30 years of the Goldman Environmental Prize (commentary)

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  • On Earth Day in 1990, the Goldman Environmental Prize was launched to honor grassroots environmental activists from each of the world’s six inhabited continents, celebrating sustained leadership, persistence, courage, and success in protecting our natural world. The grassroots nature of the work was critical to the concept and its uniqueness.
  • Some recipients have used the visibility of the Prize to launch political careers. Many more have leveraged the Prize as a springboard to continue and double down on their environmental work. One Prize winner even won the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Today, as the Prize enters its fourth decade, the Goldman family is acutely aware that its ability to continue to make a meaningful impact may require some creative and hard thinking about its role in a world that is changing at a rapid pace. That includes evaluating how the Prize addresses major environmental issues head-on, especially when it comes to climate change.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

One morning in the late 1980s, San Francisco businessman and philanthropist Richard Goldman was reading a newspaper article about the latest Nobel Prize winners. At the time, Goldman, an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist, was becoming increasingly concerned about the degradation of the environment and was pondering how he could use his financial resources, large social network, and problem-solving skills to help protect our precious natural resources.

“As my father was reading this article, he wondered whether an equivalent prize for environmental achievement existed,” recalls Susie Gelman, the daughter of Richard and Rhoda Goldman and president of the board of directors of the Goldman Environmental Foundation. Finding no Nobel-equivalent for environmentalism, Richard Goldman launched a process to examine how such an award might be implemented.

While Richard’s staff was researching the possibility of an environmental prize, two events that shook the world sealed the deal.

“What really validated my father’s interest in launching the Prize was the murder of Chico Mendes in Brazil,” Richard’s son John says. Mendes was a rubber tapper and trade union leader fighting to preserve the Amazon rainforest who was killed by a rancher in 1988. “Soon after the murder of Mendes came the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. These two events led my dad to say, ‘We have to do something.’”

Richard was a visionary who thought big and long-term. “He wanted to protect the environment for his kids and his grandkids,” says Lorrae Rominger, deputy director of the Foundation, who began working for the Goldmans in 2002. “He was not afraid to take risks if he thought it was the right thing to do.”

Goldman Environmental Prize founders Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

On Earth Day in 1990 (coincidentally Richard’s 70th birthday), after considerable due diligence and lively debate among the family and staff of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund (the Goldmans’ charitable foundation, which closed in 2012 after 60 years and $700 million in grants awarded), the Goldman Environmental Prize was launched. They established criteria — still in place today — to honor grassroots environmental activists from each of the world’s six inhabited continents, celebrating sustained leadership, persistence, courage, and success in protecting our natural world. The grassroots nature of the work was critical to the concept and its uniqueness.

The 194 recipients over the last 30 years have all been “ordinary people taking extraordinary action,” says Michael Sutton, executive director of the Foundation.

Some recipients have used the visibility of the Prize to launch political careers—for example, just this spring, Zuzana Čaputová, the 2016 Prize winner from Slovakia, was elected president of her country. Many more have leveraged the Prize as a springboard to continue and double down on their environmental work, such as Azzam Alwash, 2013 Prize winner from Iraq, who has furthered his work to bring back the freshwater marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in southern Iraq. One Prize winner even won the Nobel Peace Prize: Wangari Maathai, 1991 Prize winner from Kenya, was recognized for her work to reverse the devastation wrought by deforestation in her country, leading the charge to plant more than 20 million trees. She was recognized in 2004 by the Nobel Prize Committee.

Two families

The recipients are honored every year with an award ceremony attended by thousands in San Francisco, followed by a visit to Washington, D.C., which includes a smaller ceremony and meetings with NGOs, agencies, and elected officials on Capitol Hill. The monetary award and international press coverage that accompany the Prize are critical for empowering Prize winners to continue and amplify their work. But there is another, unexpected, element of the Prize that has become powerful: Over the years, Prize winners have become members of two families: the Goldman family and the family of Prize winners.

Richard’s children John, Susie, and Doug (their eldest brother, Richard, passed away in 1989) have continued their parents’ tradition of embracing the Prize winners as part of their extended family, inviting them into their homes and spending significant time with each new cohort in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Increasingly, the Prize has offered recipients opportunities to network with each other and deepen their work as a community. Indeed, one of the Foundation’s initiatives is a networking program that sends Prize winners to conferences, workshops, and professional meetings with their colleagues around the world.

“The recipients become members of the Prize family and, as a result, feel connected to each other and to something that is bigger than themselves,” says Susie. “I don’t think we could have anticipated this at the inception of the Prize. But we’ve learned over the years that they form a strong bond with each other.”

“The synergy that develops when they are able to collaborate has made their work more effective and impactful,” says John. “This means the Prize isn’t just recognition for their achievements to date but also allows them to continue what they’re already doing and even elevate their work and the public’s awareness of their issue. In this way, our Prize recipients have an even greater impact on our environment and on our world.”

2019 Goldman Environmental Prize winners at the awards ceremony in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

That impact has been profound. The Goldman Environmental Prize, oftentimes referred to as the “Green Nobel,” garners global press coverage, elevates the stature of Prize winners, and brings their issues to the attention of leaders in their home countries. It has inspired countless people to become activists themselves, including youth. While they’re in San Francisco, Prize winners meet with dozens of young environmentalists and provide inspiration and insights about their journeys. And the award ceremony in San Francisco has become a focal point for leaders of the global environmental movement, giving them an annual opportunity to network, renew their inspiration, brainstorm, and collaborate on ways to create a more sustainable planet.

Global warming and the future of the Prize

Today, as the Prize enters its fourth decade, the Goldman family is acutely aware that its ability to continue to make a meaningful impact may require some creative and hard thinking about its role in a world that is changing at a rapid pace. That includes evaluating how the Prize addresses major environmental issues head-on, especially when it comes to climate change.

“We are continually discussing how can we best address this issue,” says Susie. “Climate change cuts across many of the issue areas we recognize through awarding the Prize. But there is only so much one individual can do to impact this huge issue, so it may well be an issue that is best addressed on a much broader level. We need to think about how we can make a difference here.”

John agrees. “Climate change is the transcendent issue of our day, intrinsic to everything people in the environmental movement are working on,” he says. “It is imperative that we figure out how we can meaningfully and significantly affect global warming; otherwise, our very existence is at risk.”

However the Prize evolves, it will continue to use its resources, passionate staff and board, and international platform to protect our planet. It will also continue to honor the vision and legacy of Richard and Rhoda Goldman.

“As I reflect upon the past 30 years, I cannot help but reminisce about my parents and their nurturing of the Goldman Environmental Prize,” says Doug. “This Prize exists as a major component of their legacy. Indeed, it speaks to who they were as people. My parents truly wanted to make this world a better place for generations to come. They were particularly fond of the Margaret Mead maxim that has often been used to describe the Prize winners: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’ That quote equally applies to Mom and Dad.”

2019 Goldman Environmental Prize winners at the awards ceremony in San Francisco. Photo Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize.

Jackie Krentzman is a freelance writer and editor based in Berkeley, California. She has actively written about philanthropy, healthcare, Jewish community issues, sports—and everything in between.

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This story first appeared on Mongabay

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