Opinion: ‘We must use knowledge to fight the threats our world faces’

The values of the Nobel Prize are just as true in 2017 as in the times of Alfred Nobel, writes Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the Nobel Foundation.

Opinion: 'We must use knowledge to fight the threats our world faces'
The 2016 Nobel Prize winners in Stockholm. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

As each year draws to an end, we honour that year's Nobel Laureates for their achievements in science, literature and peace. We also pay tribute to and defend the values the Nobel Prize stands for – enlightenment, humanism and coexistence without violence and oppression. These are values that seem more pressing than ever as we enter 2017.

We live in a world where basic human values are being trampled on and where the threat of violence is ever-present. Misconceptions, falsehoods and speculation sometimes seem to be gaining ground on the expense of well-founded knowledge.

The basic values behind the Nobel Prize go all the way back to Alfred Nobel's thoughts, which were expressed in his testament. His brief will is an expression of an idea of human development – about faith in the international community, respect for knowledge and belief in the possibility of change.

Internationalism is a cornerstone of the idea of the Nobel Prize. It is likely rooted in his background of growing up in Stockholm and St Petersburg, with homes in Hamburg, Paris and San Remo and constant travels around Europe. He spoke five languages and worked together with people from different cultures and different religious backgrounds. In Nobel's will, his internationalist view was clearly expressed in that the Laureates' nationalities should not matter – that the most worthy should receive the prize. In a time marked by nationalist movements, Nobel's view was radical.

For several decades, development has in many respects been characterized by increased international exchange. Billions of people have been brought out of poverty by globalization and international trade. But these days international cooperation, free movement between countries and openness are being questioned. The Nobel Prize continues to defend the international community and stands without ties to states, groups or individual interests.

The days of Nobel were characterized by optimism and faith in the transformative force of science and technology. Nobel shared this optimism. This faith in the future manifested itself, among other things, in recurring world exhibitions, in which Nobel himself sometimes took part. It was also an era of strong economic growth where millions of people were brought out of poverty thanks to industrialization and entrepreneurship. Nobel's inventions played an important part in this development. Nitroglycerine and dynamite were used in coal and steel mines and helped build railways and canals. Communication grew and the world became smaller.

In our time, digital tools have increased the possibilities of bringing the world even closer. Information and knowledge are spreading faster, easier and wider than ever. It opens up opportunities for a more enlightened world.

Still, it seems increasingly clear that we must be on our guard against the spread of myths, misconceptions and lies. The bitter truth is that we can no longer take the faith in science, facts and knowledge for granted.

It is often difficult to face the consequences of what we know. 'An Inconvenient Truth' is the title of Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore's book about the climate issue. Ten years have passed since it was released and the necessity of turning knowledge into action is evident. Yet climate change is an example of an issue where leading politicians both in Europe and the United States are winning votes by downplaying and denying science-based knowledge. Ravaging populism is reaping major political successes.

Concerns about the living environment of our planet go back further than the issue of climate change. A stanza from a poem by Literature Laureate Harry Martinson from 1971 speaks to us just as strongly today.

“Det finns bland alla bör och borde ett måste för alla. Alla måste lära att sörja för världen.” (“Among all shoulds and ought-tos, there is a must for everyone. Everyone must learn to provide for the world.”)

Alongside the threats to our environment there are other dark clouds on the world's horizon. We're seeing a growing concern that war and conflicts will characterize our immediate future.

There were smoldering conflicts and military threats in the world of Alfred Nobel too. But there was also an emerging peace movement Alfred Nobel got involved in. To many of its advocates, the idea of world peace was not an unrealistic dream but a fully plausible possibility. The First World War was a severe setback to the dream of peace. But the fight for peace would survive.

Despite all the differences between Alfred Nobel's world and our own, the solutions Nobel envisaged are highly relevant even today. Avoiding devastating wars requires international cooperation rather than isolation, disarmament instead of an arms race and negotiations rather than armed conflict.

Terrorist acts have put their mark on our time. In the time of Alfred Nobel, anarchists and other extremists were spreading horror, some of them with the help of his inventions. 'Dynamitard' became a feared concept and negatively affected the image of Nobel. Today, terrorism has gained a power and scope the world has never before experienced.

So what can we do? Once again we can return to the ideas the Nobel Prize and the Laureates stand for. We counter dogmatism, extremism and violence with knowledge, common sense, innovation and free speech.

In order to put an end to hopelessness, despair and frustration, we have to through rational consideration and conversation create a fairer world. A world with opportunities to develop through education and meaningful creative work.

