not negotiate. Therefore the outside world has to impose negotiations; as happened in Norther Ireland and the Balkans.

NI: What do they think of the developments in the establishment of the Palestinian state?

JU: The problem is that there is no Palestinian state. If you read the Swedish recognition it says that there is a government which could fulfil these obligations but they know very well it does not. The Israeli authorities have only transferred responsibilities and duties but no rights. The Palestinians have no resources, no control over imports or exports, no powers over anything that cannot be taken away tomorrow. An Israeli soldier can go into their territories. The Palestinian authority was created to give the West a less guilty conscience. There is no peace process. In many ways the problem is now worse because when there was direct occupation the occupying power had certain responsibilities; the authority has basically made occupation much cheaper for the Israelis.

NI: Finally, what is your message to the international community?

JU: We live in a unique and very extraordinary time and we cannot continue business as usual. We have a responsibility to our children, to our grandchildren, to all future generations because our actions and our decisions (which also includes our inactions and non-decisions) will have an influence and may decide the future of this planet. This is an enormous decision, the magnitude of which no previous generation throughout human history has had to face. This is the reality. So now we each need to accept this challenge and become part of the solution. Otherwise we can ignore it, be part of the problem, and face the fact that our children and grandchildren will see us as the greatest criminals who ever lived.