Al Gore and the Mission of the Nobel Prizes
In just a few hours following publication of this article, at approximately 9AM Eastern time this morning, the Norwegian Nobel Committee will announce its selection of the recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. The odds-on favorite is former vice president Al Gore.
If Gore is indeed the recipient, 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 honoring the Luddites who tried to stop the beneficial technologies of Alfred Nobels’s 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 today), Nobel stated the desire in his will to honor
"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 civilization" and sees as flawed man’s attempt to rise above "nature." He describes global warming as "the category 5 collision between our civilization – as we currently pursue it – and the earth’s environment."
He has been critical of "civilization" 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, civilization 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 conflict with the vision of Nobel as well as that of many of the previous prize recipients honored for their pioneering achievements in agriculture or medicine.
Several Nobel prizes, for instances, have honored 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 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."
As Gore’s apologists have pointed out, he does later in the passage list one of his reasons as saving some trees for future generations. But there is no discussion in Gore’s passage about a basic solution to this dilemma — simply plant new groves of yews! Thus, he still seems to be giving the life of an old Pacific Yew a competing claim with a dying cancer patient.
But it’s not just cancer patients that come into Gore’s technological crosshairs. Gore also points out the supposedly dire effect on nature of growing more food to feed the hungry. Ironically, he blasts what is called the "green revolution," the high-yield farming and plant breeding that has made countries like India and Pakistan self-sustaining in agriculture. Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering these techniques and bringing them to the Third World.
But in Earth in the Balance Gore decries "the much-heralded Green Revolution" as well as biotechnology that promises to further revolutionize agriculture. Gore concedes,
"To be sure, these same new ‘miracle crops’ … have temporarily conquered hunger in a few of the Third World Nations."
But, he concludes,
"the higher yields made possible by genetically altered crop strains often cannot be sustained over time, as the pests and blights catch up to them and as overirrigation and overfertilizing take their toll on soil productivity."
Modern farming techniques, he writes, are
"a set of dangerous bargains with the future worthy of the theatrical legend that haunted the birth of the scientific revolution: Dr. Faustus."
This is an example of how Gore alarms and misleads at the same time. Yes, any agricultural improvement may have negative side effects that need to be fixed. But India’s "temporary" conquering of hunger has lasted 40 years, and the nation is now a net grain exporter. Borlaug has also been honored by politicians of both parties, as he is a senior consultant to the Carter Center and was surrounded by President Bush and the House and Senate leaders Pelosi and Reid when he received the Congressional Gold Medal this July. Gore’s disparaging of Borlaug’s prize-winning achievement shows how far out of the scientific mainstream Gore is on this and other issues.
Unfortunately, Gore still has plenty of influence as an ambassador of science to the media and lay public, and a Nobel Peace Prize may magnify this even more. The results of honoring Gore’s dishonoring of human progress could be tragic and devastating. Look no further than Gore’s tirades against another Nobel-winning achievement: the life-saving insecticide DDT.
The Nobel Committee recognized DDT’s immeasurable contribution to public health. In 1948, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Paul Hermann Muller, the Swiss chemist who discovered DDT’s effectiveness at combating the insects that spread deadly diseases. As the Nobel web site entry for Dr. Muller states, "Field trials now showed it [DDT] to be effective not only against the common housefly, but also against a wide variety of pests, including the louse, Colorado beetle, and mosquito," The web site notes further that during World War II, DDT "proved to be of enormous value in combating typhus and malaria — malaria was, in fact, completely eradicated from many island areas."
And after World War II, DDT eradicated malaria in vast areas of the world, including parts of the southern United States. But it was vilified in the 1962 book "Silent Spring" written by Rachel Carson, a woman Gore has called a heroine. As a result of the ensuing U.S. and worldwide near-prohibition on making DDT, several millions have died in Africa from mosquito-borne malaria that DDT could prevent.
Even after the turnabout by the World Health Organization, the New York Times and other establishment venues, Gore has never once said that Rachel Carson was wrong. As late as 1996, he called DDT a "notorious compound" that "presented serious human health risks." The tragedy is that on this issue, Gore could have used his tremendous political capital to make a difference in reducing malaria deaths.
And Gore is still hindering anti-malaria efforts by spreading misinformation about its main causes. In his movie and book An Inconvenient Truth, Gore blames global warming for recent outbreaks of malaria in the cooler regions of Kenya. But as I have reported in my book Eco-Freaks and elsewhere, the World Health Organization had documented epidemics in those very regions in the 1940s, long before global warming was on the radar screen. The malaria was wiped out there, as elsewhere, by DDT, and unfortunately, as elsewhere, has now returned in the absence of DDT’s use.
Also unfortunate is that the establishment media for the most part has not seen fit to correct Gore on this and many other dangerous misstatements in An Inconvenient Truth. Now, they may be even less inclined to do so. Never before would the awarding of a Nobel Prize have to potential to due so much damage to public health and human progress. If the Nobel Committee goes with the "politically correct" winds, it is incumbent on every Nobel laureate who cares about the legacy of Alfred Nobel to denounce this terrible decision.