Sometimes life’s journey throws up events which are so unusual you have to pinch yourself to believe what is actually unfolding.
Most of us can dream up any amount of excuses not to do things. Many of us do things but fall short of our ambitions. A very few have the ability not just to meet their ambitions but to bring others with them and, of those, an even smaller subset are genuinely altruistic in their determination. We should celebrate and treasure these people, but often we are too stuck in our daily grind to take time out and besides, the British are uniquely awkward with the word ‘hero’.
The environmental sector can be a strange place in which to operate. At one level we know innately that somethings needs to be done to combat climate change, water security, environmental degradation, pollution and the other horsemen of the environmental apocalypse stalking our overcrowded world. Yet at another level environmental campaigners are written off as ‘greenies’ and within the environmental movement itself negative terms like ‘fortress conservation’ show that the methods of environmental protection are themselves subject to stringent criticism.
This is why the Goldman Environmental Prize is such an incredible thing and such a big deal. Essentially the Prize is a family concern in the US, based around identifying and supporting amazing individuals and, through them, their communities. Goldman Prize staff use an extensive range of contacts to find six individuals who have genuinely made a difference to their communities around the globe. They undertake exhaustive research and as a result uncover some extraordinary people. The recipient of this year’s Prize for Europe is Howard Wood, who has been recognised for his work on overfishing in the Firth of the Clyde in Scotland. Legal research from IWSN’s Tom Appleby has supported Howard and his charity, the Community of Arran Seabed Trust. Awards are also given to others around the world in North America, Central and South America, Asia, Island Nations and Africa.
The prize winners are given incredible levels of support and a platform for their concerns both in their home country and in the US. Alongside that there is genuine kindness to the winners and their families. This is not about buttering up people’s egos; it is about recognising extraordinary people taking a stand against malpractice. Many of them have done so at enormous personal risk and in some cases, very real death threats. All of them are remarkable individuals.
Which is where I started pinching myself.
The Washington ceremony was in the Ronald Reagan building around the corner from the White House. It’s all beautifully done. As part of Howard’s entourage (his family were invited too, and some Scottish friends had come from Canada), I was invited into the VIP reception which was in a rotunda at the top of the building and has been host to any number of Washington intrigues. There we rubbed shoulders with senior US senators, environmental campaigners (I met the person running Al Gore’s environmental charity) and philanthropists, as well as the other prize winners and their families. Because the winners are together for over a week, real solidarity had developed among them. Their stories were similar, they were similar people and there was a strange sense of relief that they had discovered other people like themselves around the world… they weren’t alone.
We then adjourned to the huge (and packed) auditorium where each of the six winners presented a short film describing their work – narrated by the Hollywood actor Robert Redford – and then gave a short and heartfelt speech (here’s Howard’s film). As a lawyer my ears pricked up at how often the theme of misapplication of the law wove through each of the presentations and how it was some sort of legal action which had protected their communities. Howard’s speech is available here. But all the films and speeches are all well worth watching and are available from the Goldman Environmental Prize YouTube channel.
We then adjourned to a huge, generous reception and spent the time talking to some more extraordinary characters, before moving on to a nearby hotel bar to exchange astonishments.
And this was just one evening of a packed week of engagements.
But the purpose of the prize is clear: it is not just about recognition, it is an enabler, and it is now up to us to make the most of it.