In 1973, North Vietnamese communist leader Lê Đức Thọ turned down the Nobel Peace Prize he would have shared with Henry Kissinger for negotiating a ceasefire in the Vietnam War. Pitched battle would continue for months after the prize announcement. Henry Kissinger has been widely accused of war crimes in multiple countries, including Vietnam.
In 1935, the prize committee cancelled the award altogether following pressure from the Nazi government, outraged at the feted nomination of German writer Carl von Ossietzky, then imprisoned in a concentration camp for his dissent. Von Ossietzky was however retroactively awarded the 1935 prize the following year, prompting Hitler to order that no German could ever again recieve the accolade.
Every year, the powers of the Global North bunker down to select their images of peace, and decide how to coronate acceptable resistance without rocking the boat too much. The results are uneven – unsurprising given that the Nobel Peace Prize professes to celebrate harmony and justice, but was created by the inventor of dynamite and is run in consultation with some of the most powerful people on the planet.
The frontrunner for the next prize is teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, the figurehead of a global School Strike for Climate movement that has brought millions of children onto the streets to demand that their futures aren’t totally incinerated by the interests of elite eco-arsonists. She, like many nominees before her, has done extraordinary things. Along with countless other young activists, she’s dragged into our mainstream conversation the rage and fear of the generations who, on our current course, are set to inherit nothing but ashes.
As a bold, articulate and unapologetic young woman, as someone taking power to task for its catalogue of failures, she’s had a unique ability to crawl under the skin of shock jocks and controversialists for hire; of the wackier wings of the political right purpling at the insolence of a little girl who imagines she has the right to speak out.
But perhaps the more extraordinary reaction is how readily she’s been welcomed, praised and congratulated by the people with their hands on the levers of power – the very people she excoriates for steering our planet towards crisis. World leaders line up to smile indulgently at her, movers and shakers in top polluting countries pose for pictures to broadcast that they too, are open and listening. They care, you see. Honestly.
But even as they’re happy to co-opt her image as a figurehead of resistance, they do nothing. Justin Trudeau recently joined a School Strike for Climate, to march “for our planet, for our kids, and for their future”. His administration continues to plough oil pipelines through indigenous land. He was marching against himself.
A much more challenging task is to actually listen to her as she makes the case that life on this earth should have more protections than corporate profit. You have to wonder if these world leaders fully realise that when Thunberg talks about catastrophic failures of the powerful, she’s talking about them. You have to wonder if they realise the callousness of using a teenage activist’s righteous anger to try and greenwash their milquetoast half-gestures towards solutions utterly feeble to fend off catastrophe.
If we scrape away the glamour and pomp of the Peace Prize, it starts to look much more like an institution of elite self-congratulation, simultaneously co-opting some genuinely radical work whilst whitewashing much more deadly institutions, all to create an image of its contributing role as the arbiter of democracy and freedom. It’s very rarely backed up by concrete commitments honouring the causes to which the more radical laureates have dedicated their lives. The optics of change gloss the fatal politics of stagnation.
In 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work raising awareness of the urgency of climate change. In the 12 years since, carbon emissions have continued to rise unabated. Last year, the IPCC produced a report saying that we had around another 12 years to radically transform our economy to avoid the collapse of civilisation and the possible eradication of human life on this planet. No such transformation has yet been put into gear.
Thunberg is painfully aware of this dynamic. “How dare you!” she chastised world leaders at a recent summit. “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.” We are watching a child walk onto the world stage to beg for her life, and have her words be smiled at like they were birdsong in the morning – beautiful, wholesome, ultimately meaningless.
We are careering towards obliteration, and our children know it. They do not need to be patronised with gold medals or prizes, they do not need to be insulted with reassuring handshakes or stale placebos for change. They need action. They need it now.