Earth Day marks 35th Year of Goldman Environmental Prize

It was Earth Day in 1990, when Rhoda and Richard Goldman held the first ceremony for a brand-new international prize honoring grassroots environmental leaders. This year, the 35th group of prizewinners will be announced and honored April 29th in San Francisco at the War Memorial Opera House.

"Grassroots leaders have a terrible time being taken seriously and that this award, this prize, gives us that serious touch that we are important, that our work is important," Lois Gibbs, who was among the inaugural 1990 prizewinners, for her work on the "Love Canal" hazardous waste controversy.

"This is recognizing individuals who are otherwise not recognized," said John Goldman, Board President of the Goldman Environmental Prize Foundation and son of the founders.

Now, in its 35th year, the Goldman Prize has honored 219 grassroots leaders from 95 countries. The winners are nominated and selected for their courage in battling issues such as pollution, deforestation, mining, wildlife extinction, and habitat destruction.

"My parents cared deeply about the welfare of the planet from early on," Goldman said, "My dad loved to hike...and my mom relished jumping into those ice-cold streams in the Sierra without any hesitation."

Reflecting back over the years, he shared stories of how he and his siblings all jumped in to help his parents brainstorm at the beginning. That, he said, led to the creation of the prize's symbolic awards statue called the ouroboras.

"We decided there would be six geophysical areas of the planet," Goldman said, noting the six winners back then each received $60,000 in prize money.

"Six times 60 is 360, and so we got this whole sense of...this 360-degree kind of view, which is what the ouroboras is. The mythical snake eating its own tail," Goldman said. 

The ouroboros is a snake or dragon, forming a perfect circle and is an ancient symbol of the cycle of life and death, destruction and rebirth.

"The symmetry of it was fascinating to me, to all of us, so we thought this is perfect," John Goldman said.

So year after year, the Goldman Prize ceremonies in San Francisco and Washington D.C., new prizewinners come with new ideas for helping nature recover from environmental destruction.

Over the last 35 years, Goldman said there have been some changes.

"I think what has changed the most are the issues. And I think the big one, back in '89 when the prize was introduced, was about climate change," Goldman said. "It wasn't taken quite as seriously. Today, I would say the singular focus of the prize is issues around climate change."

Another change of great concern is the increasing violence against environmental activists.

"Activists today, whether environmental or in social justice, are being attacked more and more. Their lives are at much greater risk," Goldman said.

The prize itself has faced big challenges.

"I think the biggest challenge we saw was after my dad died. There were people who were skeptical about whether or not it could continue," Goldman said. "We heard from quite a few people, is this the end?"

It was not the end. Like the ouroboros sculpture, it was a rebirth, a new chapter. John, his sister Susie Gelman, and brother Doug Goldman pulled together. They partnered with high-profile supporters to preserve the prize for future grassroots leaders.

"We need more people like that, not less, and we need more opportunities to improve the planet, not fewer," said Douglas Goldman, former Vice-President, Goldman Environmental Foundation in a 2018 interview with KTVU.

"Even one person when determined...can be more powerful than the most forbidding adversary," said Susie Gelman, former President of the Goldman Environmental Foundation in 2028.

"I think one of the things that's unusual about this prize, is the winners have become extended family. They connect with each other. We encourage networking," John Goldman said.

Goldman says he hopes in the future to help find new ways to apply and replicate the Goldman Prizewinners' work, so it can help communities in other parts of the world.

"We all know we have to face an existential threat, and we have to do something about it right now, and not only our generation but generations coming up are demanding that we do that," Goldman said.