Founder of 'Right Livelihood' Prizes Rewards Grass-Roots Initiatives

JAKOB VON UEXKULL answers questions with a lightning urgency that makes you sit up and listen.

This Swedish-German writer and stamp dealer founded (and initially funded) the annual Right Livelihood Award (RLA) 15 years ago. This year's four recipients, announced Wednesday, will share an award that has grown from $50,000 in 1980 to $250,000 today. (See below.)

The aim of the RLA (''right livelihood'' is a Buddhist concept) is to reward ''vision and work contributing to making life more whole, healing our planet, and uplifting humanity.''

It sounds religious, but perhaps it is more ecological. Mr. Uexkull (who is not a Buddhist) says: ''It's not religious in the conventional sense. But it certainly has to do with what the word 'religion' means ... reconnection to feeling that one is part of a larger whole.''

When he started the award, he identified ''the four most serious'' crises in the world as:

* The danger of a nuclear holocaust.

* The danger of environmental destruction.

* The material misery in poor countries.

* And, finally, ''the spiritual misery and the crisis of meaning - the feeling of widespread meaninglessness - in the lives of people in the materially rich countries.'' This crisis ''is possibly the most urgent one,'' he adds, and choosing an RLA recipient in this area is the most difficult ''because they will almost always end up being controversial,'' he says.

''If you pick one religious leader, then [people] will say 'Why not the other one?' '' he says.

Past RLA recipients have included those ''whose work has had a spiritual component. One could say that certainly about Hassan Fathy,'' an Egyptian who developed what he calls an ''Architecture for the Poor.'' ''But the only recipient who could be put directly in that category is Sir George Trevelyan,'' Uexkull says. Sir George was a pioneer for adult education in Britain until his retirement, when he decided to dedicate himself to the education of ''the adult spirit.'' Trevelyan does not identify himsel f ''with any specific religious tradition.''

The RLA, broadly speaking, challenges materialism. In societies where people ''believe that the material reality is the only reality, they realize themselves by accumulating as many material possessions as possible.''

The result: ''In a finite world, there isn't enough left for the others. This has consequences for the third world, for the environment - and one could argue also that it is a cause of war.'' So, he concludes, materialism ''may well be the crucial one of ... the challenges we are facing.''

Today the RLA's funding comes from donations as well as Uexkull's founding trust, established with the proceeds from the sale of his philatelic business. Money comes exclusively from individuals: Cash from large corporations is excluded, as Uexkull sees them as one of the world's major problems.

An international jury includes ex-government ministers, board members from environmental organizations, and past winners, among others. The jury tends to select recipients whose projects are at the grass roots and even the local level - what Uexkull calls ''initiatives from below.'' Such projects range from an organization of ''landless rural laborers'' in Africa, to a movement in India struggling against ''the world's biggest river dam project.''

Because of the prestige of the award, recipients sometimes have gained access to their government - access previously denied them. Others already have been, or are subsequently, put in prison because their projects have brought them into conflict with repressive regimes.

''Not all our initiatives are small and local,'' Uexkull points out, citing the Sekatsu Club Consumers' Cooperative in Japan, which received an award in 1989. The club has a membership of half a million.

But he is beginning to think there is a need for an organization of worldwide scope, ''an institution, democratically elected, on a global level, that protects such initiatives so that they cannot be destroyed by the whims of the capital market,'' Uexkull says.

His suggestion is ''a body within the United Nations system,'' an organization that has ''the necessary legitimacy, and is based on 'we the people,' not on the nation states.''

The Soviet system collapsed, he says, ''because it allowed the state to play the role of the market. Our system may collapse because we allow the market to play the role of the state.''

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