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Intro: Hello, and welcome to The Good Council, the podcast of the World Future Council. In each episode, we’ll highlight current challenges and policy solutions. And we’ll also take you on a journey of inspiring stories. Listen in to another of our intergenerational dialogues from around the globe.
Annika: Good morning, my name is Annika, I’m 25 years old and I’m a consultant at the World Future Council. In this episode, I have the pleasure of speaking with Jakub von Uexküll, who is the founder of the World Future Council. Born in Sweden in 1944, he grew up in Hamburg and went on to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford. As a member of the European Parliament, he served on the Political Affairs Committee from 1987 to 1989, and later, on the UNESCO Commission on Human Duties and Responsibilities. He also served on the board of Greenpeace, Germany, as well as on the Council of Governance of Transparency International. He’s a patron of the Friends of the Earth International, and lectures widely on environmental justice and peace issues. As Jakob was becoming increasingly desperate at the development of the health of the planet, and the finite resources that are continuously being exploited, he set out to cause change: first, by creating and establishing the Right Livelihood Award, which is also known as the alternative Nobel Prize, and later, the World Future Council. And today, we listen to him tell the story in his own words.
Jakob: Thank you.
Annika: Thank you for being here today.
Jakob: Thank you. Pleasure.
Annika: So, it’s a real pleasure, actually, for me to have this conversation with you. And I think there’s a lot to learn for me from you. And I’m looking forward to learning from you about yourself, and also about the World Future Council. So, to start with, what’s your life’s mission in one word?
Jakob: In one word? Well, the future.
Annika: And that’s also I suppose, the World Future Council. That’s, that’s the name. And I’m curious also, why did you call it the “World Future Council”?
Jakob: Because I saw that we were, we are living in a very short, sort of short-tempered way where we are not really looking at—we’re looking at a future, which is really very threatening. And we could change it in time. But it demands a lot of very deep and profound change. And there wasn’t really an organization which was focused on that. And so, I thought we need such an organization.
Annika: Right, and we’ll come back to that in a moment. But you say, you know, your life’s mission is the future. And obviously, the World Future Council is about the concern about future generations. So where does your concern about future generations come from?
Jakob: Growing up in a very sort of remote part of Sweden, for my first 11 years, and being and loving nature. And so, the more I started readine and realizing what the threats are to nature, it seemed to me that there was a need for such an organization, but of course, you know, this came after the Right Livelihood Award. First of all, I believe that Right Livelihood was the way to live our lives. And so, I had this idea for this organization, but it was very much a challenge to the Nobel prizes, you know, so I called it, from the beginning, “the alternative Nobel Prize”. And to my surprise, instead of being sort of, rejected or ignored, a member of the Swedish Parliament arranged for us to present these awards in the Swedish parliament from the beginning. Well, we had a sort of one- or two-years period when we presented them privately, but then she brought us into the Swedish parliament. So, I realized then that there was really an interest in solutions, there was a deep discomfort with the way things are at the moment, because if you look at the world today, the Nobel prizes are really the most prestigious awards on the planet. And so, to say that they need an alternative, and to say that in Sweden—the country of the Nobel prizes—was really quite a challenge, and to my pleasant surprise, there was a response. And so, doing this for quite a few years, I always felt, you know—and then going into going into politics because I realized if you want to change things, you have to change the law, you know, “laws don’t move heart but they restrain the Heartless”, as Martin Luther King said. So that was the reason why I had the idea of the World Future Council, I wrote a book about that. And, again, pleasantly surprised that there was the response, including from the city of Hamburg where I had grown up as a teenager.
Annika: So, the Right Livelihood Award awards… the award to individuals who cause great positive change in terms of livelihood, justice, human rights issues, social issues, that are not covered by the by the Nobel Prize, right? And why did you think we need a prize for that, so why specifically, the Right Livelihood Award?
