What the Nobel Prizes Got Deadly Wrong

For over a century the Nobel Prizes rewarded emblematic discoveries intended to serve humanity, but in serving humans and not our shared ecology, we now face an ecological crisis threatening our very existence.

F.A. Hayek said in his 1974 Nobel prize award speech, “The Nobel Prize confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess.”

Yet, that is exactly what the Nobel prizes have done for over 117 years, recognizing those who serve ‘humanity’ with ground breaking discoveries not just in economics, but in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature and peace.

The winners receive a million dollars, but that is the smaller part of the reward. The real reward is in the influence and prestige conferred upon recipients. When you win a Nobel you are taken seriously by pretty much everyone for the rest of your life.

Serving Humans not the Human Species

In the run up to the award ceremonies today, I began to ponder just how the prizes in science and medicine have served humanity and what their influence has been as emblematic rewards for our best thinkers.

It takes a serious polymath to understand all the science behind all 590 awards handed out since 1901.  Yet two undeniable themes emerge: unlocking the mysteries of nature for greater exploitation by humans and reducing human suffering, extending human life.

Both noble endeavors, which, in the absence of a greater respect for our natural environment has most certainly and unfortunately led us towards the ecological crisis we now face. Simply put, there are too many humans using too much of the world’s resources to maintain a healthy planetary ecology.

Ecologists have warned us for decades that advances in science that best serve human interests are not those that which serve humanity alone but those which respect and strengthen the insoluble ecological interdependence of all species.

Good Economics = Bad Ecology

The hubris of pursuing human independence from nature is particularly notable with the economic prize.

Technically not a Nobel, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was established by Swedish bankers wanting greater influence of independent thought for the Swedish Central Bank.

Since its inception in 1969, the prize has been awarded 50 times. Like the Nobel for the sciences, one needs an advanced degree to fully understand the details of the Laureates’ work, yet it is quite clear most have focused on theories of economic efficiency and risk. More colloquially, our best economic minds are being rewarded for figuring out how to produce more stuff with the least financial loss.

Ecological Focused Science

Some argue that discoveries represented by Nobel prizes are necessary to support the science vital for reversing the terrible abuse we wreak on our planet. This is true, even if the opposite still applies to the great majority of current scientific endeavor.

Yet there is light.

With the gifting of the 2017 economics award to William Nordhaus and Paul Rome for their work on climate change and economics, the Nobels threw significant influence behind resolving a clear and imminent threat to our planetary ecology. Though, like fighting climate change generally, it may be a case of too little too late.

What if Best Ecological Minds Rewarded

Still, can you imagine for a moment if the prizes had been awarded for understanding human activity as a part of nature much earlier?

What if the first Nobel had been given to Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin who found in 1899 that climate change resulted from changing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide? What about an award to Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson for their discovery of the silicon photo voltaic cell in 1954?  Or Charles David Keeling whose “Keeling Curve” accurately predicted in 1960 atmospheric carbon levels in 2001?

Forget the political divisions of today. They are puny and petty compared to science that separates humans from our habitat. If humans wish to thrive, even survive as a species serving the planetary ecology we share with millions of other species, not just humanity alone, is the only acceptable goal of science.

Hayek Warned Us

It may not be coincidental that in his acceptance speech Hayek also warned us not to accept theories at face value, neither for their certainty. nor for the benefits that may accrue from their application.

Reintegrating human activities into nature is the only remedy for righting the damage wrought by climate change and biodiversity loss. Rewarding our very best minds to take up this task is a vital part of this solution.

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