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Al Gore and the mission of the Nobel Prizes

By John Berlau - posted Friday, 19 October 2007

Al Gore has won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. This choice, more than any other Nobel Committee selection, marks the end of a 105-year era. In direct contradiction of Alfred Nobel's last will and testament, the selection of Gore essentially means the Peace Prize can no longer be said to be an award for improving the condition of humankind. Looking at Gore's writing, it's far from clear that Gore even believes that humanity is his most important priority.

Not that there haven't been controversial or dubious selections before. Jimmy Carter was selected by the committee in 2002 in what was partly a political swipe at the Bush administration's foreign policy. Yasser Arafat was given the Peace Prize despite his ordering the killing of scores of innocent civilians.

But, at the very least, the stated aims of Carter and even Arafat were the improvement of human life. Gore, by contrast, does not even profess improving the human condition as his fundamental goal. Rather, his stated desire is to stop human activity that he sees as ruining what he calls the "ecosystem". Awarding the prize to Gore in 2007 is the equivalent of honouring the Luddites who tried to stop the beneficial technologies of Alfred Nobles’ day.


A common theme of selection for the Nobel Peace Prize and the other Nobel awards has been the use of science and technology to overcome problems afflicting humans such as starvation and disease. This fulfills the vision of Swedish inventor and entrepreneur Nobel, who pioneered the product of dynamite. For the first time, an explosive device could be stored safely and detonate predictably on a large scale. Nobel's products were used for war, as even the most primitive explosives had been for centuries. But dynamite also vastly improved the 19th and 20th century standard of living through its use in the construction of buildings, railroad tunnels, and sea passages such as the Panama Canal.

In creating the annual prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and the promotion of world peace (roughly the same five fields for which Nobels are awarded today), Nobel stated the desire in his will to honour: "those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind."

According to Alfred Nobel: A Biograpy by Kenne Fant, an earlier draft of Nobel's will stipulated that prizes in all categories should be: "a reward for the most important pioneering discoveries or works in the field of knowledge and progress."

But for Albert Gore, Jr the fields of knowledge and progress are suspect, and so are many types of technology with benefits to mankind. This is a man who speaks despairingly of "our civilisation" and sees as flawed man's attempt to rise above "nature". He describes global warming as "the category 5 collision between our civilisation - as we currently pursue it - and the earth's environment".

He has been critical of "civilisation" and human technological advancement even before global warming became his main issue. In the introduction to his 1992 book Earth in the Balance, Gore writes:

In one sense, civilisation itself has been on a journey from its foundations in the world of nature to an ever more contrived, controlled and manufactured world of our own imitative and sometimes arrogant design. And in my view, the price has been high.


But exactly what part of "controlling" and "contriving" does Gore object to? Does he really think the price of curing diseases through new drugs or feeding the world through advance farming techniques been too "high". In many passages of his writing, the answer seems to be yes. This puts him in conflict with the vision of Nobel as well as that of many of the previous prize recipients honoured for their pioneering achievements in agriculture or medicine.

Several Nobel prizes, for instances, have honoured life-saving breakthroughs in stopping cancer. But in Earth in the Balance, Gore wonders aloud whether cancer treatments should be used if they would result in the harvesting of what he considers to be too many trees. On page 119 he writes:

The Pacific Yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, taxol, which offers some promise of curing certain forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who would otherwise quickly die. It seems an easy choice - sacrifice the tree for a human life - until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated.

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First published in American Thinker on October 2007.

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About the Author

John Berlau is a policy director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of the Amazon best-selling book Eco-Freaks.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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