Jakob: Again, because of the existence of prizes and honours, which are very much focused on the present. And so, I realized that we needed an award, which was focused on solutions, which didn’t, didn’t fit in, you know—as I said, the novel prizes are the most prestigious prizes within the current world order. And the Right Livelihood Award is a prize going beyond the current world order. Because the current world order, which is very much the modernity is a life, a modernity which is not possible for the whole world population. And at the same time, there’s no reason why some people should have it, and some people shouldn’t have the advantages. So you basically have to have to find solutions which cover a larger range, some of these, these, the right livelihood award, some of these prizes are just take things further. But others come from a completely different world worldview, where we look at what the world needs and not what we need.
Annika: So then you founded the World Future Council. What a story! So what’s the vision for the world future council? What was it in the beginning? And is that still the same?
Jakob: I think very much so. Again, what kind of future can we have, which the whole population of the world can benefit from? And currently, we have a modernity, which is not transferable to the whole world. At the same time, there’s no reason why some people should benefit from it and other shouldn’t. So how can we spread these benefits, but at the same time, making sure that they are benefits which also benefit the planet and benefit nature?
Annika: So maybe just as a sort of basic—as a foundation for our conversation—maybe you can just give an overview of what the World Future Council is and what it does?
Jakob: Well, the World Future Council was very much set up to ensure that the future is sustainable and global. Because at the moment, as I said, you know, we have a future which is very focused on a small minority, and pretends to care about the rest of the world. But basically, it’s a lifestyle, which is not globally replicable. And so the World Future Council looks at that challenge and picked it up and, you know, wondered what kind of solutions do we need to change that? So it was it was very much filling a gap in current institutions, because there are so many who basically are built on the current present, but don’t look at it from the perspective of the future. And this is what the World Future Council does.
Annika: And its day-to-day activities and actual work, what’s the core work of the World Future Council?
Jakob: It’s very difficult to sort of say that it’s just one core activity because of course, the future is as diverse as the planet is diverse, the World Future Council membership is very diverse, and so they have different, different priorities, all within creating a sustainable future. But still, we focused on areas where there was the support, also the financial support to do the work, but also very much the interests of the most active councillors took priority.
Annika: And that’s all through policy work, right?
Jakob: All through policy work. Yes, exactly.
Annika: So it’s about finding the right policies and seeing what works, right? It’s along your maxim of “Why live with problems that we can solve”—
Annika: It’s your life motto.
Jakob: Yeah, exactly.
Annika: Okay. So, when you founded the Council, that was in 2007? Well, the work before was a bit earlier…
Jakob: Before that was, we had a sort of tried to have a debate which was as global as possible, we looked at the membership, you know, how that could be as diverse as possible. At the same time, we needed people who are already in actively involved in trying to create a better future. And when we had a, by about 500-600 sort of candidates, we then started a dialogue with people in organizations who are working in the similar areas, finding out who they recommended should be actually a member because we couldn’t have more than about 50 members. And as a result of that, we got the Council, and we got these priorities. And those priorities, of course, also responded on the needs, the current needs of the planet, you know, why the future policy award, which we set up, was very much an annual prize for the area which was regarded by—including international organizations—but which was regarded by our supporters as the most urgent area to work on at that time.
Annika: Where there any sort of particular challenges that are maybe that you, well, still remember, from the very beginning of founding the council? One, of course, there’s so many interested people that would like to be part of it, so you have to narrow it down to about 50. But anything else? I mean, you’re setting up a network across the globe, of people who are working in their own field, but they also have a common interest, which is preserving our planet for future generations. Were there any challenges?
Jakob: Well, making sure that there’s common interest, which you mentioned, actually, was, was prioritized, because clearly everybody works in a certain in a different area, or many people work in different areas and see these areas as the most important one. So we had a lot of diplomatic—diplomacy was needed to make sure that we chose priorities, and also the membership of the Council of course had to reflect those priorities.
Annika: Who was responsible for that diplomacy?
Jakob: Well, the founding members, you know, I had sort of to do a lot about it. I had found that there were cases—there were some people who left you know, who couldn’t, didn’t fit into this very challenging agenda.
