Speech by Mr. Jostein Gaarder, Founder

Oslo Sophie Prize Ceremony June 15, 1998

Prize Ceremony - speech by Jostein Gaarder, founder of the Sophie Prize

Two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant pointed out that it was an essential moral imperative for all countries to join forces in a "people's union", which would have responsibility for ensuring peaceful co-existence between nations. The outcome of this declaration resulted in the German philosopher being regarded as the godfather of the UN principle.
This year, we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And there are indeed grounds to mark this occasion, quite simply because human rights must still be defended against brutal violations and injustices. The only difference is that for the last fifty years, we have an institution and instrument to defend our rights.

Every single day we see examples of how vital it is to have supranational conventions. Without a set of trans-cultural norms and legal resolutions, it would be impossible to make people stand trial for war crimes, oppression of the individual's freedom o0r crimes against humanity. There are certain universal restrictions that define the extent of what can be regarded as the individual government's private internal affairs.

Perhaps the "Universal Declaration of Human Rights" represents philosophy's greatest triumph so far, as human rights are not a gift from the gods. Neither were they plucked out of thin air. They represent the conclusion of a thousand-year old maturing process. Even the depiction of humanity's "natural rights" has a long and complicated history of development - on their own, a witness to humanity's gradual development from tyranny and arbitrariness to freedom and humanity. And the story has not ended. Humanity is still slowly progressing.

The question we face before the new century is how long can we go on talking about "rights" without simultaneously focusing on the individuals "obligations". We need a universal declaration. The time is right for a "universal declaration of human obligations". The fact of the matter is that it is meaningless to talk about rights without corresponding focus on each separate government and individual's obligations? As with a large family: First you have a number of obligations in regards to personal conduct. And then, the individual family member can draw attention to the fact that he or she has certain rights.

Although the very first result was perhaps meagre, the Kyoto Agreement represents a foretaste of what needs to be conquered by supranational obligations, in connection with safeguarding the environment, world's resources and foundation for human and animal life.

An important fundamental for all ethic's is "the Golden Rule": Do ontoothers,s as you would have them to do unto you". Kant emphasised this mutuality principle by pointing out that the right course of action is the one we would wish that all other persons would take in a similar situation. Two hundreds years later, after Kant, we are perhaps beginning to accustom ourselves to the fact that the mutuality principle has to be applied to the relationship between rich and poor countries. It must also include the relationship between generations.

The question is: Would we have wanted people who have lived on this planet before us - for a hundred, thousand or one hundred thousands years ago - to have deposited huge quantities of nuclear waste on the sea bottom or in caves and mountain crevices? If not, we have no right to do the same. It comes down to simple arithmetic. Or to put it in another way: How much does it cost to hire a security guard for a half million years? And who pays the fee? Or: How many geologists would dare to guarantee plutonium-free playgrounds for the next two hundred thousand years? Or: Who is going to clean up after the party?
The question is: Would we have wanted past generations to fell more trees and rain forests? Would we have preferred our ancestors to have driven more plant and animal species into extinction? If not, we are committed to preserving biological diversity. It is not at all certain that Kant would have accepted our soaring consumption of non-recyclable energy resources. We must first assure ourselves that we would have wanted our forefathers to have burned as much coal and oil per capita as we have. We are the first generation that is affecting the earth's climate - and perhaps the last that does not have to pay the price for our actions.

It has been pointed out that we have not inherited this planet from our forefathers. We are borrowing it from our offspring. But we are leaving behind a world that is worth less than the one we borrowed. In this way, we are eating into capital that we should in reality, be paying back with interest.

How far-reaching is our ethical horizon? In the end, it is a question of one's own identity. What is human being? And who am I? If I was just myself alone, I would be a creature without hope. But I have a more profound identity than that of my own body. I am a part of - and I am taking part in - something that is greater and mightier than I am. India's former Prime Minister expressed it in this way:

You shall love your fellow man as you love yourself because you are your fellow man. It is an illusion that causes to believe that your fellow man differs from you. And we could perhaps add: Is it not an illusion that makes us believe that this planet is different from us?

But we do not need to travel all the way to India to encounter a deeper sense of identity. All we need to do is revive the old peasant code of ethic's. It was an unwritten rule that the farmer should hand over the farm in a better shape than when he had inherited it. It was of course sad and melancholic when the old farmer lay on his deathbed. But it would have been an even greater and irreparable misfortune if the whole farm, had burned down. The biggest disgrace was - as with Jon Gynt - to lose the farm through drinking.

It has been said that the spaceship Earth's weakness is that it didn't come with an instruction manual. But it is no longer true. We know that we are on collision course with Nature's capacity to tolerate, and we know in which direction our bearings must be altered. Also, do we not realise that there is something about our very own economical system that is on collision course with the planet's ability to shoulder this burden? Far too many decisions place emphasis on short-term profit for small groups, without considering the question of what is a just division of the earth's resources.

Is it righteous to exploit oil in African state in such a way that tens of thousands of people are forced to flee, at the same time ruining the basis of their existence?

It is said that ideology is dead. But isn't consumer ideology also an ideology? If Western culture is so succeeded in exporting its consumer ideology - for instance, to Africa, India, China and South-east Asia - we will certainly be heading unavoidably towards a global catastrophe. Yes, the catastrophe is already a reality in many places. As a species, the success of the human has been so great that it threatens the foundation of our very existence.

The burning question at the end of the second Millenium has to be; what is the wisdom that will be enduring? Which qualities of life are the most important? Which values are the real values? What is the good life? And not least: What possibility is there for mass mobilisation in the global village?

The question is no longer whether we need global ethic's, but how can we achieve such ethic's, or more precisely: how can these be internalised and thereby force a new political direction?

We have learnt to be angry - and to react spontaneously - when someone strikes a person or an animal, because respect for human and animal rights is pertinent to learning, for both the individual and the generation.

Today many have a high level of understanding for the challenges facing this world. Many have perhaps what we would call a global awareness - or an ecological conscience. But many feel paralysed by the political system. Politicians also realise to a far greater extent than is shown in practice. And it is the virtual paradox: We have sufficient insight - and we know we are running out of time - but we can't manage to turn things around before it is too late. Or can we manage it, nevertheless?

When Churchill was appointed Prime Minister in May 1940 - and the German military powers were advancing towards the English Channel - he said the following in the House of Commons: I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears.
The incredible fact was that he managed to mobilise the nation despite his highly depressing political message. Today we are facing an even greater and looming danger - namely a total collapses more or less of the planetary environment.
But what has become of political courage today? Where is the political drive? Which politicians dare to ask for a little sweat and tears in order to achieve a new and essential political course, simply to save the future of our children and mankind?

In November 1942 - when the nation's suffering was at its worst - Churchill spoke out:
This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.

In any case, I hope - and believe - that we are nearing the end of  the beginning of the fight for protection of the environment and a fairer dividing of the earth's resources. Not least, national organisations like ERA, Environmental Rights Action, in Nigeria are providing grounds for such hopes. And that is why we are gathered here today. We are moving towards a new ERA!