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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize

Air Date: Week of

The Goldman Environmental Prize is also known as The Green Nobel. This year’s winners have just been announced. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Ursula Sladek, the European winner. She founded a renewable energy co-operative in Germany 25 years ago, following the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl. Also, host Steve Curwood remembers Richard Goldman, who started the prize with his wife Rhoda in 1989.


GELLERMAN: Winners of the prestigious Goldman Prize have just been announced. The Goldman is given to environmental activists around the world. This year, winners of the 150 thousand dollar prizes include an Indonesian environmentalist who protected the drinking water of three million people from industrial pollution.

Africa’s winner worked to protect the critically endangered black rhino. And in Europe, the Goldman Prize has gone to an electricity rebel: Ursula Sladek, organizer of Germany’s first cooperatively-owned renewable power company. Sladek is the mother of five children whose environmental activism started 25 years ago, a few days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Ms. Sladek, welcome to Living On Earth.

SLADEK: Hello!

GELLERMAN: Congratulations! This is a big deal; this is like the Nobel Prize of the environmental movement!

SLADEK: Yes, I know, and I’ve been so overwhelmed to getting this prize that I nearly can’t express it.

GELLERMAN: So take me back: April 26, 1986, Chernobyl erupts – where were you, what were you doing, what were you thinking?

SLADEK: Well I was at home in Schönau, and you know, with five small children, I was very concerned because Germany was also polluted by this disaster. We did not know what could the children eat, what could the kids go out in the garden as they used to do. We knew we had to do something.

Ursula Sladek with her husband at their home. At the time of the nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl Sladek was the mother of 5 young children. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

GELLERMAN: So what did you do?

SLADEK: Well we had, at first, to educate ourselves. And we learned that energy waste is a real great problem. We started on the demand side because we were all energy consumers and tried to save energy as much as we could in our little crew, which we called Parents for a Nuclear-Free Future. And when we saw that we could save up to 50 percent electricity, we wanted the whole town to do the same.

So we had to have an idea how to motivate the people, and our idea was to make energy saving competitions. One should save as much energy as he could within a year, and then the people who saved most could get prizes.

GELLERMAN: What were the prizes?

SLADEK: A holiday in Italy with your whole family, or tickets for the railway…well, quite interesting things!

GELLERMAN: You weren’t satisfied with consumers being more energy efficient – you went after the electric company!

SLADEK: Yes. We had, in 1990, the idea to overtake the grid so that we could set the basic conditions ourselves. This was a crazy idea because we were only citizens, you know. It took us seven years, and at the first July 1997, we overtook the local grid. And since then, we run the grid ecologically. All Schönau electricity consumers have only renewable energy and cogeneration energy and no nuclear energy, no coal energy and we are doing a lot for energy efficiency.

GELLERMAN: How did you take over the grid?

SLADEK: Well, in Germany, communities give a treaty every 20 years: who should operate the grid. Our treaty with the regional grid operator was expiring, and he wanted to have a new treaty of course, but he did not want to have any ecological science in his treaty, and that was why we said, ‘well, we do not want to sign this treaty.’ But it was quite a difficult thing because we had to win two referendums to buy the grid. The grid operator wanted to have a lot more money for his grid than it was worth.

Ursula Sladek is founder of Schönau Power Supply, a renewable energy co-operative in the Black Forest region of Germany. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

GELLERMAN: How much did he want?

SLADEK: He wanted nearly nine million Deutsche mark. In Euro it’s four million five hundred Euro, more than double the price the grid was worth.

GELLERMAN: So where did you get the money from?

SLADEK: There were many people all over Germany who said, ‘well, that’s such a wonderful project, we want to take part in it.’ So we had a Germany-wide campaign. We sold shares, because within six weeks we had the first million, and at July 1997, we overtook the grid.

GELLERMAN: So now you’ve got an electricity co-op!

SLADEK: Yes, more than a thousand people own the cooperative. We think it is very important to have the citizens with you because the change of energy supply is such a great task. It cannot be achieved by power supplies, by governments alone, you must have the citizens with you.

GELLERMAN: So, as I understand it, you and your little band of electricity rebels have started a real movement throughout Germany now!

SLADEK: Yes, that’s right. We now have more than 110 thousand customers and not only households, but also large factories, industrialized companies. We support communities who want to overtake their own grid. I think we are quite a model for changing energy supply in Germany.

GELLERMAN: Well Ms. Sladek, thank you. I really appreciate your time.

SLADEK: Thanks as well!

GELLERMAN: Ursula Sladek is one of this year’s winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Germany’s Ursula Sladek is this year’s Goldman Prize winner from Europe. (Goldman Environmental Prize)

CURWOOD: Richard and Rhoda Goldman established the prize in 1989. Rhoda Goldman died in 1996, and as this year’s recipients were being selected, Richard passed away. He was 90 years old.

RICHARD GOLDMAN: My late wife and I had always had an interest in the environment.

RHODA GOLDMAN: One overall goal is that people will become so aware of their environment that they will do everything in their power to protect it.

RICHARD GOLDMAN: Ours is a very simple idea: we’d like to leave the world a little better than we found it.

CURWOOD: Rhoda and Richard Goldman searched for the unsung heroes of the environment, annually honoring activists who made a difference on each of the six inhabited continents. I met him a couple of times. He was a fun-loving activist, who was visibly excited in the company of the winners of his prize. A Republican in politics, a philanthropist at heart, Richard Goldman loved the great outdoors and as often as not, he got there in his little Honda Civic hybrid.

Over the years, there have been 139 winners of the Goldman Prize. Perhaps the most famous is Wangari Maathai from Kenya, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize. Richard Goldman once said, “I see this as the most meaningful philanthropy I’ve ever been involved in. It has a future value, and really, if I died now, I’d die with a smile.”



The Goldman Environmental Prize


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