Annika: And, conversely, what are some of the successes from the very beginning? Because there was something that hasn’t been done before. And obviously, there’s, you know, there’s always the infancy of a project, and then suddenly, you can see it pays off. So what’s the, like a memorable success that you have?
Jakob: Well, I think the idea to have parliamentary representation of future generations, how could that be? That has been, that was a dialogue, which didn’t really exist before, and which we brought into reality. And I think in some areas, which have been—in other areas, which have been very challenging, including those for which we awarded the future policy award and where we joined in with existing campaigns that help to make them more future focused.
Annika: It’s really, it’s really fascinating. And you mentioned just a while ago that there was a good public response. Has that always been the case? So it was that straight from the get-go, that people recognized this as a good project, that merits support? Or was there a little bit of a tough work that you had to do before you got there?
Jakob: Well, no, it’s more or less, it’s more that it ran in parallel. Of course, there were journalists who thought that this is a very arrogant name. But it was interesting that this very visionary Hamburg entrepreneur, Dr. Michael Otto, he liked the idea, he came up to me when the book was published, and had and had a couple of questions about it, and then he supported it and his support, of course, was instrumental in bringing the Hamburg mayor and Hamburg parliament on board. So, without that, beginning that financial support, we wouldn’t have been able to launch it.
Annika: Yeah. And that’s super important. If you want to set up something like that, right now, what is it that you need to get together?
Jakob: Basically, I think you need to have charismatic leadership, it’s very good sort of, to say that it has to be very democratic, and everybody has to be involved, but somebody has to take the initiative.
Annika: So that’s you?
Jakob: Well, I took the initiative, but very, very quickly, I brought together, you know, a core membership. And I had co-founders, you know, Dr. Otto was one of them, obviously, who brought the whole thing into reality, because it’s very easy to talk about what needs to be done. And I’ve seen so many initiatives, which haven’t succeeded, because, you know, there have been too many internal disputes. Unfortunately, while we had some disputes, we were able to get off the ground before they before they hit. And so, we have been able to, to survive some conflicts. And some people, as I said, you know, left and others joined. But it’s very much also of trying to hit the interest of the day; what is actually most inspiring? And the fact that we had such a good—still have such a good media presence, I think has been because even, especially also media representatives have realized, that this is really an idea whose time has come.
Annika: And that probably also helped, the charismatic leadership, to get people together in the first place. And keep them engaged.
Jakob: Well, yes, I mean, I’ve never regarded myself a very, you know, inspiring, charismatic, I just tried to sort of do my job. But I realized, from the response I’ve had in the media that, you know, people have really liked, realize that this was an idea whose time had come.
Annika: Moving on to younger generations, I’d like to pick your brain on what you think about the current youth and young people nowadays, and about their activities and political participation. What do you think about that?
Jakob: Well, in general, it’s very—it is very difficult to generalize, because, of course, you know, growing up and in the world of today must be extremely challenging, and very hard, because until, until recently, you know, we had this idea that we’re going to get this global future, which meant everybody was going to live and have a good comfortable life. And now we are seeing threats. The climate threat, of course, is the worst, overreaching threat possible to imagine—I mean, it is, it’s within a comparatively short time period, where we were facing a threat to our very survival. And so of course, it’s easy to flee from that, it is easier just to sort of live in the present. But fortunately, there is an increasing number, I noticed that, you know, more and more increasing numbers, especially of young people who are prepared to take, you know, take the necessary changes to prepare to work for solutions, even if that’s not something which one would like to, you know, which one is sort of comfortable with, which one would like to sort of see, you know, as one’s life, it’s very, very challenging.
Annika: Thank you for recognizing that.
Annika: Yeah. It’s, it’s a bit of an obvious question, but why are young people so important for our future?
Jakob: Well, it says, our future more than anybody else’s future. And of course, you know, if struggle, and it wouldn’t really lead anywhere.
Annika: Yeah. And if that’s not an argument enough, then what would you advise young people today to do? What should they do? Why should they become active?