Knowledge is the key to development for the better. That knowledge must grow and develop. Critical examination, and if necessary re-examination, is an indispensable part of the essence of science. Without innovation, no development. A line of Nobel Laureates have led the way on this. Alfred Nobel understood the power of setting an example. Good role models show in word and deed that it is possible to understand the world and improve it. They confirm that it is possible to tackle the greatest challenges of our time. This requires creative and courageous people who are willing to go there, who will find solutions and who will broaden our knowledge. These are the kind of people to whom we award the Nobel Prize.

The fate of our world is not pre-determined. People around the world address the great challenges humanity is facing. It's in our hands to influence how our time will one day be described. As Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai said in a speech to the United Nations: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.”

Those institutions Alfred Nobel tasked with handing out the Nobel Prizes have an important heritage to manage. The Nobel Foundation also wants to in other ways – through exhibitions, digital channels, educational activities, and inspiring meetings – spread the message that Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Laureates stand for: Humans can make our world a better place.

This article was written by Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, chairman of the Nobel Foundation, and was first published in Swedish by Dagens Nyheter.

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OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Swedes have a reputation as a nation of orderly queuers. But it doesn't take long living here before you realise that for things that matter - housing, schools, health treatment - there are ways of jumping the line.

OPINION: How I learned that Sweden is a nation of secret queue-jumpers

Soon after my daughter was born, I emailed Malmö’s sought after daycare cooperatives to get on their waiting lists. 

I didn’t get an answer from any of them, so a year later, I began dropping her off at the daycare allotted to us by the municipality. 

It was housed in a concrete structure so grim-looking that it was used as the gritty backdrop to the police station in The Bridge, the Scandinavian Noir crime drama based in Malmö. Getting there involved taking a lift that frequently smelled of urine. The rooftop playground was (after we had left) used by local dealers to stash drugs.

But to be fair, it was close to our house and in other ways, perfectly adequate. 

A year later, though, I got a call from one of the cooperatives I had emailed. My daughter Eira was next in line. Did I want to come to meet the staff and existing parents?

When I arrived, I discovered I wasn’t alone. My friend, a Swede looking to establish herself in Malmö after a decade in London, was there, as were several others.

Listen to a discussion about queue-jumping on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

I soon had a distinct feeling of being outmanoeuvered, as I watched her identify the parents in charge of new intakes and get to work on them, asking intelligent questions, demonstrating her engagement, and generally turning on the charm. 

A few days later I discovered that, even though I’d been told Eira was top of the list, my friend’s son had got the place. 

This was my first lesson in Swedish queuing, and it is a pattern I’ve seen time and time again.

Swedes, I’ve learned, generally respect a queue if it’s visible, physical, and not about anything particularly important. But when it comes to waiting lists for things such as housing, schools, and healthcare, many people, perhaps even most, will work their contacts, pull strings, find loopholes, if it helps them jump the line. 

When it was time for the children of the parents I knew to go to school, several of them — all otherwise upstanding law-abiding people — temporarily registered themselves at the addresses of friends who lived near the desirable municipal options, and then, after their children got places, moved back.

When I protested weakly that by doing this were depriving someone else’s child of their rightful place, they simply shrugged. 

When Eira joined Malmöflickorna, a dance gymnastics troupe that is a kind of Malmö institution, the other parents whispered to me that joining the troupe helped you get your child into Bladins, Malmö’s most exclusive free school, as the troupe had longstanding links. 

When it comes to accessing health treatment, I’ve learned, it doesn’t pay to stoically wait in line. When I was recently sent for a scan, I immediately rang up the clinic my primary health care centre had chosen for me. The receptionist spotted a time that had just become free the next day, and slotted me in, saving what could have been months of waiting. 

If you’re looking to buy a house, I’m told it pays to develop good relationships with estate agents, as sometimes they will sell a house without even listing it. And there are all sorts of ways to jump the long rental queues in Swedish cities, some involving paying money, some simply exploiting contacts. 

I’m not, myself, much of an operator, but I’ve also learned to take advantage of any opportunities that crop up. 

A year after we had lost our battle for the daycare place, the same Swedish friend got in touch. She had managed to upgrade to an even more sought-after cooperative. (This one has had world-famous novelists and Oscar-contending film directors as present and former parents.)

There was a place free, and she was in charge of the queue. Did we want it for Eira? The queue at this daycare, I soon discovered, was pure fiction. The municipality has since cracked down, but at the time, places went to the friends and contacts of whichever parents happened to be on the board, or failing that, to people in the queue who seemed the right kind of person. 

It didn’t seem right, but of course, we took the place.