Jakob: Well, again, you know, what is the alternative? There is no alternative anymore, to really become part of the solution, because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. There’s no neutrality possible. And it’s such a challenging environment.
Annika: Do you have any other piece of advice, irrespective of maybe what they’re choosing to do with their life that you can pass on to young people today, based on what you’ve learned in your life, and looking back, etc.
Jakob: Well, not to take anything for anything for granted and take any information you’re giving any—the current leadership; don’t believe that, you know, they have the solutions, because unfortunately, they don’t. And so, you have to be prepared to challenge almost well, challenge everything, but at the same time, not just challenge it as like, like a cynic, but actually do something. eEen small solutions, you know, can grow and if you multiply small solutions, and they become big solutions.
Annika: So be constructive, be critical, and, yeah.
Jakob: Very much.
Jakob: But at the same time, you know, be practical, realize that even one step ahead is a step ahead, you know.
Annika: Okay, oh, I’ll try and remember that. Sometimes it’s easy to think I need to make big change to be effective. And, well,…
Jakob: Yeah, but lots of small changes also become big changes. So you know, it’s, it’s very important not to be; otherwise, it’s very easy to become totally disillusioned, because, you know, nobody can save the world on their own.
Annika: As a as a role model very much for future generations, you have done a lot to try and pass on a healthy planet, to current and future generations. What’s your hope for future generations?
Jakob: Well, my hope is, is very much that I have inspired more, you know, people, and especially, you know, of course, the young people are inspired. Being seen as an example of what one person can do, and—nobody needs to replicate that—but it just shows if you can come in there and—where I had grown up in Sweden, but I hadn’t lived there for many years—and challenge, the biggest sort of famous Swedish invention internationally, the Nobel Prize, and get the response, a positive response, including from the Swedish parliament and from the Swedish media, that just shows you know, what is what is possible. So just look at, you know, don’t be too disillusioned, don’t what’s possible, you know, believe in what is what you can do.
Annika: And an anecdote comes to mind, well, it’s an anecdote of your life, because you sold your entire stamp collection to create the Alternative Nobel Prize….
Jakob: It wasn’t that, it was my job, you know. I collected but I’ve also dealt with buying and selling stamps.
Annika: So you gave up everything, basically.
Jakob: Well, I still had to make a living. So, I still continued dealing and stamps. But what I had accumulated at the time, most of that I have sold to the finance the Right Livelihood Award. But fortunately, you know, after not a long time, other donors came in. There was a Swede who won a top prize in the lottery. And he donated it, he said I don’t need this money, he donated to the Right Livelihood Awards. And then, our biggest donations have come from Germany, especially for one German lady, and it’s interesting that although it’s very much, you know, a Swedish award, most of the financial support has actually come from Germany and from the German speaking world, Switzerland…
Annika: There’s a huge lesson to be learned from that as well to be completely selfless. And I mean, completely goes against the capitalist urge and kind of pressures of the market today, isn’t it, to completely sacrifice one thing, sacrifice your assets for something that you really believe in? I think maybe is that also something that is good to know, for young people today?
Jakob: Yeah, it’s very much good to know, I think and, you know, the market is always such a, it means so many things to people you know. and we used to be critical of market of itself, its focus. We used to calculate laws, environmental laws in communist countries in the Soviet Union, for example, and saying, you know, they’re better and they were better on paper, but then we found in practice, they weren’t at all better. Now, you know, the, in fact, they just weren’t followed. They were just propaganda in the Cold War. The so called better environmental laws in the Soviet Empire, and so the market isn’t, isn’t the problem: people live in markets. But to prioritize the market is, of course, very, very, very, very dangerous. You always have to have—your goal cannot be to maximize your own monetary wealth, your goal needs to be to maximize yourself as a person. And to maximize the well-being of the planet where you live.
Annika: Which is just very much not the focus of what the markets are oriented towards today.
Jakob: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And but it’s, it’s interesting even now, people who used to believe in markets even a few years ago, that the market would probably provide a solution, and now they’re coming and saying, we need to intervene, we need to change the framework, you know, within that framework markets can be effective, inventors can be effective. But above all, we need to set the right framework. And what does that mean? It means the right laws, and that’s again why the World Future Council was created, because I saw solutions were key and solutions were what the Right Livelihood Award is promoting, and solutions are still key. But without legal solutions ultimately, we’re not going to get there because again, you know, as Martin Luther King said, it’s not just not just enough to inspire people, you need actually to restrict those who want to don’t want to be inspired.
Annika: But I mentioned in the introduction that you were a member of the European Parliament. But then you founded the World Future Council a couple of years later, or actually few decades later, according to the timeline—why didn’t you remain a part of political life, you say that it’s actually the laws that cause change?
Jakob: It was a difficult, difficult choice, but I found that career in the European Parliament would not get me where I wanted to be, I wanted to be like a catalyst. And I found maybe I could have continued to do that also as a parliamentarian, but you know that the day has 24 hours, I just had to prioritize. And I found that I wasn’t the person who would, for a political career, it didn’t really sort of seem to fit my priorities. But I kept on—the Green Party puts me up on that list, and I was very grateful for that. But then they became a more conventional party. And hopefully now they will, you know, benefit from that—
Annika: Go back to the roots.
Jakob: —Go back to the roots, yes, especially when they get into power. But so, yeah, so I had different priorities. I couldn’t see myself putting in the energy I would have needed, I was living in England, living in London, because I found it very, it’s a very global city. And for the work I was doing, it had certain benefits. But clearly, you know, if I wanted to be a German politician, and I have a German nationality and Swedish nationality, I would have had to go back to one of those two countries, and it didn’t really sort of fit in with my life.
Annika: Okay, that makes sense.
Annika: You spoke with many people in your life politicians, entrepreneurs, advisors, business people, investors, policymakers, all of them. What would you say is the one biggest obstacle to actually implementing the changes that we know will work?
Jakob: Very much to believe in the current global system, which, of course, is the capitalist system, there is no doubt that there is too much trust in that and not enough trust and in what we can do to rectify what’s going on in the world. It’s very difficult to have a vision, which is global, because I remember the prominent German politician saying to me that, you know, look at the television is now everywhere, you know, look at the lives people need in Africa. Everybody wants a German lifestyle or an American lifestyle. And that is just not physically possible. And so, I think, you know, to make the alternatives sound attractive, which obviously means sharing to a certain extent. You know, everybody has to have the basics. But moving beyond that, and having different priorities is going is extremely hard because most people find themselves part of the system.
Annika: So is it either those with a high standard of living going back to a simpler lifestyle? Or is there a possibility and opportunity for those who have not yet attained that lifestyle to sustainably and justly reach that lifestyle that everyone else seems to already be living? Is it one or the other? And which one is it? Is there a third option?
Jakob: Well, I mean, you have to find an in-between solution, because the consumption of, of Germany or the USA, is never going to be globally possible. But at the same time making sure that people have enough, you know, to protect themselves against dire poverty, straits, against starvation, etc, there is enough. So there is enough for, for a simple lifestyle, the world has enough for everybody’s need, but not to ever this greed, as Gandhi said, you know, that is the truth, more than ever.
And that is now, the climate threat shows that the politicians who understood the climate threat, are still not daring to sort of say what it actually will actually mean. The rich are going to have to find other ways to support themselves and to build a sustainable lifestyle, rather than having more and more, accumulate more possessions, and that’s very difficult to choose to say, because it means, well, higher taxes and environmental taxes, climate taxes, in order to make sure that there is enough for everybody’s need.
Annika: So how do we go—because you say it’s the belief in the capitalist system, the belief and the priority of the market forces that are an impediment to creating positive, sustainable future just change? How can we eradicate that obstacle?
Jakob: Well, you know, as I said, before, the communist societies did not really have a good Environmental record. So abolishing the market by itself will not will not do it. The question is what framework the market operates within. The head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih BIROL who was very much a believer in the market until a